‘Skills Matter’: Why We Need To Build Higher Level Basic Skills

In a recent survey, The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) asked the question: “Time for the U.S. to Reskill?”  and the answer was a resounding: “Yes”.  Basic skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) matter and we need to invest in an infrastructure that transcends across high school, higher education, and professional and career development to achieve higher level competencies. Using skills as a language to bridge learning expectations across education and career stages has been something I have proposed for a while now and one of the central premises behind Skills-Based Approach.

The survey has many interesting distinctions regarding reskilling our workforce. Here are a few of them.

“Sixty-three percent of low-skilled adults in the U.S. are employed”. So job training and learning is possible and there are proper incentives to do so (reward for basic skills is higher in the US than other countries) and “an intervention should yield lifetime returns”.

Whenever possible, employers must invest in learning and career development programs for their workers; employers have the resources (funding), captive audience (workers), and applied knowledge (mentors) to do so. In addition, employers should take preemptive action with education institutions and the community to support building skills needed for their future workforce.

U.S. lags on both tails of basics skills measurement – a higher rate for low basic skills and lower rate for high basic skills. For example, on the low end, ‘one in three adults have weak numeracy skills’ in this U.S. compared to ‘one in five’ for the cross country average. And, on the high end, ‘8 percent of adults scored the highest level’ in the U.S. compared to a ’13 percent cross-country’ average.

The U.S. has a large, diverse population. Immigrants represent a large portion of the low basic skill adults, so low literacy rates are expected. But still, with such varying results across countries, education systems and learning cultures do influence the outcome of acquiring basic skills. There are reasons why Finland, Japan, and Germany score higher on standardized tests like PISA. Perhaps the applied learning and apprenticeships Europe has fostered for the past hundreds of years makes sense. Here in the U.S., we are now seeing growth in this type of learning as an alternative to higher education programs.

In my personal experience, while attending an MBA program where about fifty percent of the students were from other countries, I noticed stark contrasts in learning approaches. Many of the students from Asian countries (including India) demonstrated strong quantitative skills and took a methodical approach to their learning.

Seven policy recommendations from the survey include:

  • A concerted effort is needed to address the skills challenge because ‘skills matter’ and US ‘will progressively fall behind other countries’.
  • ‘Substantial improvements’ are needed in initial schooling, with ‘adequate standards’. The US has a young population, there is evidence from PISA of gaps in current schooling, and interventions have been proven to be successful.
  • Effective ‘learning pathways’ are needed for young adults leaving high school. US already has an extensive higher education system, but there can be improvements. In addition, we are experiencing growth in micro-credential and certification paths.
  • Programs to address basic skills must be linked to ‘employability’.  If you take an assessment and demonstrate a competency, then you will be employed doing this type of work.
  • Adult learning programs should be adapted to ‘diverse needs’, and ‘effectively coordinated’.
  • Awareness of basic skill challenges must increase. Educators need to find gaps in the system. Employers and community organizations need to forecast and plan for future skill demand and competency requirements.
  • Actions should be well-supported with evidence.

Skills-Based Approach is a methodology and platform to address many of these recommendations (particularly the top five). In the Skills-Based Approach application, users track their skill set and move through stages constantly throughout their lifetime. It suggests personalized, adaptive, and lifelong learning. Users tap into employability and career pathways as they mature. They may plan for careers five years in advance while working in short discrete tasks throughout their education. The benefit is users can pivot or respond to external (changing demand for skills) and internal (success, progress, or failure in acquiring skills) factors.

Skills Based Approach and Current Learning Trends
Skills Based Approach and Current Learning Trends

Should We Drill Through Foundational Thinking and Social Skills (Like We Do In Sports)?

Watched this video of Diego Mardona warming up before a game. Epic, in the video title, describes it well. Unbelievable how he juggles the ball, in a sequence and doing some amazing maneuvers. This is clearly where talent meets skill.

Without a doubt, the scorer of the “Hand of God” and “Goal of the Century” goals had remarkable talent. At the age of 8, he was juggling a ball better than his older teammates. He was one of the top soccer players ever to play the game. He was also extremely skilled; a virtuoso on the field. His amazing touch on the ball along with his vision allowed him to have a quickness and response way ahead of his opponents trying to contain him on the soccer field.

