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Skills-Based Hiring Requires Skills-First Learning

April 20, 2022

At a Glance

Committing to a flexible, accelerated, and equitable learning experience for economic advancement.

Stacey Clawson Associate Vice President
Ashley Bliss Lima
In partnership with the American Student Assistance (ASA)
Practices & Centers Topics

To support the economic advancement of members of communities that have been historically underserved by public and private institutions, some employers are changing how they hire and how they offer training and education benefits to their employees.

The pandemic has shaken up the nation’s workforce, pushing many workers out. Some have returned, but others have not. Why? Some reasons include the vanishing of positions, acceleration in automation, and other shifts largely affecting Black, Latinx, or Indigenous people and those from low-income backgrounds. Hoping to better connect with these displaced workers, private- and public-sector employers are increasing or strengthening their commitments to skills-based hiring.

A 2021 report from Accenture and the Harvard Business School encourages industry leaders to hire “hidden workers”—people eager to work who possess, or could develop, the skills employers seek if only employers could find them. This would put employers in a better position to find people with the skills they need, and it would enable them to diversify their workforces. More important, it would provide new opportunities for jobs, careers, and family-sustaining wages for millions of people, including Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers; veterans; people from low-income backgrounds; workers with no college degree; and individuals facing a range of other barriers to employment, including chronic health issues, disabilities, gaps in their employment histories, family care responsibilities, and criminal records.

Source:Postsecondary Education Pathways: Perception of Employers and Gen Z Students,” February 2022. Produced by Jobs for the Future and American Student Assistance (ASA).

Postsecondary institutions and their employer partners must ensure that these learner populations have opportunities to engage in education that prioritizes and showcases their skills, accelerating them toward jobs and careers they can perform regardless of background or degree.

With that in mind, Jobs for the Future (JFF) is introducing a model we call Skills-First Learning, an approach to learning and credentialing that focuses on what people know and what they can do, not on the number of years they have spent in classrooms. Skills-First Learning can deliver equitable economic advancement for all.

The February report “Postsecondary Education Pathways: Perception of Employers and Gen Z Students,” which was produced in partnership by JFF and American Student Assistance (ASA), surveyed employers and high school students to uncover their perceptions about postsecondary education pathways, garnering insight on the opportunities and barriers for acceptance of non-degree and emerging models of postsecondary education pathways. Of the employers polled, 81 percent said organizations should hire based on skills rather than degrees, and 74 percent of the high school students surveyed expressed an interest in learning skills that prepare them for jobs that will be in demand in the future. Additionally, the research found that 68 percent of employers and 58 percent of high school students agree that organizations should hire candidates from non-degree pathways.

Source:Postsecondary Education Pathways: Perception of Employers and Gen Z Students,” February 2022. Produced by Jobs for the Future and American Student Assistance (ASA).

In a report released this year, the Burning Glass Institute states that the trend toward skills-based hiring began before the pandemic but has accelerated because now employers need to find more talent to respond to COVID-19’s effects on the workforce.

Thanks to an increase in the number of companies moving away from degree requirements and toward skills-based hiring, especially in middle-skill jobs, Burning Glass projects that an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years.

Burning Glass projects that an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years.

In his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden committed to expand skills-based hiring to support the millions of Americans without a college degree. He announced that his administration will explore the use of federal funds to hire based on skills rather than degrees and credentials alone. The administration’s 2023 budget, released in late March, commits the federal government to hiring based on skills rather than educational qualifications alone. Federal agencies will shift certain hiring practices to include applicant assessment methods that tap the people who are most capable of performing a particular role, regardless of whether or not they have a college degree.

We see the same trends at the state level. In March, Maryland announced a new workforce development initiative that eliminates the four-year degree requirement for thousands of state jobs. The state immediately posted 300 new jobs that do not require a four-year degree. Postsecondary institutions and programs must quickly innovate to catch up to a shifting hiring model. They must prepare to support learners to advance faster through their postsecondary programs and successfully seek jobs that were once out of reach.

In response to these shifts in the workforce and a national call to action to expand hiring practices that prioritize demonstrated skills versus degrees and credentials, JFF is calling on the field to refine, strengthen, and commit to Skills-First Learning.

A Shift in Mindset and Approach

Ultimately, embracing Skills-First Learning requires education leaders, policymakers, and accrediting agencies to think differently about how we teach and assess learning and prepare people for careers. Prioritizing skills rather than credits or time in the classroom demands a shift in how we deliver education, measure and define educational attainment, and signal career readiness and competency to employers. Skills-First Learning recognizes people’s strengths and their levels of expertise—no matter where or how the skills were acquired—as the principal measure of how much someone has learned, the credentials they are qualified to receive, and the skills required to succeed in the labor market.

Skills-First Learning, an umbrella term that captures skills- and project-based strategies, improves our way of thinking about instruction and assessment. It provides opportunity for accelerated credential attainment, reduced education costs, more market-relevant skills, and, thus, increased economic advancement. Encompassing strategies like competency-based education (CBE), credit for prior learning (CPL), work-based learning (WBL), project-based learning, and skills-based assessment, Skills-First Learning can have a significant impact on students with work experience or who need flexible course time.

