Words are powerful things. When deployed clearly and effectively, they can spark new ideas and motivate social change. Unfortunately, they can also bring more confusion than clarity and lead reformers down the wrong path. We run this risk with the use of the word ‘skills’ in the current debate on learning beyond high school. Understanding our words and images is especially important as we tackle social and educational inequalities and begin to rebuild the post-pandemic economy.
A recent survey of Generation Z adolescents sponsored by the non-profit company ECMC Group found that “61 percent believe that skills training (eg business skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world.” The survey also found that a slight majority (52 percent) believe they can “be successful in a career with post-secondary education other than a four-year degree.” An article highlighting these results presented the two paths – four-year colleges, on the one hand, and vocational and technical education, on the other – as competing and totally opposed options.
At first glance, the survey results do not seem surprising and very sensible. Who doesn’t want a degree based on the acquisition of important skills? And Gen Z’s are correct that certain credentials other than a traditional bachelor’s degree can, in fact, properly prepare them to get and be successful in good entry-level jobs. That’s why, as we move from emergency mode to post-pandemic recovery mode, many commentators are now calling for expanding these short-term training programs, especially to help older workers whose jobs have been lost during the pandemic.
So what’s wrong with the language we use to push this movement forward to create a wider range of professional benchmarks and entry points? I am concerned that describing only certain titles as “competency-based” is deeply misleading. It presents a false choice – especially for first generation students – that will intensify rather than decrease economic and social inequalities.
It is simply not true that only programs such as “trades, nursing, STEM, etc.” help students develop their skills. In fact, four-year programs in a wide range of fields help students develop very important skills – intellectual skills, including analytical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and complex communication. Well-designed bachelor’s programs also teach very practical skills such as time and project management, research design, data analysis, and digital design.
It makes no sense to compare programs that are “competency-based” with those that are simply not. In fact, as economist Anthony P. Carnevale noted (a Inside higher education opinion contributor) and colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce suggest in their report “The overlooked value of associate’s certificates and degrees, “” In the end, the most valuable training long-term is the one that offers the most marketable combination of specific and general skills ”(emphasis added). Yet, unfortunately, many Americans seem to prefer one or the other – or both – and think so.
The stakes are very high. We simply cannot create a learning system beyond high school in which some people – more likely to be low-income, black, Latin American, or Hispanic – are “followed” into programs that don’t prepare them. not in the short term. and long term Success. Like my colleague Jamie Merisotis (a Inside higher education opinion contributor) argued convincingly in his recent book, Human labor in the age of intelligent machines, we need educational programs that cultivate a wide range of skills – one that allows people to do the work that only humans can do because technology takes over more and more aspects of the job.
As he notes, “human work relies on three sets of skills that everyone needs to develop to a greater or lesser extent: relationship skills, problem-solving skills, and integration skills.” The good news is that while these skill sets are vast and difficult to master, there are many ways we can develop them. And, we don’t need – in fact, should not – choose between narrow technical skills and these broader human skills. We can and must provide both throughout our accreditation system.
Two reforms needed
As we strive to improve this system, two essential reforms are needed and they should go hand in hand.
First, we need to create more ramps to good jobs by making short-term credentials more widely available. These programs need to develop skills that are both sufficient for good entry-level jobs and strong enough to prepare workers for further learning, either on the job or in subsequent training programs. All workers must also be learners, and they should have the opportunity to develop higher-level analytical, interpretive, integrative and evaluative skills – the enduring skills that will allow them to thrive in the long term.
Second, we also need to do a much better job of designing and redesigning traditional four-year curricula – both in the general education portion and in the majors. Throughout the license programs, we must integrate both and intellectual skills that correspond well to today’s world of work. For too long, we have focused too exclusively on content knowledge and ‘coverage’, thereby minimizing the need for new foundational skills suited to the digital economy.
Institutions of all kinds can now use research from companies like Emsi or Burning Glass Technologies to help align their programs with the changing needs of the job market. Recent searches by Burning glass, for example, provides valuable insight into the specific skills – some familiar and some very new – that today’s economy rewards. Many of these skills can easily be incorporated into traditional liberal arts and science curricula.
Educational research suggests most students do better with this integrative approach, both and. Knowledge acquisition and skills development go hand in hand. You can’t develop research skills, for example, without in-depth knowledge. You don’t learn to write in the abstract; the mechanics of grammar can be learned, but no one can write effectively without some knowledge of the subject they are tackling. At the same time, the simple act of gathering facts about a particular area, without any practice in applying that knowledge in the real world, will leave a person ill-prepared for life and work.
That kind of thought or thought is the problem. We need new words and images, new language that can help us build a reform agenda that avoids these false dichotomies. With such a program, we can create robust learning environments in all kinds of degrees and institutions, enabling all students to develop the knowledge and skills they need to be successful.