Skills gap or communications gap?

By Brenda Perea

The skills gap may result from a communications gap between job seekers eager to share what they know and employers who struggle to understand and parse the capabilities of would-be employees.

In May of this year, seven U.S. states recorded all-time lows in unemployment. Colorado led the list, with an unemployment rate of just 2.3 percent.

Unsurprisingly in today’s tight labor market, employers share a common refrain: the jobs are there, but the skills aren’t. Open positions sit unfilled as hiring managers struggle to find qualified candidates.

That shortage of skilled workers is impacting the bottom line. A full 77 percent of global CEOs now report that skills gaps are limiting their company’s growth. The Business Roundtable went so far as to characterize the skills gap as a “national crisis threatening our economic future.” Today’s hard-to-find skills range from technical competencies in high-growth fields like engineering and healthcare, to basic employability skills like teamwork, collaboration, adaptability and effective communication.

Skills scarcity alone, however, is not to blame. The skills gap may instead result from a communications gap between job seekers eager to share what they know, and employers that struggle to understand and parse the capabilities of would-be employees. Community colleges in particular must grapple with the difficulty of translating student outcomes into terms that employers value and trust.

Building badges

To address this communications gap, the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) — comprising 13 colleges, 39 campuses and serving approximately 135,000 students — recognized they had a unique opportunity to help students not only obtain, but also share their skills with potential employers.

As the instructional design project manager at the system office of CCCS, I led a system-wide effort to engage employers and employment experts to identify and define the skills and competencies required for success within our region’s advanced manufacturing industry. We discovered that minor reconfigurations of existing course content and delivery could create on-ramps to the sort of skills that our employers were looking for. We then mapped those skills to stackable digital badges or credentials.

Digital credentials and badges allow faculty and institutions to recognize individuals for technical skills like advanced JavaScript, precision welding or digital literacy; sought-after soft skills like initiative, critical thinking and integrity; and job-relevant experiences or roles such as project team leader.

Digital credentials typically carry metadata that describes the relevant skill or experience, including criteria for earning the credential, third-party endorsements and specific evidence of achievement. Because digital credentials are owned and managed by the individual who earns them, they are shareable and usable across the web and through scores of applications, including popular social and professional networks that individuals and organizations use to share — and discover — talent.

Win-win situation

Ultimately, Colorado’s pioneering efforts to create workforce-relevant credentials led to positive outcomes for both local employers and our students. One afternoon, I received an email from a Denver-based architecture firm looking to fill three positions which had been open for six months. They had heard about our engineering graphics digital badges and wanted to learn more about the competencies, assessment and evidence that went into earning that badge.

After examining the metadata included — and evaluating the competencies described within our badges — the firm was confident that students who had earned that credential had the necessary skills to fill their open positions. Less than 72 hours after identifying an initial list of badge-earners, the company filled all three positions with our students.

While our efforts to create a competency-based labor market were notable in scope and approach, community colleges across the country are working not only to prepare students with in-demand skills, but also to engage employers to better understand the needs of the regional economy. Because while digital credentials can be a powerful tool for community colleges, they cannot be designed or delivered in a vacuum.

By flipping the model to engage employers up front in the development of these credentials, community colleges can create better outcomes for both students — who will hold a credential with currency in the labor market — as well as employers to better able identify talent and surface skills and abilities which are often hidden.

This article, originally posted at CC Daily, is inspired by “Partnering with Employers to Create Workforce-Relevant Credentials,” Credly’s forthcoming field guide to engaging employers in credential design.

Brenda Perea

is director of educational and workforce solutions for Credly. She previously served as the instructional design project manager at the Colorado Community College System.