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About the Author
Cathrael Kazin is managing partner of Volta Learning Group, which helps employers, educational institutions, and associations design transformative learning and credentialing models for the future of work. She served as the chief academic officer of College for America (CfA) at Southern New Hampshire University, where she designed CfA’s project-centered, competency-based learning model. At ETS, where she was executive director of the Higher Education Division, she specialized in the assessment of soft skills and workforce-relevant competencies. She holds a PhD in English from Cornell University; a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School; and an AB with highest honors in English from Smith College.

Today’s Jobs Require New Skills — Here’s How to Hire for Them

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“If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now, we’re going to be in trouble,” said Alibaba Group Founder Jack Ma to a packed audience at the World Economic Forum last year.


As a former educator and founder of a company that is revolutionizing artificial intelligence (AI), Ma knows how poorly our current education system is preparing workers for future jobs. American workers know it too — 36% believe their schooling didn’t adequately prepare them for the workforce. And it certainly won’t surprise employers. Around the globe, 45% of employers are reporting they can’t find applicants with the skills they need.


Our higher education systems and corporate training programs are too often based on antiquated educational models that simply don’t equip workers with skills necessary for today’s complex and evolving jobs. That can leave employers in a bind trying to fill empty positions from a shrinking pool of candidates.


The good news is that there are an increasing number of ways for employers, educators, and workers to tackle this problem. But they require a long-overdue paradigm shift in the way that we look at learning.


Changing our mindsets around learning


If you’ve ever sat through training – whether to check off course credit requirements for a degree program or to fill a certain number of hours to satisfy compliance obligations – it will come as no surprise that measuring the number of hours spent in the classroom isn’t a good indication of how much a person knows. Yet that’s still primarily how we measure knowledge.


More and more jobs that were once entry-level now require a bachelor’s degree. That’s because most employers believe the degree is a reliable indicator that degree holders have basic content knowledge and certain essential skills, such as written communication and analyzing and synthesizing information.


But what a bachelor’s degree actually demonstrates is “seat time.” As they say, though, if you measure learning by how long someone has sat in a classroom, you’re looking at the wrong end of the student. What we need is a better way to understand what competencies a student has acquired and can bring to the workplace.


Measuring and matching skills to jobs


What do I mean by competencies? Competency-based education focuses on what individuals can do with what they know, not how many hours they’ve spent in class. It’s more than having theoretical knowledge of a topic or being able to recall specific content. It’s the ability to apply knowledge or skill in a real-world context.


Because, let’s face it, computers are always going to be better at storing and retrieving information than we are – not to mention the fact that information is changing at a rapid pace these days.


In previous generations, the ability to recall specific content and perform technical tasks was enough to land you a well-paying job. But in today’s age of automation and AI, even an entry-level customer service agent needs to have strong critical thinking and interpersonal skills to perform more complicated problem-solving tasks. At the same time, organizational hierarchies are flattening, meaning people are required to be able to work in teams, think creatively, adapt to change, and take more initiative than ever before.


Whatever you call these skills – soft skills, foundational skills, or baseline skills – one analysis of millions of job postings found that one third of the skills listed fell into this category, and that these are the skills employers are struggling most to find.


Changing your mindset from requiring a bachelor’s degree to analyzing what skills are needed to do the job and requiring those skills can actually make it easier to find candidates. This also opens up a larger and more diverse pool of applicants to help you find the right candidate.


When you identify the real competencies a person needs to fill a position and have a verifiable way of assessing whether or not a candidate has those skills, the entire process becomes much more transparent. Job candidates can have a better sense of what roles they qualify for. You’ll have an easier time building an internal pipeline because it will be easier to assess what competencies an internal candidate has and give them the right training to develop those competencies.


It means saying these are things that really matter, rather than hoping that a degree or certificate will be a proxy to give you the information you need.


The future of learning meets the future of work


The good news for both higher education and company training programs is that artificial distinctions between what happens in the classroom and what happens outside the classroom are starting to disappear.


Microlearning apps are allowing us to access training on our phones, and instructional designers are using gamification principles to keep people engaged and help them learn. Micro-credentialing programs are making learning more dynamic, allowing employees to develop competencies as they need them. They also increase motivation.


Finally, more educators are working with more employers to create new models that erase artificial distinctions between work and learning. The old idea of four years of studying followed by a career applies to fewer people: increasing numbers of college students are working adults and even “traditional-age” students usually have jobs. Forward-thinking degree and training programs are looking at ways to incorporate their students’ real-world experience and figuring out how to map their courses to demonstrable competencies so people can continue learning throughout their careers.


It’s a pivotal time, as Jack Ma said. If we change the way we teach – and the way we hire – we can bring together the future of work with the future of learning.