Skills-Based Approach: An Evolving Concept

About six years ago, I created Skills-Based Approach – a methodology centered on the development of a skill set throughout a lifetime. Users work on an evolving skill set by constantly cycling through four stages throughout their education and career.  Skills-Based Approach was a key differentiating feature of a personal website platform I had been working on for about a year. The genesis of the personal website platform came from building one for a family member and through the process recognizing there was nothing in the market for personal websites – a hybrid of a multi-dimensional resume, portfolio to share work, and establishment of an online identity.

This personal website concept remains a relevant concept and opportunity. (There were two Superbowl commercials in 2016 targeting personal websites; average cost of commercial slot was 4.5 million dollars.) Much of my interpretation of a personal website is discussed on the website .

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

I continued to think, blog, and write about Skills-Based Approach in the ensuing four years. I also built a considerable following in social media (on all platforms), established being the originator of Skills-Based Approach (own domains, well indexed in search engine result pages), and developed a future vision that I back up with conviction and years of hard work.

For the past two years, I have been laser focused on designing and creating website and mobile applications to actually apply the methodology. I am convinced we should be thinking in skills to solve problems in education, higher education, and professional and career development. Skills-Based Approach is the platform to solve these problems.

There are many micro (for the individual) and macro (for the community, workforce) benefits of Skills-Based Approach.

Micro-Level Benefits

  • Simplifies education and career planning.
  • Way to track learning progress in and out of the classroom; way to track learning progress from one grade to another and subsequently from high school to college. Way to track lifelong learning.
  • Career onboarding and performance reviews are often ineffective for the recipient (and unstructured for the supervisor). Thinking in skill sets and moving through stages is a useful platform for career development.

Macro-Level Benefits

  • Easier to address ‘skills gap’. Professionals know what technical skills are in demand and can move through Skills-Based Approach to efficiently acquire them.
  • Lifelong learning has become a requirement for most professionals. Targeting relevant technical skills is effective.
  • Learning in grade levels is imprecise. Skill-Based Approach implies building skill competencies, so adaptive and personalized learning becomes part of an education plan.
  • Higher education costs are rising rapidly. A Skills-Based Approach suggests breaking down everything into skills, rather than degrees. Therefore, students can and should use alternative ways to build necessary skills.
  • Big disconnect between education (degrees) and career planning. Thinking in skills and competencies is advantageous because it is a ‘single language’ to bridge education with career expectations.

The advantage of Skills-Based Approach over other applications include its simplicity, longevity, and adaptability.

  • Simplicity. Being able to summarize education, employment, and other experiences into a fluent skill set, then move through four stages is simple. Always dealing with skills, behaviors, and values is simple.
  • Longevity. Effective in education (K-12), higher education, and professional and career development.
  • Adaptability. As the latest technologies and applications are adopted, simply plug them into related stage.

Skills-Based Approach: Learning Paths

Within the context of Skills-Based Approach, a learning path is defined as a collection of tasks needed to reach a desired skill competency over a period (what is referred to as an instance in the application). An instance might be an entire program, such as a micro-credential certification to become an accountant, computer programmer, or electrician. Or it might be a semester as part of a degree. Students upload a course schedule and related activities in and out of the classroom.

These instances are not mutually exclusive, so a student can run more than one instance concurrently. For example, I may be a high school student running an instance for required courses in a semester, one for all activities outside of the classroom, and one for my long-term career goals. It makes sense to separate: (1) required learning from non-required learning; and (2) short-term from long-term learning objectives.

Strung together by skills, instances show continuity. There is functionality to access all content and tasking related to current and past instances, so it becomes a repository for all students’ learning. You can plot all the tasking related to building and validating skills in a timeline. Being able to combine learning expectations over an extended period is one advantage Skills-Based Approach has over competing applications.

Another advantage is Skills-Based Approach simplifies everything. Everyone – students, parents, counselors, teachers, etc. – knows what they are dealing with: a skill set (albeit an expanded definition of skills to include soft skills and behaviors); related competencies (measurements of skills); and constantly cycling through four stages.

Students can track and manage all learning in one place. Working in skills and competencies effectively bridges learning expectations. Students can plan for a future career five to ten years in advance while working in short, discrete, manageable tasks. Furthermore, students pivot with their learning based on internal (success or failure building skills or changing career interests) and external (changing demand for skills or jobs) factors.

A cool feature of the Skill-Based Approach learning path is students can share and replicate them (if they give necessary permissions). Working together, students collectively might create an optimal learning plan and the sharing process might be fun. A teacher, professor, or program director can create and disseminate their own learning paths in a similar way.

As students mature and become familiar with the Skills-Based Approach interface, they take control of their learning; they become ‘self-directed learners’ and develop their own ‘personal learning network’. I wrote an article (and gave a webinar) on putting employees in the driver’s seat of their learning, and I think the same applies with high school and college students (though, perhaps with varying levels of guidance).

Self-Guided Learning
Self-Guided Learning

Being able to use one methodology / platform across education and career stages is another big plus of Skills-Based Approach. A user gets introduced to the application, figures out how it works with an ‘aha’ epiphany and then effectively uses it in different career stages.

