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Co-Designing an Equitable Skills-Based Economy with Employers

If you haven’t heard about the emerging “skills based economy,” you soon will. It is being touted, rightly, as an opportunity to democratize the hiring process, to help learners and workers be hired for “what they can do” rather than “where they went to school” or “who they know.”  The equity promise of a skills-based economy is to level the playing field for New Majority Learners by offering more visible, stackable, portable, flexible, and relevant pathways to economic opportunities. And in doing so, fuel the transition to a new, more equitable and thriving economy. 

However, make no mistake that the promise of an inclusive skills-based economy that unlocks the array of postsecondary credentials and unbundles the traditional college degree won’t just happen on its own.  Inclusion requires intentional design. While colleges and workforce development groups have been trying to build this “field of dreams” for a few years now, employers are increasingly leading the way as they continue to struggle to find the diverse and skilled-talent they need. Some promising initiatives including the Chamber of Commerce’s Talent Pipeline Management initiative have now been joined by a growing number of CEO-led groups, such as the CEO Jobs Council, OneTen and the Business Roundtable’s Multiple Pathways Initiative.

To catalyze the transition to a skills-based economy, employers have a leading role to play in re-designing the learn-to-work paradigm. At the Lab, we’ve deployed our learner-centered design approach to prototype, pilot, and scale new learning models with hundreds of colleges, workforce development organizations, and, importantly, employers to design education towards the future of work.  Over the years, we have sharpened our tools to facilitate the co-design of new equity-driven models that meet learners and workers where they are while also helping employers get clearer on the skills they need their workforce to possess. Our set of eight 21st century micro-credential badges such as oral communication, critical thinking, and problem solving were developed as a response from employers crying out for their workers to have more foundational skills alongside the technical skills needed for the job. The Lab developed the T-Profile tool to help employers identify the optimal combination of 21st century skills and technical skills for entry level roles. In over 100 employer sessions, two very clear patterns emerged within and across sectors such as oral communication, critical thinking, and collaboration being the most transferable skills employers say they need, as shown in the pie chart below. 

The bar graph below highlights the different 21st century skills ranked most important by employers in each of the major industries surveyed.

In addition to integrating employers in our design process with learning institutions, we also design directly with employers. Some of our employer-led design work includes:

  • The Lab is designing with Best Buy Social Impact to support their Teen Tech Centers to answer the design question of how might Best Buy Social Impact broaden its postsecondary education strategy to address key barriers to success faced by their learners while leveraging existing strategies?
  • The Lab designed with Goodwill San Antonio to answer the question of how might Goodwill San Antonio quickly upskill incumbent retail workers to prepare them for careers in Advanced Manufacturing and other growth sectors that can enable their social mobility?
  • The Lab designed with the company k12 to answer the question about the educator workforce of how might k12 design a Project Based Learning micro-credential for CTE teachers? 
  • The Lab designed with Hyatt, Marriott and other hotel hiring managers to ask the question how might Hyatt, Marriott develop professional career tracks for high school graduates?
  • And recognizing that the field needs a laboratory to help employers identify and articulate the skills and abilities of workers with life and work experience, the Walmart Foundation invested in the Lab to test solutions with multiple employers that answer the question of how might employers validate skills learned through work and life?

These employer-led design questions make clear that in order to unlock the potential of a skills-based economy, employers need to design solutions that meet learners where they are to help them get the skills needed for the job—and fast. Importantly, designing solutions for the new majority of learners and workers is increasingly requiring employers to consider the equity implications of how they recruit, onboard, retain, and advance their workers. That’s why the Lab’s design process and accompanying tools are organized around equity-based design criteria for this new skills-based economy. We have learned from workforce development training providers, institutions of higher education, employers, and new majority learners themselves the need to design solutions that are:

  1. Visible – all market-validated skills need to be made visible to both the learner and employer to empower learners as advocates of what they can do and paths they can take  and to provide digital social networks that can help level the playing field.
  2. Portable + Stackable – all skills and credentials should stack together so learners and workers have opportunities to build their own pathway.
  3. Flexible – opportunities to learn new skills should be offered in a myriad of ways that better reflect the realities that most adults need to work while they learn; many don’t have access to in-person learning, while others don’t have access to online learning.
  4. Relevant – learners and workers have access to pathways that are regionally in-demand, have friendly points of entry, and allow for continued upward mobility.
  5. Affordable – postsecondary training and upskilling opportunities are reasonably priced with little to no cost to the learner and worker.

The very success of a skills-based economy hinges on our collective will to design and scale solutions with equity at the center. Interestingly, the pandemic and the racial reckoning of 2020 have helped crystalize that will. Now, as many employers re-experience the talent shortages that were peaking in 2019, they are joining this movement to challenge and expand their own hiring practicesand we’re here to help.

If you are an employer, industry association, or economic development leader interested in the Education Design Lab’s employer and learner centered design process, or if you would like more information about our 21st Century Skills micro-credentials, please contact Don Fraser, our Chief Program Officer.

Want to stay up to date with our work on catalyzing the transition to a skills-based economy? Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for frequent share outs of our learnings, general Lab updates, and opportunities to connect! 

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