I started to think about how this type of drilling of skills in sports compares to how we drill skills on a professional level. Should we be doing thinking and problem solving drills and exercises repeatedly to stay sharp? Should be so well versed in these skills they are engrained into every experience? This might be like on a soccer field, where you think of and then do a move on an opponent almost instantaneously.

(Reflecting on my experience in soccer, I could usually think of one move, pull it off, and be psyched. Or I would react to my opponents’ maneuvers. But, I wish my moves were quicker, sequential, and proactive.)

There are also all the social skills related to emotional intelligence (“EI”). According to Travis Bradberry, the preeminent writer on EI, a person improves their EI with practice. Likewise, should we learn skills like ‘active listening’ and ‘social perceptiveness’ through training and preparation so it is engrained in us? Applying skills becomes part of our behaviors.

The answers to these questions are rhetorical. Acquiring skills is the most important aspect of education and learning programs for career success. It is just a matter of how much. One takeaway in comparing practicing sports and professional skills is the necessity of experiential learning. Every experience is an opportunity to apply skills.

I usually separate talent and skills. Put them in competition with each other: talent versus skill. Talent, to me, connotes an innate ability – something you are born with and cannot change much. There is no denying someone who has talents and creates something; it seems like magic. But thinking about talents can be discouraging: many of us fear trying something because of our pre-conceived talents or feeling we have to become a master to be successful.

Skill, on the other hand, is acquired. If you put the time and effort to practice a skill properly, most people feel they can learn it. I do not disagree with a naysayer saying you may need some talent to acquire skills. Still, I think it is like comparing a growth mindset (skills) with a fixed mindset (talents).

The author of Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking came up with similar conclusions about acquiring foundation thinking skills (a similar way we acquire skills in sports). He sums up his philosophy in a catchy phrase: will, skill, and drill. You need to have the will – a growth mindset. This is one critical element of my Skills Culture. Practice underlying methods and applications to acquire skill. Finally, conscientiously drill through your thinking and social skills in every experience.

Skills-Based Approach is a methodology and application to acquire skills throughout your lifetime.

Hire and Teach for the Skills Your Future Workforce Requires

According to Future of Jobs Survey of senior talent and strategy executives from over 370 leading global employers, the most important future workplace strategy is to ‘invest in reskilling current employees’. Sixty-five percent of the respondents of the survey, conducted by World Economic Forum, will pursue this strategy.

We are already seeing expiration dates of current worker’s skill sets, so workers are expected to keep building their skills through training and learning programs to stay relevant. The survey identified “mobile internet, cloud technology” (22%) and “processing power, Big data” (13%) as the top two technologic drivers already impacting employees’ skills.

It is not just employers who see lifelong learning as a requirement. In a separate survey by Pew Research, “The State of American Jobs,” 54% of workers say training/skills development throughout their work will be “essential” and 33% say it is “important, but not essential.”

Most American Workers Say Life-Long Learning
Most American Workers Say Life-Long Learning Is Essential of Important

Skills should be the focal part in identifying future candidates and the basis of future learning programs (onboarding, training, performance reviews, etc.). Companies should forecast their future workforce on the skills they need and hire based on these skills. There are a few reasons why as to paraphrase the DOL: “Skills are the ticket”.

It is too difficult to get a handle on demand for particular occupations or specialties because they are changing too fast. According to the previously referenced The Future of Jobs report, “The most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even 5 years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.” So as you think about your future workforce demands, consider thinking in skills.

You can define skills; they are tangible, something to talk about. Even as new technical skills are being added (as new applications and technologies are being introduced), many of the underlying transferable skills remain relatively constant. I call these skills the ‘verb’ in knowledge. They define how we think, converse, problem solve, create, engineer, write, debate, play, and so on. They are the foundation of all learning.

Skills are also measurable. We are starting to see the growth of assessments to accurately measure skill competencies and this will accelerate considerably. In many ways it makes more sense to discuss a skill competency than a grade or degree level (which often is attributed to age and demographics); it is more precise, accurate, and based on actual data. Moreover, using skill assessment widens your talent pool. You can consider applicants from many different education backgrounds, including mico-credential paths and certification learning programs.

Finally, as there is a displacement of jobs to automation and artificial intelligence, we need to identify skills that make us uniquely human and build them. Two such skill areas mentioned in The Future of Jobs report include social skills (related to EI) and analytical skills. There is also a need to stay abreast of the high level skills controlling the latest technology advancements.

