Employability Skills: An Update. ERIC Digest.
by Overtoom, Christine
What skills do employers want? How do these skills match those that
youth and adults are developing through their school and work experiences?
How can education and training programs prepare individuals to enter a
rapidly changing workplace? These and other questions are examined in this
Digest that explores skills currently needed for employment.
Since 1986 the authors of no fewer than six ERIC Digests and one Trends
and Issues Alert have sifted through an increasingly prolific literature
base to investigate the evolving topic of employability skills. The dual
challenges of competing in a world market and rapid technological advancements
have necessitated a redesign of the workplace into an innovative work environment
known as the high-performance workplace. This environment requires a behavior
and orientation toward work that go beyond step-by-step task performance.
It expects workers at all levels to solve problems, create ways to improve
the methods they use, and engage effectively with their coworkers (Bailey
1997; Packer 1998).
Knowledge workers who demonstrate this highly skilled, adaptive blend
of technical and human relations ability are recognized by employers as
their primary competitive edge. Job-specific technical skills in a given
field are no longer sufficient as employers scramble to fill an increasing
number of interdependent jobs (Askov and Gordon 1999; Murnane and Levy
1996). Many U.S. and international authors point out the importance of
continuously developing skills beyond those required for a specific job,
and they identify employability skills that enable individuals to prove
their value to an organization as the key to job survival. The volume of
major studies undertaken in the past 2 decades to identify and describe
employability skills underscores their criticality. (For a listing of some
of these authors, organizations, and studies, see the references.)
There are many definitions of the phrase employability skills. The following
updated definition is representative of a synthesis of definitions as they
have evolved over time:
Employability skills are transferable core skill groups that represent
essential functional and enabling knowledge, skills, and attitudes required
by the 21st century workplace. They are necessary for career success at
all levels of employment and for all levels of education.
Two national studies--one by ASTD, the American Society for Training
and Development (Carnevale, Gainer, and Meltzer 1990) and one by the Secretary's
Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS 1991)--are foundational
works in identifying employability skills, often used as benchmarks or
beginning points for other international, national, state, regional, and
local studies. ASTD emphasized 16 skill groups across all job families:
(1) Basic Competency Skills--reading, writing, computation; (2) Communication
Skills--speaking, listening; (3) Adaptability Skills problem solving, thinking
creatively; (4) Developmental Skills--self-esteem, motivation and goal-setting,
career planning; (5) Group Effectiveness Skills--interpersonal skills,
teamwork, negotiation; and (6) Influencing Skills--understanding organizational
culture, sharing leadership.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which supported the ASTD study through
a grant, then established the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary
Skills. The commission's task was to investigate not only what is required
in the workplace of today and tomorrow, but to determine the extent to
which high school students are able to meet the requirements (O'Neil et
al. 1997). The findings highlight 36 skills, including the ability to use
5 competencies efficiently (resources, interpersonal skills, information,
systems, and technology) based on a 3-part foundation of basic skills,
thinking skills, and personal qualities.
IMPLICATIONS FOR LEARNING
SCANS' mission was to define the necessary functional and enabling skills
that society must provide to every child by the age of 16 (SCANS 1991).
SCANS staff conducted studies of cognitive science research literature
related to the importance of learning in context, met with cognitive scientists,
and subsequently advocated the teaching of skills within the functional
context of the workplace. This represented what the commission termed the
most radical change in educational content since the beginning of the 20th
century (ibid.). By late 1998 education's challenge was still not being
met (Packer 1998). Arnold Packer, former executive director of SCANS and
current chairman of the Johns Hopkins University SCANS/2000 Center, identified
three misconceptions about SCANS:
1. The assumption that SCANS relates primarily to entry-level employment,
when the competencies are needed at all rungs of the career ladder and
all levels of education.
2. Thinking that SCANS refers only to "soft skills" such as teamwork
and interpersonal skills, when they are only one of five broad competency
groups including using technology skills or interpreting information skills.
3. The most controversial misconception that SCANS appears to conflict
with rigorous academic work, when the skills are needed as far as the Ph.D.
level of the education continuum (Packer 1998). Part of this misconception
may have to do with the term "employability skills" itself. Perhaps "career
success skills" would more aptly capture the five SCANS competencies' broad
scope in the problem-solving domains (Packer 2000).
