An Alternative Education

A movement to find alternative ways to learn skills is underway. For many high school graduates, the cost of a typical college education is too expensive. The price tag of a college degree has increased significantly, including degrees offered by public universities subsidized by states. In a past blog, I discussed how free online courses (MOOCs) have attracted many students – several million students have signed up for them since they were introduced two years ago. An article in the Wall Street Journal, Startup Takes Aim at Old-School Ways, discusses how an organization offers low-cost tuition ($395 a class) to provide a “dual curriculum in the humanities and trades” where students learn transferable skills that will be useful in any discipline and specific technical skills like graphic design or carpentry[i]  – building skills this way fits nicely with a Skills Based Approach. A missing piece in the puzzle is establishing credibility as an educator a kin to the accreditation process for universities.

In an earlier blog, I discussed how online badges are going to be a powerful way to establish credibility with skills. If an educator establishes credibility with employers, then their online badges will have weight. Well established companies have their reputation backing the validity of their online badges; for example, an early career professional brandishing an online badge from Oracle for managing network hardware may not need a college degree. Considering the startup mentioned above, their concept would be far more effective if they can establish credibility with the community – perhaps by issuing their own online badges or preparing their students to get online badges from other sources.

There are ways employers can evaluate the skills of candidates that does not hinge on a college degree. First, create an assessment test and use the results to understand their level of expertise with certain skills. Second, evaluate samples of work that demonstrate their application of a skill. Third, read blogs or social media interactions (especially Twitter) to learn more about their insights and knowledge (which is also a lens on their personality). With these suggestions, it is possible to make evaluations without using a college degree as the focal point.

I heard of another interesting way an employer evaluates how well a candidate might perform on the job. Plan a typical day that a candidate might experience and have them come in and work the day – essentially let them sink or swim. An employer takes this approach with their stronger candidates and pays them for the day and the investment is well worth it. The employer gets immediate feedback regarding the proficiency of the candidate’s skill set and witnesses how they fit into their corporate culture. Again, this is another evaluation that does not depend on a college degree.

In these last two paragraphs, I talk about how an employer can evaluate candidates who do not have college degree. I am not trying to disparage the benefits of a college degree, but rather supporting the concept of the startup mentioned above: an alternative education for students who cannot afford a college education. Students who finish learning from this startup should have opportunities to showcase their skills and preparedness to join the workforce and compete with professionals that have a college education.

[i] Belkin, Douglas. “Startup Takes Aim at Old-School Ways.”  Wall Street Journal, 04/03/2013.

Stepping Stone Jobs

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how underemployment is going to remain persistent even as the economy recovers.[i] Underemployment refers to skilled workers doing jobs that do not require their level of education. For example, someone who recently graduated with a degree in marketing who is working in a coffee shop making a little more than minimum wage. There are a few ways practicing a skills-based approach alleviates the problem of underemployment.

First, you define your professional experience and knowledge as a skill set rather than as a degree or career so you are more flexible to adapt to the current job market. Your skill set is comprised of transferable and technical skills. Transferable skills – such as writing, computational thinking, and problem solving – can be utilized across disciplines and subjects. You should be able to construct a list of many different career paths based on your skill set. Perhaps you have to spend some time learning a technical skill before applying to a career you had not targeted earlier. Let me provide an example.

Jim graduated with a degree in marketing and is seeking a marketing position setting up website promotions. There were few openings for this type of position; however, through his job searching he realized interpreting web analytics is a hot opportunity. He has no prior experience with web analytics but could learn it fairly quickly by taking an online course. And many of the skills he learned while getting his marketing degree are relevant for this opportunity. So by adding a technical skill of web analytics to his skill set, Jim increases his chances of becoming employed.

Second, you find ways to make any job an opportunity to develop your skills; your job becomes a stepping stone to something in the future.  Many young professionals have to settle for a job because they need to earn an income, so they find a job that is not necessarily aligned with their capabilities or career objectives. Nevertheless, no matter what the job, they should find ways to build skills. For instance, using the example above,  a coffee shop employee volunteers to build a website that promotes the coffee shop for free (there are many free website builders to choose from); so a seemingly dead-end job becomes an opportunity to build web development and marketing promotion skills.