These approaches to delivering education better serve adult and working learners and those with families and dependents often underserved by our education systems, specifically Black, Latinx, and Indigenous learners and those from low-income backgrounds. When Skills-First Learning forms the foundation for academic credentials, employers can expect these credentials to signal a set of specific skills and not just time spent acquiring a credential or degree.

Source:Postsecondary Education Pathways: Perception of Employers and Gen Z Students,” February 2022. Produced by Jobs for the Future and American Student Assistance (ASA).

Now is the time to scale Skills-First Learning strategies and provide new opportunities for credential providers to serve today’s students better. However, postsecondary institutions can’t do it alone. To ensure that this approach aligns with the labor market and that students leave with career-ready skills, postsecondary institutions must work closely with local employers to design market-relevant programs and align these skills to current and future industry demand. Using real-time labor market data to identify in-demand skills allows institutions to target programming to real economic need. Many colleges already work with local employers, but they should begin to ask deeper questions to find success in these partnerships and build toward a Skills-First mindset.

Skills-First Learning: Guiding Principles for Colleges and Employers

JFF is excited to announce that over the course of 2022, we will be releasing supports for colleges and employers interested in embracing Skills-First Learning.

Our supports for colleges will be grounded in these guiding principles:

  • Collaborate with employers to develop learning experiences that offer both the hard and soft skills for work-based learning opportunities, such as project-based learning, experiential learning, and career development programs.
  • Partner with employers to design programs and courses grounded in labor market skills. This includes backward-mapping that starts with the end goal (job or career) and works backward through skills for the learner to master.
  • Use industry skills, demand, and potential earnings—in addition to learner interests—as the basis for advising learners when selecting programs and preparing for careers.

And our supports for employers will be grounded in these guiding principles:

  • Identify and make transparent the skills that people will need to enter and be successful in the workforce; this may include offering their own set of industry-recognized credentials.
  • Write job descriptions, assess candidates, and make hiring decisions based on demonstrated skills and competencies rather than primarily on degrees and credentials.
  • Develop skills-based training programs, including internships and apprenticeships, based on a specific set of skills.

Accelerating Career Pathways Based on Skills Versus Credentials

Across the country, institutions, state systems, and nonprofits like JFF have been testing new skills-based models that redraw this learner-employer contract through accelerated learning models and work- and project-based learning. For example, JFF’s new Guided Career Pathways framework builds on momentum at the college level. It incorporates Skills-First Learning strategies into a broader framework that seeks to strengthen and accelerate career pathways so that all learners enjoy the opportunity for career success and economic mobility.

Colleges can do much to build pathways for the equitable advancement of all learners, especially those from populations that are underrepresented in industries that offer good opportunities for career advancement. As stated in the 2021 Burning Glass Institute report Dynamos for Diversity: How Higher Education Can Build a More Equitable Society, non-degree programs focused on reskilling and upskilling will play an essential role in this process as working learners seek to obtain specific skills rather than full credentials. The report cites the example of Iowa’s Des Moines Area Community College, which expanded its noncredit programs to quickly launch new courses learners can take to set them up faster for jobs with local employers.

CBE grounded in labor market data is a skills-first learning approach that has already shown positive and effective outcomes and broad adoption. At Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, CBE students earned credentials at a 15 percent higher rate with a 35 percent decrease in time to completion, pointing to the efficacy of these programs.

A 2021 survey conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and C-BEN (Competency-Based Education Network) found continued growth and interest in this flexible, workforce-aligned model: More than 82 percent of respondents expect CBE to grow nationally over the next five years. The growth and interest in models such as CBE demonstrate that institutions are evolving to keep up with industry changes. In their survey, AIR and C-BEN found that institutions’ top two motivations for adopting CBE were improving learning outcomes and responding to workforce needs.

In another example of the need for expanded skills-first learning, LinkedIn reported a 21 percent increase in job postings based on skills and responsibilities and a nearly 40 percent increase in jobs that don’t require a degree.

A Call to Design With Skills First

With displaced or underemployed workers looking for new skills and prospective learners questioning the value of a credential, it has become more urgent to commit to a Skills-First Learning mindset and approach that provide effective, accelerated pathways to credentials and family-supporting careers. We need colleges and employers to co-develop career and training programs grounded in skills for success in the labor market and hire based on the learner’s demonstrated skills and competencies. The skills marked by these programs should be recognized regardless of where learning happens. It is possible to have broadly applicable standardized skills and allow for customized and localized skills that reflect regional labor markets or even individual employers.

Source:Postsecondary Education Pathways: Perception of Employers and Gen Z Students,” February 2022. Produced by Jobs for the Future and American Student Assistance (ASA).

It is time to recognize all skills learners have achieved and create opportunities to develop new skills to thrive in the workforce and realize economic advancement. We must make a commitment to workers from our most underserved communities and design learning models that emphasize skills first.

The data findings included in this blog were based on a survey conducted by Morning Consult and commissioned by ASA and JFF, and were presented recently at SXSW EDU and ASU-GSV. A full report summarizing this research will be published later this year. To stay up to date on this release, please subscribe to our mailing list.

Learn more about these strategies in our Guided Career Pathways Framework
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