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Public Infrastructure on Skills

The search for population-level solutions to strengthen links between education and work.

Urgency builds for real progress on skills-based hiring before the window shuts on the movement. Also, a new center seeks to connect the dots on competencies and skills, the Treasury taps cyber certs from Google Cloud, and what AI could mean for legal occupations.

Photo by Afta Putta Gunawan on Pexels

Creating a Skills-Based Economy

The window is open now for the creation of skills-based education and hiring systems in the U.S. But shifts in the economy or politics could slam that opportunity shut in the next couple years.

That’s commonly heard thinking among skills-forward advocates as many gathered in Washington, D.C., this week for a series of related events. They stressed the urgency of making progress soon on projects with real impacts—what one state official called “population-level solutions.”

The language used in the skills movement too often misses the forest for the trees, some acknowledge. That includes much of the framing around learning and employment records (LERs). As one foundation leader recently told me, it’s hard to get excited about “bespoke digital wallets.”

Likewise, skills-based hiring tends to be viewed interchangeably with moves by companies and governments to drop degree requirements in hiring. The development of skills-based systems, of course, is a much bigger task than tweaking job ads. 

The focus on degree requirements may also be setting up the skills work for failure. That’s because success is hard to find with attempts to open up good careers to more workers without a four-year degree, and the skills-first approach faces the risk of being drawn into the abyss of binary, Culture War–charged arguments about the value of college.

Backers of skills-based hiring need to push back on the bifurcation of skills and degrees, says Amanda Winters, program director at the National Governors Association (NGA). And they need to be more clear that dropping degrees in hiring means eliminating requirements for four-year degrees, she says, not for associate degrees.

“We get those messages muddled a lot,” Winters says.

NGA is tracking how governors in a growing number of states are taking action to advance skills-based hiring, in part to find workers for jobs created by billions of dollars in recent federal investments.

The group tapped support from Walmart to partner on this work with Jobs for the Future, Opportunity@Work, Boston Consulting Group, and the Burning Glass Institute. The project brought officials from 22 states and one territory to D.C. this week as part of a collaboration on skills-based hiring in the public sector.

“How can states get out there and be honest about what this looks like as an employer?” says Winters.

Competencies and Skills: Language about the skills movement should reflect the stakes involved, says Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN).

It’s about “building a public infrastructure to connect talent,” she says. “There has to be a public investment in skills.”

The development of a skills-based economy faces a big dose of the silo problem, with many people who focus on overlapping challenges using different terminology and rarely talking. 

People aren’t seeing the connection points between our various works,” says Charla Long, C-BEN’s president. “They don’t see the throughline and the vision.”

The new Center for Skills by C-BEN seeks to bring clarity and coordination to the skills space. Launched this week with a $1.5M grant from Walmart, the center will attempt to create objective, reliable ways to assess and validate skills, to help bridge the gap between education and the workforce.

The center could help the millions of employers who are looking for skills-based solutions and aren’t going to build their own skills academies, says Clayton Lord, director of foundation programs at SHRM.

“It’s hard for small and mid-sized businesses to find their way into this conversation,” he says. “We can’t create something that is more arduous for employers.”

Statewide projects are likely to play a lead role in the center’s work. Its leaders point to Illinois and its use of performance-based assessments for early childhood educators, which lead to prior learning credit. They also cite the Alabama Talent Triad, an ambitious effort to create LERs and a seamless link between jobseekers, employers, and education and training providers.

Scale matters with skills projects. Western Governors University, with one the nation’s largest student enrollments, continues its work to develop an achievement wallet for students.

“The LER is more than just a wallet,” says Darin Hobbs, WGU’s vice president of the learning and employment ecosystem. The university’s version features aggregated achievement records (education, military, work, and life experience) and includes the identification of skills, the alignment of skills to occupations, and career exploration, while seeking to make labor market information consumable.

"There is value to taking an incremental approach to implementing LER and skills-based solutions,” says Kymberly Lavigne-Hinkley, WGU’s director of the learning and employment ecosystem. “It is essential for employers to be able to consume this data and information about a person, and there are many important value-add steps for individuals along the way.”

Skills Imprimatur from Google and the Treasury 

Google Cloud last week launched a new set of certificates and courses built for the world of generative AI—and for the first time including hands-on labs built alongside employers. 

The labs are specifically designed to help learners move more quickly through the first stage of the job interview process. Employers such as the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Rackspace Technology, and Jack Henry helped develop the labs and have signed on to hire completers.

The Big Idea: Google’s goal—from the beginning of its foray into education and training—has been to both expand and diversify the pool of candidates for tech jobs. It has steadily grown the pool of employers in its hiring consortium, but, even so, learners in its certificate programs are largely expected to find jobs on the open market.

