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Two Pathways, One Purpose

The first cohort for Skills Booster—every participant in the cohort successfully earned the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Resilience Micro-credential.


Over the past 15 months, the Lab has worked with partners in San Antonio, Texas, to design and launch two upskilling pathways to expand career opportunities for frontline workers. So far, Goodwill Industries of San Antonio, our employer partner, has seen substantial gains among program participants in productivity, collaboration, and leadership, skills essential for positioning frontline workers for middle-skill jobs. 

Last December, we shared a primer on upskilling as a way to prepare employees for the future of work. Fast forward six months: COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn have highlighted the need for quick and effective solutions to shift displaced workers to fill high-demand roles during the pandemic. Upskilling, which builds on existing skill sets, provides a solution for employers to quickly pivot their workforce to meet new responsibilities (e.g. hospitality workers move to roles in grocery and delivery), much in the same ways that some industries have had to evolve to answer the country’s call for in-demand services (e.g. ventilators and hand sanitizers). COVID-19 has revealed how valuable frontline workers are to our safety net, and, yet, those jobs come with incredible risk and instability. A focus on upskilling honors these essential positions as entry-points to middle- and high-skill roles that offer more long-term stability and mobility to workers.

In February 2019, the Lab, in conjunction with Alamo Colleges, Goodwill San Antonio, and Palo Alto College, embarked on a journey to build two upskilling pathways, SkillsBooster and Certificate Plus. Using the Lab’s 21st Century Skills framework as a foundation, the two pathways were designed to serve incumbent frontline workers interested in careers in advanced manufacturing and logistics. We  piloted both programs starting last Fall, and so far, we are seeing some promising results! So far, Goodwill San Antonio, our employer partner, has seen substantial gains among program participants in productivity, collaboration, and leadership, skills essential for positioning frontline workers for middle-skill jobs. In this piece, we discuss each of the pilots, preliminary results, and insights that will inform future iterations of the program.


SkillsBooster: Quickly Developing In-Demand Skills

SkillsBooster packages three of the Lab’s 21st Century Skills micro-credentials into one cohesive online learning experience. To enable learner success in the new online learning pathway facilitated by Alamo Colleges District, participants went through a customized orientation prior to beginning the program to quickly enhance their digital literacy and ensure completion of the course.

With nearly 50 participants across both pathways to date, employees are actively engaging in learning new skills, such as resilience, collaboration, and creative problem solving. To incentivize completion of the 13-week learning experience, Goodwill San Antonio provided 2 hours of paid work time each week for participants to complete course activities. This created buy-in from managers and from employees alike, furthering a culture of professional development and accountability while encouraging managers to monitor performance changes in their direct reports that could be attributed to the program. Employees were able to directly apply their learning to their day-to-day work, in part due to the intentional design of the “proving ground” assessments developed in collaboration with Goodwill San Antonio. Each micro-credential culminated in an activity that connected these skills to actual work situations in the workplace.

Managers are seeing the benefits of SkillsBooster right away. Based on an internal survey of managers who supervised the SkillsBooster cohort, the percentage of team members in the cohort who were classified as “Role Models” or “Capable and Effective” increased by 35% (from 47% to 82%) after earning the first badge, Resilience.


The pilot also has taught us many lessons about how to best support employees. Many who participated in SkillsBooster had interest in furthering their education through a certificate or degree program. As a result, SkillsBooster also provided an opportunity for employees to build their self-confidence around completing academic work and serving in leadership roles. Participants noted that they were able to apply the lessons to their work and lives right away:

Certificate Plus: Pairing 21st Century and Technical Skills 

Certificate Plus paired the Lab’s Collaboration Micro-credential with BMGT 1301: Supervision, a required course within the Logistics Management certificate program. Why logistics? In San Antonio, the logistics field is experiencing job growth at twice the national rate. By integrating the Collaboration Micro-credential with the certificate, we wanted students to be able to quickly earn a credential that they could use to market themselves while they continued to complete the certificate requirements. Partnering with the course’s faculty member, we mapped sub-competencies to specific lessons and connected course assignments to the micro-credential’s “proving ground” assessments. As a result, once students completed the course, they also satisfied the requirements to earn the micro-credential without doing anything additional.

Goodwill San Antonio incentivized participation by providing a last-dollar match, which covered all program costs after financial aid was disbursed and ensured that participants would not pay out of pocket for the program. GWSA also covered the purchase of books and other course materials! Though participants are still taking courses within the certificate program, we were excited to see that 19 of the 22 students who enrolled in the course passed it and earned the micro-credential. This stat is impressive, given that for most of the learners, this was their first college course in some time after re-entering higher education.

Similar to SkillsBooster, Goodwill San Antonio  team members are seeing the benefits of the Certificate program almost immediately:

  • 100% agree that the learning experience will help them to achieve their goals
  • 94% of participants strongly agreed or agreed the course increased their collaboration skills
  • As one employee noted, “I think, in the long-term, the impact [of] Certificate Plus is going to be phenomenal for the participants and for Goodwill.”

Managers also saw gains in performance after employees completed the first course:

  • 57% strongly agreed that the team member has sufficient collaboration skills to perform well in their current role after the training – including the ability to focus on solutions, actively listen, consider diverse perspectives, and strengthen relationships to get things done (compared to 29% prior to the training)
  • 64% rated the productivity of the team member very high, up from 25% prior to the course


5 Early Lessons

Both pilots have taught us a lot about designing for the incumbent worker population while providing opportunities to test new approaches in marketing, program design, and instruction.

Here are 5 things that we have learned from our upskilling work so far:

  1. Know your audience:
    These types of programs have to be sensitive to the barriers that would keep employees from participating and completing. At the beginning of the design challenge, the team spent time unpacking barriers, such as time, cost, motivation, and transportation.
  2. Collaboration is key:
    While creating alignment across multiple stakeholders can be difficult, coalescing around shared goals and expectations will make partnerships more sustainable and resilient over time.
  3. Sweeten the deal for employees:
    Employers can incentivize the upskilling effort to increase participation and encourage completion. The Goodwill San Antonio team proactively addressed potential barriers to completion by offering paid work time, a last dollar tuition match, and support for books and materials.
  4. It takes a village:
    Getting managers involved in recruitment and tracking employee progress expands the network of support for employees as they pursue upskilling opportunities.
  5. Iterate, iterate, iterate:
    Both pilots helped the partners to iron out hiccups, question assumptions, reimagine how content is administered, and build additional pathways. We paid attention to how employees were engaging with the program and used their feedback to inform how we could better support future cohorts.

In the future, we look to broaden employer relationships to foster even greater access to middle-skill jobs, include more 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials into training and development programs to allow employees to earn stackable credentials, and expand the number of certificates available to support growth in other sectors, such as information technology and business administration.

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