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Ensuring workers’ ‘soft skills’ is no cushy job

By Holly Zanville, Lorenzo L. Esters, and Ou Lydia Liu

Two words summarize an increasingly important education and workforce issue — skills gap.

This is the gap between the skills students attain in education or job training and the ones employers say that workers need. Among the skills employers cite as most important are higher-order skills, often called soft skills but referred to by a variety of names (e.g., 21st century skills, essential skills, people skills, mobility skills, social and emotional skills, and life-ready skills).

Whatever the nomenclature, soft skills are not optional in today’s marketplace. For the best chance at career success, individuals entering the workforce must deliver on the soft skills employers are seeking. Soft skills are a cluster of many skills (some list around 100) that allow people to navigate their work environment, work well with others, perform effectively, and achieve their goals. And students who display proficiency in those skills — such as problem-solving, teamwork, and strong communication and leadership — will have an advantage over their counterparts.

Accordingly, Lumina Foundation and Educational Testing Service (ETS) are working together to help ensure students can be successful in the workforce. We’re committed to identifying which soft skills employers value the most, where students can acquire those skills, and how to assess and verify them.

Committed to making learning beyond high school available to all, Lumina envisions a system that’s easy to navigate, delivers fair results and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials. Lumina has contributed to a growing toolbox of frameworks that explain the importance of skills and their widespread applications in industry and society. One such framework is Connecting Credentials, a beta credentials framework created in 2015. This framework uses competencies — what the learner knows and can do — as common reference points to help understand and compare the levels and types of knowledge and skills that are the basis of degrees, certificates, industry/professional certifications, licenses, apprenticeships, badges, and other credentials.

Meanwhile, ETS — a nonprofit educational measurement organization — focuses on providing fair and valid assessments, research and related services to promote the power of learning, as well as advancing quality and equity in education for all. Through its recently launched Skills for a New Economy initiative, ETS is partnering with higher education institutions and employers to develop solutions to close the skills gap. The organization is working to ensure that students enrolled in postsecondary education or training can demonstrate mastery of those skills. Its other work includes research on clusters of competencies and higher-order skills that are needed in today’s workforce — along with a suite of competency assessments for some of those skills, such as critical thinking, intercultural competency, collaborative problem solving, digital literacy, civic competency, written communication and quantitative literacy.

A new learning industry

Of course, Lumina and ETS are not the only organizations shining a spotlight on workforce-ready skills. Other examples include the McKinsey Framework Skill Shift: Automation and the Future of the Workforce (2018), a paper that quantifies 25 core skills needed in five specific industry sectors, and Strategies for the New Economy (2019), a white paper from the World Economic Forum that calls for key foundational skills or “literacies,” as well as certified advanced skills. In addition, The National Research Council’s Education for Life and Work (2012) report identifies “deeper learning” in the context of English-language arts, mathematics, and science. The roots of this deeper learning are what psychologists in the mid-1900s called “meaningful learning,” as opposed to rote learning. Finally, New Foundational Skills of the Digital Economy, a 2018 paper from the Business Higher Education Forum and Burning Glass Technologies, identifies 14 soft skills that are critical in the new economy.

As illustrated by this brief list, a new learning industry has emerged — contributing to a growing array of frameworks that educational providers can use to ensure that needed learning outcomes form the core of credential programs. And many providers are using these frameworks to inform their approaches to pedagogy, outlining how we can best teach soft skills to the nation’s students.

Challenges to address

Despite the growing importance of soft skills, they are often difficult for education providers to teach, for individuals to demonstrate, and for employers to verify. It is urgent that we find ways to translate these skills frameworks into actionable practices. In addition, we must develop a clear, shared understanding of oft-used terms — “critical thinking” is one example — that now connote multiple, varied meanings.

These are challenges that Lumina and ETS are eager to address. We’re committed to forging clear definitions of vital workplace skills, identifying gaps, and making improvements. We hope to shed light on approaches that can help institutions benchmark skills, help individuals develop and demonstrate skills, and help employers verify those skills — all with the goal of offering flexible, customized experiences that promote individuals’ lifelong learning.

Partnership is key

In recent months, ETS has interviewed more than 60 individuals from 12 higher education institutions and more than 20 employers from six industry sectors about the challenges and opportunities for addressing the skills gap. ETS will continue those interviews in coming months in an attempt to identify solutions that can help students signal mastery of higher-order skills while they are enrolled in postsecondary education or training and as they transition to the workforce.

Whatever comes of this research, it’s clear that no single organization can do this work alone. Addressing the skills gap is not a higher education or an employer problem. It is a problem that must be addressed through partnership.


This article is by: Holly Zanville, Strategy Director for the Future of Learning and Work, Lumina Foundation; Lorenzo L. Esters, Executive Director, Higher Education Partnerships, Educational Testing Service; and Ou Lydia Liu, Senior Research Director, Educational Testing Service.

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