Skills-Based Approach is a methodology and application to solve these problems in workforce development. I will be presenting an upcoming webinar called Mining Future Talent: How to Plan Related Job Training and Learning Based on Forecast of Workforce Demands, on November 10th that discusses the Skills-Based Approach.

In the webinar, I will discuss how to introduce personalized and adaptive learning approaches and skills as a language to bridge education, higher education, and career learning expectations. I will also show actual screenshots from the Skills-Based Approach application.

For a summary of my philosophy behind the Skill Based Approach, visit the website: Skills Culture.


Onboarding: Get Workers Contributing

The definition of onboarding is: mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members (Wikipedia).

A well defined and structured onboarding is a critical stage in workforce development. To get workers to make a contribution in your organization, they must learn your adopted technologies and related technical skills and acquire behaviors and soft skills to assimilate into your company culture.

More Jobs Require Preparation
More Jobs Require Preparation

Onboarding is one part of my series: Forecast, Hire, and Train Skills. Training skills starts with new hires and continues throughout their tenure. In the list below, I assume you have just made a hire. Here is how I suggest moving forward:

  • Use new hires skill set and expertise as a starting point.
  • Map out how these skills are going to be applied over an upcoming period (quarter or half year).
  • Add skills you are going to teach through job training, seminars, and other learning programs.
  • Assign a mentor and create goals and assessments.
  • Give employees some latitude in choosing projects.
  • Provide resources for employees to do their own learning.
Use a Skills Based Approach for your workforce
Use a Skills Based Approach for your workforce

I have an upcoming webinar: Skills-Based Approach to Mining Future Talent: How to Plan Related Job Training and Learning Based on Forecast of Your Workforce Demands.



Micro-Credentialism is essentially a fast track to acquire skills needed for a career track. There are many reasons why it is worth considering micro-credentialism (as opposed to the traditional four year college track):

  • Time. In most cases, you speed the learning process considerably.
  • Funds. Save a considerable amount of money, by paying for less college credits or cheaper programs.
  • Optimal learning experience. Some programs, such as apprenticeships, impart skills directly.
  • Apply latest technologies. There is usually a lag between technologies employers use and those taught in college courses.
  • Latitude to include personal and adaptive learning. There are still requirements, but students have more options.

Though, micro-credentialism is not completely divergent from a college path. SUNY is already offering micro-credential programs. It is also not far from the rapidly growing Competency Based Learning (CBL) programs in higher education; according to a Techcrunch article, this year over 500 colleges and universities offer CBL programs (up from an estimated 52 last year). In some subjects, micro-credentialism might be simply removing the ‘general learning requirements’ that usually takes up about two years.

I suggest the coding boot camps for head strong coders. Why not start a ‘hack a thon’ from day one? In my opinion, learning to code from an expert saves a tremendous amount of time trying to discover underlying methods on your own (and in a classroom).

I am also a big advocate of self-guided learning. Once you have foundation thinking and problem solving skills, you should be able to acquire skills across disciplines and subjects.

There are many careers where students can be put on a fast track. This includes careers in STEM fields and some careers where a bachelor’s degree has always been a requirement. Below, I provide an example of one of those careers: an accountant.

Source BLS / DOL
Source BLS / DOL

Skills-Based Approach : Application of Micro-Credentialism

I went to the website where you signup to take the CPA exam. There is a section laying out precisely what college courses a person needs to take the exam without getting a full bachelor’s degree. Then, I went to an online college and mapped out the courses. In the screenshot from the Skills Based Approach application (shown below), there is a list of all the required and recommended tasks I would do if I was a prospective CPA candidate. Three big advantages are: getting the education in less than a year, saving college expense on the magnitude of tens of thousands, and supplementing the learning process with self-guided resources and experiences.

I would add three such resources. First, take a MOOC from a top university (on Coursera there is Intro to Accounting from Wharton); figure if I did well enough, I would contact the professor and ask for a recommendation. I would also try to make connections in the discussion forums. Second, I would look for a game / simulation of managing a budget and accounts. (In the sequence of tasks below, I planned this during winter break). Third, actively seek out mentors from the first to last course. Since it is an accelerated program, I cannot wait for the opportunity to happen. Skills-Based Approach is an ideal methodology and application to take a micro-credential path (as shown in this example).

