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New Year's Resolutions: Let's Promote Employability Skills More Aggressively

Given that it is February, it’s time to reassess our New Year’s resolutions. Most of us resolved to go to the gym more often, pay more and better attention to friends and family, unplug from our electronic devices, or de-clutter our desks. For the Department of Education, I’ll offer up a resolution that will enhance our personal and professional lives. Let’s resolve to promote employability skills more aggressively as a key strategy to ensure that our education system produces more Americans that are ready for the labor force.

Employability skills are general skills that are necessary for success in the labor market at all employment levels and in all sectors. These skills have a number of names—soft skills, workforce-readiness skills, and career-readiness skills—but they all speak to the same set of core skills that we all want to see in our students, coworkers, employees, and leaders. In all the research done on employability skills, nearly all employers—small or large, from nonprofits, to government, to private organizations—say these skills are important. So why do surveys repeatedly report that they remain so elusive in our students and new entrants to the workforce?

Is the need for these skills not clear? Survey after survey of employers reveals a need for these skills, the difference usually being in the nuance of the definition or the order of importance of particular skills. Perhaps additional strategic communication around the importance of these skills to employers (the demand side) needs to be made to educators, parents, and students. Perhaps if these stakeholders were persuaded to insist that these skills be taught early and often, they would be included in both formal and informal teaching and learners’ skills would improve.

Is there a problem with the definitions? It is true that there are a variety of schemes used to define these skills. The Department of Education created an Employability Skills Framework for both employers and educators to define the skills needed for success in the workforce. The department’s framework encompasses skills identified by other organizations as important, e.g., critical thinking and communications. While different stakeholders continue to both develop new frameworks and to modify existing ones, it is critical to move past this debate on definitions to spur action around training and measurement in the field.

Is it the challenge in assessing these skills? Many of these skills are hard to measure because they cannot be readily evaluated by a paper-and-pencil test. Proficiency is often subjective or is demonstrated over time, so it requires more sophisticated, expensive, and time-consuming assessments. In addition, unless these skills are considered important to measure, assessments won’t be developed or integrated into learning environments.

Fortunately, part of the Department of Education's 2016 resolution is to answer the questions above. The department has contracted with Jobs for the Future to:

  • Explore how the multitude of organizations committed to improving educational and job outcomes for Americans can communicate the importance of employability skills more effectively—even with the variety of definitions that are in use
  • Enlist employers to provide guidance on:
    • How to share the importance of employability skills with fellow employers
    • How to work with local educational institutions to improve the teaching of these skills
    • How employers can train their incumbent workforce in employability skills
    • What data should be collected to create a stronger business case for teaching these skills
  • Determine the readily available assessment tools for measuring learners’ mastery of employability skills with particular emphasis on fairness, scalability, affordability, and reliability 
  • Collect best practice examples of how educators and employers are expanding the teaching of these skills to America’s current and future workforce.

While there are no easy answers to the questions posed above, the department is taking key steps to catalyze a national conversation on employability skills among educators, employers, parents, and students. With the results of this work, we are sure to meet our 2016 resolution to engage more stakeholders in the integration of employability skills into all that we teach.

For more information on the project with Jobs for the Future or how the Employability Skills Framework website can be enhanced to be more useful, please contact Mary Wright, Senior Director at mwright@jff.org.

The work reported herein by Jobs for the Future was supported by the U.S. Department of Education, award number EDVAE15R0034, from 25 September 2015 – 24 September 2016. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.