Labour markets, competency frameworks and quest for good education


Over the years, competency-based education has become a central focus of my work. 

This started with a simple assumption: That the transition from education to employment would be smooth if the education that learners receive correspond directly to the competencies that the employers need. 

What it translated into practice is:

First, instead of writing courses driven by content, identify the job roles that the employers are finding most difficult to fill - and work with the employers to create a competency map for those roles.

Then, prioritise these competencies (using classification such as must-have, should-have, could-have and would be nice to have) and work with employers to define the acceptance criteria for someone to be deemed competent in each of these.

Finally, do what educators do and map assessments and content to this to generate a course.

But the practical challenges

Of course, this process requires unfettered access and trust of the key employers. I have been somewhat lucky to have that in my last project - building a training model for mechanical safety - but that is surely an exception. It's not easy for the employing organisations, particularly big, efficiency-driven public corporations to allocate time for any external company wishing to develop such a framework. [I had access because I worked for an industry association] 

Besides, even if one gains such access - as I did have in another previous project, where the company I worked for had a sponsor at the global HQs of a few large global corporations who backed the effort - it matters who is the person that one has access to. Usually, matters such as these land with HR, who are too busy dealing with here-and-now issues of hiring and firing, or with learning and development, which often views external organisations trying to develop competency-based education as a competition to themselves. Hence, even with the access, the best one gets is the competency maps as they exist within each company silo, alongside their own quarks, specific requirements and very specific language (in one, I counted 32 three letter acronyms which were specific to the company).  

But in most cases, what one gets is a sympathetic executive who wants to participate in the process (giving up their personal time) out of the goodness of their heart, personal connection with the training company or to develop their skills and networks outside the company. Indeed, this third reason - directly related to professional development of the executive - is the most powerful motivator, though this usually motivates younger executives more than already-established senior ones. Also, it's worth asking who is the best person to contribute to the development of such frameworks. A business head or a product manager, someone with a strategic vision of the business, who can rise above the day to day practice of the company and can reflect on the broader trends in the sector, is best to contribute to a framework such as this. Unfortunately, these are the most time-poor people in the organisation and it will require an extremely enlightened organisation to release them for developing such frameworks.

In the past, I have got much joy pursuing the professionals in Innovation, R&D or even venture arms of the organisations that I worked with. Many large companies have university relations executives, who can be incredibly helpful. There are significant advantages working with them. For starters, they often work with organisations smaller or very different (for university relations executives) than their own and engaging in blue ocean thinking is often part of their mandate. They often have a broader view than the day-to-day practices of their own company, which gives them a more dynamic view of competencies than others. The offset here is that these executives may not be as close to the current hiring practices of the company and engaging with them may not create any specific advantage when it comes to learner placement. 

And conceptual ones

Also, crucially, there is nothing called a global competency framework. This is where my 'create once, use everywhere'  assumption broke down. It was easy to make this mistake. Working with global companies and in areas such as IT, that the world is flat seems obvious. But global value chain does not make the labour markets similar: It creates a hierarchy of work and talent. This may work against the aspirational nature of higher education, but educating Filipino workers with a competency framework developed in the UK is a recipe for disaster. Even when I worked in the sectors whose work may be quite similar across territories, say Oil and Gas, regulatory differences - which is a key element of competencies at work - make the frameworks different. For global education providers, it may be possible to categorise labour markets on the basis of certain similarities, but that invariably introduces certain generalities which run the risk of undermining the focus and specificity that a competency framework introduces in education.

It becomes even more complicated when one looks at the implied, cultural aspects of the competency. Speaking up and contributing in a meeting may be a core competency of a professional in the US and Israel, but this will need a lot more nuance in Korea, India or even in Southern Europe. In fact, such cultural assumptions are usually taken for granted and not spelt out in the frameworks. In my work, I tried to spell it out and address some of the 'soft skill' issues in terms of modes of engagement and assessment as these represent one of the key challenges in the transportability of the competency frameworks.


Competency is, I shall argue, a dynamic, culturally-determined ability to perform certain tasks. Because education needs time - the time horizon of an educator is likely to be much longer than that of a recruiter - competency-based education is not an education-for-a-job. But that's exactly what it is reduced to in its commercial incarnations, as private for-profit providers look to develop and deliver competency-based education. Student-consumers who participate in such programmes are looking for a specific economic outcome, which is often at odds with educational one. Aspiration, which is inherent in Higher Education, can often put people at odds with local labour market requirements and make them overshoot the hiring criteria and salary expectations, reducing their employability instead of enhancing it. This is quite a common phenomena in developing countries, where the disjuncture between education and employment arise not because educators are not thinking about employment outcomes but because they are being aspirational about it. 

Therefore, I have become an advocate for developing localised competency frameworks (or developing categorization of labour markets and linking competency frameworks with it). I think the various government attempts towards this (under the guise of skills development) fall short, as they fail to accept the dynamic nature of competencies and their own country's place in the global value chain. I do believe careful consideration of competencies make good education, but my emphasis will remain on 'careful'.

















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