If you read my feature in our September 2014 issue, “Shrinking the Business School Skills Gap,” you’ll remember that business schools and companies are trying to better prepare the future workforce through communicating with each other on what grads need to know.
When it comes to the employees already in a workforce, however, sometimes that collaboration has to go a step further. According to a study conducted by Michelle R. Weise, a senior research fellow in higher education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, more companies and colleges are teaming up to deliver competency-based programs that result in degrees and certifications.
Competency-based learning isn’t new, but Weise’s work is gathering momentum as tuition costs increase and students start looking at higher education’s ability to get them started in a career, not just earn a diploma. Meanwhile, organizations are pairing up with universities like Northern Arizona University, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (CFA) and Brandman University in Irvine, California, to get business leaders and higher education to communicate about workforce skills.
Although much of that discussion is based on what future workforce members need, competency-based learning programs developed through the collaboration target existing employees lack of credentials — be it a degree or certification — needed to move up in their careers. “We’ve heard a lot of companies say even their grads don’t have the basic skills they need,” said Kris Clerkin, executive director of CFA. The college has collaborated with companies like Dunkin Donuts, Esurance and Goodwill to build specified initiatives around getting employees the exact skills they need.
In competency-based learning, being “good enough” at something isn’t how you get your degree, but rather how it starts the learner out. Participants earn degrees at their own pace, based on what they already know. They can test out of some skills, making it a flexible learning method for employees who have been working in the industry for a while but want to earn a conventional degree that they can carry with them for the rest of their careers.
“This is workforce development at the higher education level,” said Nick Lacy, director of competency-based learning and national relations at Brandman University.
Collaborative competency learning is being applied to numerous industries, from finance and technology to food service and health care. It’s easy to think “I want my health care provider to be more than just ‘competent’ at his or her job,” but remember that in this case, competencies mean that the person has passed with satisfactory marks — the same as any letter-grade course in a traditional college — and got to that stage quicker because of pre-possessed knowledge. They were good at some of what they do even before enrollment.
It’s also online, which means workers can stay with their companies during the process of getting degrees that will advance their careers. Learning skills while able to connect them to a day-to-day job improves the learning process because the subject material has a real-world application, not just a theoretical one.
At the end of the day, it’s the business leaders who should see the biggest benefit of competency-based training.
“Employers are the consumers of those graduates in training, and that is a vital recognition to make,” Weise said. “It’s not accreditors who are the final consumers of graduates, it’s the employers … Institutions that are going to be successful in the future are the ones that are acknowledging they need to be part of making a more seamless transition for students.”