The new labs, which will serve as a first step in the interview process, tighten the connection to select employers.

“You can grow technician workforces in places you don’t necessarily expect them to be,” says M.K. Palmore, director in the Office of the Chief Information Security Officer at Google Cloud. “It’s exposing these kinds of opportunities to a wider group.”

The Details: The new certificates were built by Google Cloud and are focused on cybersecurity and data analytics, with an overlay of how AI integrates with those fields. The company also is offering new standalone AI courses.

All of it will be free for educational institutions, government workforce programs, and nonprofits to use.

The cloud programs complement the career certificates the company already offers through Grow with Google. About 250K learners in the United States have completed one of those programs.

The coursework in the new certificates will be eligible for credit through Purdue Global, which has also embedded many of Google’s existing certificates in its own degree programs.

A Big Employer: The Treasury joined up for the work because it needs to both widen its candidate pool and compete more effectively with the private sector for cyber workers, says Todd Conklin, chief AI officer and deputy assistant secretary of cyber at the Treasury.

“We’re looking to recruit outside the typical D.C. pool. It’s people who aren’t even thinking about government as an option,” he says. “Seeing the Google brand with Treasury might make people look at us a bit differently.”

The agency will be able to fast-track any potential hires coming out of the program because of a special hiring authority granted to increase the federal government’s use of AI. Otherwise, the government hiring process requires many months of public advertising before it can even get started.

More broadly, the agency’s work with Google makes good on a number of directives in President Biden’s executive order on AI and builds on policy work on the cyber workforce that the Treasury has been engaged in for years.

The Kicker: “This is the first time we’ve been able to flex the work we do in that space in this tactical of a way,” Conklin says. —By Elyse Ashburn

What Does AI Mean for Paralegals?

Solid projections about how AI will impact specific occupations are either hard to find or don’t exist. And while generative AI’s capabilities may be impressive, questions persist about its utility in the labor market.

“Even when we know that this technology can be effective at a task, it's oftentimes hard to integrate it into the workflow,” Ben Armstrong, executive director of MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, said during an interview for a forthcoming episode of The Cusp, a new podcast from Work Shift

That’s long been an issue with automation, says Armstrong, who also co-leads MIT’s Work of the Future Initiative. For example, robots in manufacturing have been able to outperform human workers for 40 years at various tasks, he says, but are only in 10% of U.S. factories today.

The legal profession is highly exposed to AI, leading to many predictions that the technology could fundamentally transform the work of lawyers and paralegals.

Reporter Lilah Burke investigated what’s really happening to those jobs, with an eye toward possible changes in hiring and the paths into high-paying legal roles. Click over to Work Shift to read about what she found.

Open Tabs

Childcare and CHIPS
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s requirement that companies applying for large CHIPS grants include childcare plans for their workers is unprecedented and could lead to a workable model for the high-tech workforce, write the Century Foundation’s Lea Woods and Julie Kashen. To overcome childcare shortages, semiconductor companies should partner with governments, unions, and community-based organizations.

Economic Mobility
The U.S. Department of Education plans to create a national recognition for colleges that increase economic mobility and support students as they complete affordable credentials of value. The department is seeking insights on which metrics to use, how colleges use data to drive student success, and how they evaluate the effectiveness of economic mobility strategies and policies. It plans to announce the award early next year.

Workforce Legislation
A bill to replace the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act will not create the transformational change the federal workforce system requires to truly support workers and jobseekers, according to the Good Jobs Collaborative. The collective said the legislation passed recently by the U.S. House is built on flawed assumptions that successful workforce development must be employer-led and address “skills gaps” among workers.

Rural Community Colleges
Oregon’s Columbia Gorge Community College analyzes labor market information and works with industry partners to identify foundational competencies to equip students with skill sets tailored to local jobs, and the stackable credentials and degrees that can validate them, according to a new report from the National Skills Coalition. The report describes a wide variety of partnerships between rural community colleges and industries.

Career Path Information
Community college students are as likely to rely on friends and family for information about their chosen career path as they are to rely on college instructors or advisors, found a survey of 83K students conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement and Jobs for the Future. Just one-fifth of respondents who had chosen a career path reported that their college contributed “very much” to their knowledge about the local job market.

Job Openings
The National Center for the Advancement of Semiconductor Technology (Natcast) is hiring a director of workforce program. The Natcast was created to operate the National Semiconductor Technology Center consortium.

Arnold Ventures is hiring a vice president of career education and training. The VP will help the philanthropy prioritize strategies to accelerate the identification and scaling of effective career education and training programs.

Job Move
Strada Education Foundation has hired Justin Draeger as senior vice president of affordability. Draeger is the longtime president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

It was good to bump into many of you at various events during the last couple weeks. Let me know what I missed in this issue? —PF