Despite the misconceptions, recent studies in Nevada and Canada have
been successful in validating, updating, and regionalizing generic employability
skills and competencies over time ("Employability Skills Toolkit" 2000;
THE FORGOTTEN HALF REVISITED
(Halperin 1998) revealed that a majority of high school students leave
school without a solid base of academic and SCANS skills that will enable
them to succeed in postsecondary occupational or academic education. Employability
skills have not traditionally been "directly taught" in schools (Grubb
et al. 1992; Halperin 1998).
Teaching and learning these skills are not only consistent with the
emerging needs of a world economy in a high-performance work environment.
Teaching and learning employability skills contribute to optimal learning
because such a workplace is characterized by five principles that correspond
to five principles of effective learning (Bailey 1997, pp. 39-40):
1. Tasks and jobs are integrated through broad job definitions or cross-functional
teams. (Knowledge and curriculum are integrated: head and hand, knowing
2. Workers are given more initiative and take more responsibility. (Learning
is active or engaged, a process of discovery rather than a dissemination
3. Employees solve problems in nonroutine situations. (Deeper understanding
is encouraged. This allows responses to stimuli the learner has not already
4. There is an emphasis on continuous improvement. (New approaches to
learning focus on thought processes that generate learning rather than
the "right answer" and provide multiple opportunities for collaborative
5. Workers are expected to understand their functions within the context
of the broader purposes of the organization. (New strategies are grounded
in solid research that calls for learning in context.)
Contextual integration of employability skills into curriculum has been
a slow process, but recent trends are encouraging. The North Central Association
on Schools has initiated an optional Transitions Endorsement credentialing
model to address one section of its four-part mission: "Provides standards
and evaluation services for schools that ensure successful schooling transitions
for its students" (www.nca.asu.edu/transitions/).
The Transitions Endorsement provides professional development for administrators
and teachers to document the performance of every elementary and secondary
student in five areas of curricular integration: reading, writing, mathematics,
science, employability skills, and career awareness and exploration. A
total of 142 pilot schools in 13 states of a 19-state region are working
toward developing individual student rubrics for instructor evaluation
of progress in each of the 5 areas. The ultimate goal of credentialing
is assuring students, parents/guardians, and the community that students
are prepared with the knowledge and skills to be successful as they move
from school to school and to their chosen career.
In a similar vein, the Conference Board of Canada revised an earlier
list of essential competencies (McLaughlin 1995) and named them Employability
Skills 2000+. An interactive Internet version of an Employability Skills
Toolkit has been released on the SchoolNet website in September 2000 (www.schoolnet.ca/EmployabilitySkills/).
This toolkit will also be released in a series of CD-ROMs targeted for
different age groups-K-12, postsecondary, and adult learners ("Employability
Skills Toolkit" 2000).
The Johns Hopkins University SCANS/2000 Center is currently implementing
a Career Transcript System that uses SCANS research as its foundation in
four areas: high school students, community college learners (associate
degree/technical institutions), entry-level workers, and incumbent workers
in union training programs. A diagnostic assessment of individuals' employability
skills establishes a baseline at entry; a second assessment is task based,
using observed behavior in the workplace or in the classroom. These results
are entered into an online Career Transcript, and an individual development
plan for each student is created to close gaps between current and desired
skill levels (Siberts 2000).
O*NET, the Occupational Information Network (www.onetcenter.org), is
the Department of Labor's comprehensive database of worker attributes and
job characteristics. Its database, which is the replacement for the Dictionary
of Occupational Titles, contains information about employability skills
for each job title. Because O*NET data and structure also link related
occupational, educational, and labor market information databases to the
system, it may be used to align educational and job training curriculum
with current workplace needs (Occupational Information Network 2000).
In higher education, Alverno College in Wisconsin and nine universities
in the United Kingdom have formed the Ability Based Curriculum Network
(www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsd/abc int.html). Essential abilities are
integrated, developmental, and transferable (Alverno College Faculty 1994).
Although learning takes place within a context, what is learned about the
underlying ability is transferable to other situations or roles the student
encounters (Brown 1999).
Considerably more research is needed on creating and assessing curriculum
that integrates the learning of employability skills contextually. Valid
and reliable links must be forged between such curriculum and improved
learner performance/competency attainment. Equally important, open and
free-flowing systems of communication between research outcomes, educational
institutions, employers, and communities must be consciously and carefully
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