Third, you build the skills necessary to reach a longer term career on your own time. So as you are working at the coffee shop to earn an income, you spend the afterhours building an expertise with your skills.  You may choose to volunteer, take an online or on-site course, or read a book to advance you expertise with skills. Whatever way you choose, you become more marketable for future opportunities by fine-tuning your skills. Building skills is more efficient and accessible and less expensive than adding degrees.

You can learn more about a skills-based approach by visiting the website:

[i] Ben Casselman, “College Grads May Be Stuck in Low-Skill Jobs,” Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2013.

Credentials Complement Skills

I had a discussion with a professor about a Skills Based Approach, something I hope you are familiar with by now (if not check out the website: I expressed why I think skill sets should be the focal point in career planning and development and the professor made a point worth further exploration: the impact of credentials.

A broad Wikipedia definition for a credential is: a “qualification, competence, or authority issued to an individual by a third-party”. In a purely professional context, credentials are degrees, certifications, licenses, and badges.

  • College degrees are the staple in summarizing a professional background, and currently have a major influence on your career path. However, professionals might find alternative approaches to learn skills because of the enormous cost of a college degree – it has almost doubled in the past ten years. There has been some policy discourse brewing on the high cost of a college degree, especially with public universities because they are partially funded by states[i]. Personally, I recommend supporting the movement of free online courses and finding ways to shorten a typical bachelor degree to less than four years – at least the number of years a student pays tuition. The ball has started rolling: you can get credits when you take the latest offering of free online courses (MOOC IIs). Colleges offering these free credits are betting that you will commit to taking their more advanced paid courses in the future.[ii]
  • Certifications are used to establish a proficiency and/or understanding of what is needed to conduct business in certain professions. With the rapid pace in the adoption of new technologies, professionals are required to learn new technologies by taking online course and then passing a certification test. Certifications are also widely used in accounting, finance, medical, and law professions.
  • Online badges are becoming increasingly relevant because Mozilla is pioneering the development of technology necessary to make them universally accepted. A powerful new feature of an online badge is a mechanism for a third-party to verify the credentials they issue. This will have a major influence in learning new skills because more educators can establish credibility; professionals can: choose to learn skills from a larger pool of educators, target certain professions or skills more precisely, and save a considerable amount of money.

Skill sets and credentials complement each other; in fact, with a Skills Based Approach, credentials might be the preferred way to validate skills (as suggested in the validation stage). A skill might have a one to one relationship with a credential; for example, a credential received for passing an online certification for ASP .Net validates the skill of web design (and sub-skill ASP .Net). Skills might have a many to one relationship with a credential; for example, a degree in business management validates basic skills of accounting, finance, marketing, and management.

I standby the assertion that all professionals should plan and develop their careers based on a skill set. I also think, as you build an expertise with skills, you should find ways to use credentials to validate your experience and knowledge with skills. Online badges will become the primary way to validate skills on all professional website services; we are currently waiting for the technology to catch up.

[i] Wessel, David. “Obama, Rubio Take On Colleges.” Wall Street Journal, 02/21/2013

[ii] Lewin, Tamar. “Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit.” The New York Times, 01/23/2013

Updated this infographic with more recent concepts and cleaned it up.

Personal Professional Website

I have dedicated a website to promote a skills based approach: click here

Developing a skill set throughout a career should be the goal of every professional and can be accomplished in four stages: planning, building, presenting, and validating. This infographic shows what should be done at each stage.

A professional website has features to support this skill based approach at each stage. You can read more about this integration by following some of the previous blogs click here (scroll down to view previous blogs).

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Setting the Stage With New Employment

A skills based approach suggests planning each career move you make and how it relates to developing your desired skill set, something you are committed to improving throughout your career. In this blog, I would like to discuss how you can set the stage as you start employment with a new company. I will be drawing insights from the article Find Organizations that Support Career Development written by Sean Conrad in the blog Simply Hired.

Employers Help Build Skills
Employers Help Build Skills

With a plan in hand (from the planning stage of a skills based approach), you can communicate to your new employer exactly what you want to achieve while working for them. You can tell them what skills you want to develop, and ask them to help you on your path of enlightenment; your supervisors can steer you by giving you certain roles on upcoming projects, providing on-site training, funding further education, and finding a mentor who can guide you along the way.

It makes sense to be completely honest and direct regarding what you want to accomplish while working for your future employer. There are clear benefits for your future employer too; they can lessen the chance of you jumping at the next big opportunity – something that is becoming more common – by keeping you well incentivized and engaged with your current role with them. Mr. Conrad says you should identify whether your new employer has a goal-setting process, competency model or career path, and employment development – do they support the career development of their employees.