Actual Screenshot from Skills-Based Approach application.

Forecast, Hire, and Train Based on Skills

If you follow me, you know much of my recent work has been laser focused on skills. My philosophy is summarized on my website: Skills Culture. I think companies should forecast their future workforce on skills, hire based on skills, and adopt a learning culture based on skills.

Why think in skills? Here is why:

  • Occupation or specialties are changing too fast:
    • “The most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.” The Future of Jobs – World Economic Forum
  • Skills are tangible, something to talk about. They are:
    • Definable, standardized, portable, searchable, measurable, and flexible.
  • Skills are the ‘verb’ in knowledge. It is the action part.
    • Skills define how we think, converse, problem solve, create, engineer, write, debate, play and so on. They are the underlying foundation of all learning.
  • Displacement of jobs due to automation and AI.
    • Need to build skills unique to human capabilities. Identify and acquire skills that complement these new technologies. “Everything that can be automated will be automated.” (Pew Research Digital Life in 2015)

Evaluating resumes is outdated and does not make sense with the technologies accessible to us. Here is how you should hire based on skills:

  • Measure precisely with assessments.
    • Create your own problem sets, based on your own set of rubrics.
    • Use third-party solutions.
      • CLA + to measure critical thinking and problem solving skills of a college graduate.
      • Knack provides online games to measure talents.
    • Draw your own conclusions on demonstrable results (projects or coursework).
    • Role play. Create a script or project. Use bars to measure specific behaviors and skills.
    • Create your own online or video game. Simulate actual experiences.
      • Benefit of simulation versus a self-assessment.

I hear a popular phrase “Hire for character, you can train skill.” Partly agree (sure character is ideal), but mostly disagree. Putting the time and effort to acquire a set of skills and behaviors over an extended period of time demonstrates character. Conscientiously applying skills in every experience requires diligence. Workers who command skills deserve commendation. How can you not respect someone who has made that kind of an investment into something particular?

Much of the discussion in The Future of Jobs Report published by the World Economic Forum backs up my assertion that we should be thinking in skill for workforce development.

Skills-Based Approach is a methodology and application to solve these problems in workforce development. I will be giving an upcoming seminar: Mining Future Talent: How to Plan Related Job Training and Learning Based on Forecast of Workforce Demands.

The Future of Jobs Report published by the World Economic Forum
The Future of Jobs Report published by the World Economic Forum



Consider Skills As You Mine For Future Talent

There is truth behind the heavily publicized ‘skills gap’. Part of the problem is a disconnect in communication between employers and education institutions (67 percent of business leaders disagree or are neutral to the statement ‘higher education graduates have the skills my business needs’), part of the problem is rapid adoption of new technologies (according to DOL, 65 percent of students will have a job that currently does not exist).

As a company, it is important to consider:

  • Forecasting demand for not only job positions, but also the underlying skills. This signals what specific skills you are looking for and allows you to define your company learning culture.
  • Share the forecast with your community (both online and offline), so educators, workforce preparedness organizations, and civic government can create initiates and plan curriculum to address needs.
  • Get the forecast in the hands of impressionable students (in high school or college). Students see the demand in the aggregate (high demand for electrical engineering) or specifically targeting your company (company y is seeking these skills / professions over the next three years). Regardless, students know there is opportunity, they acquire skills using the Skills Based Approach methodology. Students also have choice on how they acquire the skills (college courses, MOOCs, specific jobs, etc.) based on measures such as ROI.
  • Publicize the demand for both technical and transferable skills. You hire based on transferable skills and desired competency levels – measure by skill assessments. Then, create a ‘state of the art’ on boarding and training program to teach the technical skills.
  • Hire based on skills. Create assessments, tests, and/or gamification to assess desired skill competencies. Require potential hires to ‘prove their skills’ with the power of demonstration (work projects, coursework, etc. ). This expands the talent pool. Your company considers more education and training backgrounds.

Hear a popular phrase: “Hire for character, you can train for skills”.

Disagree. I believe a commitment to acquire skills and behaviors over an extended period of time demonstrates character. Conscientiously applying them in every experience requires diligence.

I will be doing an upcoming seminar on this subject.