There is growing support for personalized and adaptive learning. A feature of a Skills-Based Approach learning plan is students merging required tasks with tasks created on a student’s own initiative. It would be great to see students increase the non-required learning for their own personal and learning development, while reaching desired competencies for required learning. (And there are some intrinsic motivators being built into the Skills-Based Approach application. One of them is the accumulation of skill points and leaderboards – still under construction.)

With so many free online learning resources, like Khan Academy and MOOCs, a young, impressionable student can explore any subject or personal or professional interest and build a good foundation. Personally, I am a big supporter of self-guided learning – something I have been doing for the past seven years.



How Should We Respond To High In-Demand Skills?

I find it interesting how we respond to publications related to top in-demand skills needed to be successful. I immediately think: Should we target acquiring the necessary skill competencies directly? Should we simply assume going to college gets me the skills? No, I think we should create ‘learning plans’ where learning is defined in skills and their underlying methods and applications.

A pair of Gallup surveys published in 2014 identified employers as saying: (1) college graduates do not have the skills businesses need; (2) and applied skill and knowledge are more important than a college degree and its pedigree. And perhaps in response, per the World Economic Forum ‘The Future of Jobs Report’, twenty-five percent of the respondents (senior talent and strategy executive) say they will ‘collaborate (with) education institutions’ as part of their future workforce strategy.

I think skills should be one big aspect of ‘learning paths’. These paths might be part of or a complete four-year degree. Some colleges are moving in this direction by implementing Competency Based Learning (“CBL”) programs; a TechCrunch article says colleges offering CBL has grown from 50 to 500 programs this year. Generally, the concept behind a CBL program is to allow students to work at their own pace and replace credit hours (seat time) with competency levels. So, when they pass a test or project, they get credit and move on.

Learning paths might include micro-credentialism, fast, efficient, and direct paths to acquire employability skills. Some types of these programs include: bootcamps, apprenticeships, credential or license programs, etc.

I think learning paths should be: self-directed, personalized and adaptive, linked to employability, sequential for continued growth, and based on skills and underlying methods and applications.

There should be a stage when a student takes on the responsibility for their learning.  I do not suggest changing required courses in high school or a college degree. And I also think parents, mentors, teachers, and counselors should have varying roles in providing necessary guidance.

But, I think students should keep track of their learning more precisely, know their own competencies, choose learning resources whenever possible, and supplement required learning their own way. (Therefore, I think the Skills-Based Approach application should be in the hands of every high school and college student.)

One example of this (and a benefit in Common Core, a standardized and accessible list of standards) is playing an educational game by Sim City for extended learning outside of the classroom. I have created a platform to compare and summarize learning expectations of education resources called Skills Label℠ , which has cross integration functionality with Skills Based Approach℠.

In a Pew Research survey, seventy-two percent of American adult workers say “a lot” of responsibility falls on individuals to make sure that they have the right skills and education. So, the question becomes at what age should a person take ‘driver’s education’ and later the ‘driver’s seat’ of their learning.

Applying personalized and adaptive learning helps students at all spectrums of capability:

  • Underperforming students find other learning resources, perhaps in other media to reach a desired competency. They might also get a more intense learning experience for needed skills.
  • Students in the ‘middle of the curve’ get the standard learning plan and then modify it to accommodate their needs. The real benefit in this category is with the motivated students. They choose how much time to dedicate to learning. An average student who spends significant time learning a skill set gets employed faster and competes with less focused students who have more ability.
  • High performing students need to keep moving forward with their learning. A seat time model makes less sense for these students. They become bored and distracted in the classroom. For these students, it is about finding and putting them on their career track so they can start contributing with their brilliance. Making contributions in higher order skilled professions take years of preparation.

Learning paths should link to employability. Students want contingencies after completing their learning plan. They can think: ‘If I take these courses or pass this certification, I will be employed with this career making a salary in this range’.

Lifelong learning is a requirement for most professions.  According to Pew Research’s survey The State of American Jobs, fifty-four and thirty-three percent of worker say ‘training/ skill development throughout their work’ will be ‘essential’ and ‘important, but not essential’ respectively. Learning plans should have continuity, so students and professionals are always working on their skills throughout their lifetime. This might involve working on the ‘depth of their skills’, where you take a few skills and keep getting better at them – become a master. This might involve working on the ‘breadth of their skills’, where you keep adding new skills to your skill set.

Working with underlying methods and applications of a skill is one level deeper than what is typically in practice. (My interpretation of the relationship is: skills are like atoms and the methods and applications are like sub-atomic particles.) Anyways, I think with ‘learning paths’ it is worth understanding the methods behind applying the skill.

Many of the foundational thinking skills are broad in scope. For example, with critical thinking, there are many methods (Critical Thinking Techniques):

  • Proper use of evidence.
  • Organization of thoughts.
  • Use logic for appropriate inferences.
  • Hear, and process conflicting ideas.
  • Socratic/inquiry questioning.
  • Case-Based Reasoning.
  • Debate.
  • Cost-Benefit Analyses.
  • Summarizing a concept.

