- A high school senior wants to pursue college and a biotechnology career, but has little notion of the specific steps needed to achieve that goal.
- A two-year community college must serve students who plan immediate entry into the workplace as well as those who want to continue their academic work.
- A company hopes to solve its labor shortages by recruiting more job applicants among local high school and community college graduates.
In all three scenarios, the participants found solutions in the collaborative development of programs based on skill standards—concrete benchmarks that define the skills, knowledge, and abilities a person needs for success in an occupation or field of work. Beyond simple descriptions, well-developed skill standards provide a common language for employers, educators, and current and future workers in a wide variety of industries.
Skill standards are a reflection of the changing workplace, said Judy Leff, senior project director in the Center for Education, Employment and Community (CEEC). Leff, along with Joyce Malyn-Smith and other CEEC colleagues, wrote Making Skill Standards Work: Highlights from the Field, which illustrates how communities are creating and sustaining effective education-to-employment programs, based on the use of industry skill standards. The book, a result of several years of CEEC staff research and technical assistance, contains over 100 case studies and examples of programs from around the country.
This book builds on earlier work of CEEC. Leff directed a national project that developed skill standards for the bioscience industry. The skill standards were presented in a book, Gateway to the Future: Skill Standards for the Bioscience Industry, published by EDC in 1995. CEEC staff have developed and implemented skill standards in a number of other industries, and have worked on policy development and provided technical assistance in the field of school-to-careers.
“How work is done-the process of work-has changed tremendously,” Leff said. “Many traditional jobs have become more technical and more skilled. Workers also need to have a broader understanding of the work they do and how it fits into an industry.”
“Skill standards provide a big picture and a structure for key players in the school-to-career field,” said Amy Ryken, Education Director at Berkeley Biotechnology Education, Inc. (BBEI) in Berkeley, California. BBEI, a non-profit organization supported by Bayer Corporation and other local employers, is one of the programs profiled in Making Skill Standards Work. Ryken places 100 program graduates in internships and co-op jobs in 26 biotechnology companies each year. “Skill standards remind us that we’re all here for a bigger purpose, to make a protein for hemophilia patients or make a genetically engineered plant that is more disease resistant,” Ryken said.
According to Leff, the skill standards movement emerged in response to converging trends that began to shake the U.S. economy and labor market in the 1970s. The mainstreaming of technology, the development of global competition, and the growing demand for workers with more diverse skills combined to place tremendous pressures on employers, employees, and educators. Since that time, employers, government, and educators have been responding, said Leff. The response has included a number of national initiatives, one of them being the development of national industry skill standards.
The program models chosen by Leff and her colleagues cover such topics as program development, instructional strategies, professional development opportunities, and assessment methods. They illustrate how community-wide partnerships are dealing with common issues and problems in developing and sustaining systems and programs, using skill standards in schools, workplaces, and communities.
BBEI, Ryken’s employer, is one of Leff’s favorite models. Leff was so impressed with the success of the Berkeley initiative, as well as some other partnerships among schools, colleges, industry and their communities, that she has formed a partnership with WGBH television to obtain support for producing a video about them. The video will be part of a package, including a facilitator’s guidebook, interactive web site, and technical assistance, to be used by communities to create and maintain education-to-employment systems and programs.
Skill standards can help streamline how companies are run by sharpening job descriptions, upgrading training, and improving employee interviews. “They can help start a conversation in the company about looking at requirements for positions,” said BBEI’s Amy Ryken. “Maybe students need to have a chemistry course, but skill standards take it to a new level. It’s not ‘what did you take’, but ‘what can you do.’”
Skill standards have developed hand in hand with the changing configuration of workforces. “People are expected to work in teams much more,” Leff said. And they must cross-train. “Work is not subdivided as much as it used to be.” There is also more emphasis on communication skills, decision making, and problem solving. Skill standards that include real work-based scenarios, in which skills, knowledge and workplace behaviors are integrated and contextualized, help students learn and use what they learn, Leff said.
Ryken concurs with the potential of skill standards to create a bridge between industry and education: “Business and industry people see skill standards as a method for building relationships, for helping business and education create a dialogue. It can begin a conversation between people who normally wouldn’t talk to one another.”
Originally published on December 1, 1999