As you build the skills in your skill set, you need to get feedback regarding how well you are learning the desired skills. Part of it comes from self-reflection; part of it comes from feedback from your peers and supervisors. Mr. Conrad says you should identify whether your new employer has performance reviews and ongoing communications, so you know how well you are reaching their expectations.

Defining Skills

One of the most important factors in applying a skills based approach is properly identifying and assigning the right skills, so there are necessary attributes regarding the nomenclature of skills. First, skills must be defined based on what is commonly accepted across industries, services, and disciplines. Anyone reviewing your skill set, whether it is someone browsing your professional website, a recruiter searching through your skill set, or a career counselor helping you with career planning, must understand the precise meaning of each skill. Moreover, skills must work with your career progression so they have longevity. Second, somewhat related to the first point, there must be some way to handle skills that seem to have the same definition. For example, I am not sure of the difference between “web development” and “web design” – this is something I have run into a few times. Third, there should be some delineation between transferable skills and technical skills. You and your audience need to understand whether your skills are transferable across different disciplines or are specialized. As we discussed in the last two blogs, there are these “traditional” and “emerging” transferable skills that you will have to rely on as you adapt to rapid changes in technology, media, and demographics during your career.

Ideally, this hypothetical organization publishes a universal list of skills with their definitions, categories, and sub skills and this list is accessible to educational institutions, companies, and organizations. Everyone benefits from a standardized list of skills. The main purpose would be to make the definition and categorization of skills uniform across all platforms:       

  • Professional websites – individuals present and validate their skills on a website
  • Career counseling offices – counselors suggest skills for career plans
  • LinkedIn Recruiter service – recruiters search on skills to target candidates
  • MonsterJobs and Career Builder – employers search on skills to retrieve resumes

Furthermore, this hypothetical organization defines and categorizes new skills and sub-skills and tracks their demand; government, educators, and businesses can plan better by knowing the current and forecasted demand for particular skills. LinkedIn currently tracks the growth from year to year of skills and this is a good start. Following the demand for skills might be more effective than following the demand for careers because skills are becoming increasingly transferable across careers and disciplines. Professionals can develop their skill set and then leverage it to find careers. Of course, this hypothetical organization does not exist so we are going to build our own skill list.

Search engines built for targeting skills sets are somewhat messy; transferable skills are mixed with technical skills and programming languages, technologies, and sometimes even job titles, so it is difficult to use. I suggest creating a skill record in the following way (and this is how it is done with a professional website):

Defining Skills
Defining Skills

This brings clarity to the idea of establishing a skill set; a potential employer can understand your transferable skills, technical skills, and precisely what technologies you have experience with.

Use of Emerging Transferable Skills

A team of researchers released a very well-conceived study about what transferable skills will be in high demand in the near future; the study is called Future Work Skills 2020 and was published by Institute for the Future. To identify the skills, they derived six drivers of change (in their words): extreme longevity; rise of smart machines and systems; computational world; new media ecology; super structured organizations; and globally connected world. I am not going to discuss these drivers, but they provide a detailed discussion about them in their study.

I decided to label the skills in their study, “Emerging Transferable Skills”; the skills and their definitions are in the table below (in their words only).

Emerging Soft Skills

Sense-Making ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
Social Intelligence ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
Novel & Adaptive Thinking proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
Cross-Cultural Competency ability to operate in different cultural settings
Computational Thinking ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
New-Media Literacy ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
Transdisciplinarity literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
Design Mindset ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
Cognitive Load Management ability to discriminate and filter information for  importance, and to understand how to   maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
Virtual Collaboration ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team

This team of researchers used a compelling way to develop their forecast, so I suggest reading their study if you want to learn more.  In summation, I might add that we are starting to experience some of the driving forces mentioned in the study, including: movement to cloud computing; shift to mobile devices; social media; and big data. They suggest these skills will be in high demand by 2020, so we should begin tooling our workforce with skills they will need for this upcoming demand; our educational institutions should prepare their curriculum to teach these “emerging transferable skills” (and this is discussed in the study under implications).

In my next blog, I will discuss why we should consider “traditional” and “emerging” transferable skills as we apply a skills based approach. The discussion will be centered on properly identifying and assigning skills, so they can be effectively used in planning, building, and presenting your skill set.