Thinking precisely with methods and techniques makes acquiring skills adaptive to rapidly changing technologies. For example, with the technical skill of ‘Database Design’, I might use the entrenched SQL relational database design or the upcoming NOSQL flat, ‘big data’ structure.

Skills-Based Approach is a methodology centered on the development of a skill set throughout a lifetime. There are ways users can create their own ‘learning plans’ within the application. It is possible to merge traditional learning programs with newer ones based on acquiring skill competencies.

Resurgence of Blue Collar Jobs: Do Impressionable Students Know About Them and Paths To Get Them?

There was significant loss of ‘blue collar’ jobs when we moved from a manufacturing to a service economy. This fundamental change in our workforce requires a broader definition of ‘blue collar’ or ‘middle skill’ work; my interpretation (by no means universally agreed upon) is: any work that does not require a bachelor’s degree. This still captures the essence of traditional blue collar work: hands-on, mechanical, and applied skill.

According to a USA News article, over the next couple of years, there will be a resurgence of ‘the new blue collar’ with over 2.5 million good-paying jobs being added to the economy (representing nearly 40% of all job growth). Perhaps the biggest hurdle in filling them is generating awareness these jobs even exist.

There is often an unwarranted stigma associated with ‘blue collar’ work; it has become a class distinction. The public does not rally behind building an infrastructure to best reach this segment of the workforce; particularly a communication network of 6 – 12 educators, employers, institutions offering the training, and workforce development and planning organizations.

Concentrating on skills makes sense. Certification programs are effective.


But many skilled trade workers (plumbers, electricians, and repairmen), STEM middle skill workers (web designers, computer technicians, and computer support specialists), and other blue collar workers can: make over $100,000 a year, demonstrate high skill competencies, and have a secure career.

Impressionable high school students need to know these middle jobs exist, their value, what skills they require and available training and education programs. Then they must make a mature, important career decision: invest in four-year bachelor’s degree or consider one of these programs.

Of course, there is the lopsided cost and expense of a bachelor’s degree; with some of these programs, the student earns income during the program to offset its cost. Though, across all careers, it is well established that professionals with a bachelor’s degree earn more over their lifetime than those without one.

I think the decision should be a personal, case-by-case decision. The three factors I would consider: ROI on the education or training, career fulfillment, and career security. I would ask myself:

“Will I make enough of a return to satisfy my financial needs? Do I derive self-efficacy doing this type of work for the next five to ten years? Do I have guaranteed employability?”

Some of the available training and education programs include:

  • Bootcamp programs. Students acquire employability skills in less than 3 months.
  • Apprenticeships. An apprentice gets immediate exposure to applied learning and receives compensation.
  • Certification / License. Learn what is required in an efficient and effective way, gain a credential to verify skill competencies.
  • Micro-credential paths. Like a certification program, learning is precise. (For example, an accountant can finish coursework and take the CPA in less than a year.)

Skills Based Approach is an ideal platform to apply these programs. The application effectively allows workers to plan, track, and acquire skills as they navigate through program requirements. It is also evolving, so users adapt to external (changing demand for skills) and internal (success, progress, or failure in acquiring skills) factors. Focusing on acquiring skills (as opposed to chasing a degree or talent) also coincides with a Skills Culture

Here is a basic example of Skills-Based Approach tasking and the path to become an electrician.

Path of tasks to become an electrician


Skills Syllabi, Skills Based Learning Expectations and Tasking

I remember getting a paper syllabus on the first day of class. It outlined learning expectations and policies, purpose of the course, and a schedule of what we would be doing in each class. (In my earlier years, I read it once and shuffled it away; in my later years, it became tattered and torn as I frequently referenced it to succeed.) My recent experience with syllabus are reading them before taking a MOOC on Coursera (which I assume is not much different than any other syllabus). Still, I find there can be room for improvement.

Skill Syllabi is a utility to create an interactive, skills based syllabus. I created this app to expand access to educational resources for learners (one more resource to be returned from a search), while expanding the usefulness of other skills apps I have already developed. If you create syllabus, I suggest giving this Syllabus Builder a try. It is free.

The interface is a single page where you are taken through eight steps to collect all relevant information. When you are finished, you get a public URL (to post on a website) and PDF download of the syllabus.

Many higher education institutions are adopting Competency Based Learning (“CBL”) programs; last year there were 50 programs and this year there are 500 programs in higher education (according to a TechCrunch article). CBL is enticing because of its efficiency. Students learn at their own pace and way and once they reach desired competencies they move on. When I say ‘way’, I mean students can learn through resources not only chosen by the professor, but also supplemental ones available to them (other books, games, etc.). So, these programs are not based on the de-facto credit hour model.

Skill Syllabi are ideal for these types of programs. It has sections breaking down learning expectations and tasking based on skills, skill expertise, and objectives of the methods and application behind skills. Students know precisely what skills the professors are targeting and their approach in doing so.

Skill Syllabi is a useful utility for all types of courses: classroom, online, and blended. To construct the framework, I reviewed a syllabus template from Stanford Commons to get the sections right.

Skill Syllabi works with Skills Label and Skills-Based Approach. It also fits with the overall philosophy of Skills Culture.

‘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