Why Skills & Competencies Are the Future

Parchment Staff  •  Apr 23, 2024  •  Podcast

What does a credential represent? And, does a degree really tell me what you know and how well you know it? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Naomi Boyer, Senior Vice President of Digital Transformation at Education Design Lab to help us navigate the complex world of credentialing and why skills and competencies are the missing piece to advancing a learner’s educational and professional opportunities.



Matthew Sterenberg (00:01.07)

All right, I’m here with Naomi Boyer from Education Design Lab. Naomi, how are you?

Naomi Boyer (00:07.392)

I’m fantastic. How can we be any better?

Matthew Sterenberg (00:10.894)

Well, depending on the day, I’m sure we could come up with a different response to that question, but you are doing some amazing work. Tell us a little bit about the work that you’re doing with Education Design Lab and how did you get into this world?

Naomi Boyer (00:27.072)

So I said that I’m amazing and I’m amazing because I’m changing the world every day. At least I think I am. And that’s the work that we do at the lab. Education Design Lab co -designs, we use human centered design thinking as sort of the methodology to the work that we do with our partners. And our partners are colleges and universities, training providers of all types, ed tech vendors, workforce boards, employers.

because we’re really trying to deal with the wicked issues that are between that learn earn continuum and how do we connect the dots about those things. And so in my work at the lab, my colleagues focus on other areas, but in my work at the lab, I’m primarily focused on digital transformation. How do we use the technology tools to elevate the human experience and get opportunity seekers into the job roles that they need for a successful life and for family sustaining wages.

Matthew Sterenberg (01:21.966)

So you have a huge emphasis on skills and how we translate skills, how we communicate skills, how can skills lead us to the next professional or educational opportunity? If you’re new to this, you’re sitting back and going, aren’t we doing that today? Isn’t that what college is in general? So help us define that a little bit. When you say skills, what are we actually talking about?

Naomi Boyer (01:50.72)

So I will say that the field, and really it’s pretty broadly, this is a global phenomena, is thinking about skills as a game changer for individuals to find their path, to make themselves visible in the marketplace, and for employers to find those individuals. And so when I should give some vocabulary here. So when I say skills, I’m using the word skills, and I think you might be as well, Matt, too, Matthew, Matt, is because…

This is more of the mainstream vernacular that has been subscribed to. When we say skills, I think we really mean competency. So it’s not just a demonstrable skill, but it might also be knowledge, abilities, skills are included in there, dispositions, capabilities. It’s what you bring to the table and your true self, right? So skills itself is what we’re talking about. But when we’re mentioning that, we’re really talking about…

not being held to the degree as the defining criteria to enter the realm of possibility and to open opportunity to individuals. So we’re not replacing the degree. Degrees are still really critical for individuals as they continue their journey. But if we can think about people have skills, they’re not blank slates that they could be optimizing. And we’ve got employers who are just clamoring to get individuals.

that have those skills into jobs. So when we talk about creating a skills -based economy, it’s really thinking about how can we remove the barriers that we see on a current job description, like a degree, and open up the aperture to include those that have those degrees, as well as those that might have other skills, like a military, someone coming out of the military, or some sort of military service.

may have skills, they will have skills that they’ve gained as part of their rank and their MLS as they’ve moved in through moved up through those those processes, that surely they’re coming out of that service when they enter civilian life with something that could be capitalized on those by those employers. But how we translate those things has not been very clear in the past.

Matthew Sterenberg (04:06.894)

I’m glad you brought up the fact that the degree is still important. Cause I wanna dig into that a little bit. A few episodes ago, we had Lindsay Doherty on from Rand Corporation. We talked about stackable credentials. One of the things she highlighted was it was still based on the data, still important to stack towards a degree. That’s when you saw the most earnings benefit. My question is, is that because that’s what we’re used to?

the degree has value because that’s what employers still value. And it’s kind of this outdated thing, but that’s the world that we live in. Or is there like an intrinsic value to the degree? If that makes sense, you know, like is, is a bachelor’s degree only valuable because, Hey, that’s what we’re going to put on the JD, the job description. We feel more comfortable because that’s what we’re used to. That that’s really.

Is it because we’re historically used to it? Or is there some other value to the degree that we’re not quantifying? Because when you think about it, at least from my perspective, isn’t it just a matter, it’s just a piece of paper saying I got a certain amount of credits, like to a degree. There’s skills and competencies within that which we historically haven’t communicated well. So is there a world where we can get away from the degree or do you think there’s always gonna be value?

Naomi Boyer (05:35.36)

Both and. So I think the degree as a proxy. So we have to keep in mind, what do we really know from the degree and what is it communicating to an employer? Employers historically have been using that degree as a proxy for what someone knows. They’re making an assumption that certain elements recover, both potentially technical skills that prepare that individual to be successful in that job role and,

what I’ll call durable skills, soft skills, no one likes to say that, that someone has developed as part of that experience, right? So it’s the secret sauce and combination of both of those that the employer has made assumptions that that degree holds that proxy. I say they’ve made assumptions because we still hear from employers that they’re hiring people with degrees and they’re not meeting the bar. And I’ve hear from many, many employers that,

they’re hiring people with those, they would do without the technical skills if it assured the durable skills, but it’s not. Why does it not? Because we don’t teach to mastery to any of those things. You take your course, if you get a C and you’ve averaged out, you failed this one, you may maybe pass this one. It’s not a clear indication that all of the skills that were included in that degree program that you have been able to demonstrate. And perhaps if it was all competency -based, then we could say,

Yes, this person who has this degree would have these skills. We’ve been making assumptions about what that degree holds up till this point in time. The data we have about someone’s lifetime earnings though is based upon that assumption. So that degree still matters based upon the data that we have. The degree has value for an individual though in enhancing our own personal efficacy, our ability to learn.

and to move forward. So there’s the individual intrinsic value, and then there’s the value to the employer, because there has been the assumption. But even if we make that assumption, there’s some skills that may come along with it as a result of that degree. On the flip side.

Matthew Sterenberg (07:47.79)

You’re hitting close to home where you’re like someone who’s got a degree but no actual skills coming from a liberal arts college that’s hitting home a little too close Naomi. So I’ve got only durable skills, no actual technical knowledge of anything.

Naomi Boyer (07:57.376)


Naomi Boyer (08:03.072)

And we hear this from employers, well, we hear this in general, right, that I came out with a liberal arts degree and then couldn’t get a job and what am I really good to do now, right? So I am under the belief faculty everywhere are teaching their hearts out. They’re teaching classic literature. They’re teaching art history. They’re teaching psychology and sociology and anthropology and all of these wonderful, wonderful degrees and courses. What we have not done well.

is make what they’re learning intentional and explicit, including the durable skills, as well as that art history competencies or that literature competency. We’re not making those competencies that they’re gaining explicit and intentional. Because Matthew, as you graduated, if you knew I was not only in these liberal arts classes, but then I also had gained these skills, when you walk into an employer, you can say, I may have an English degree, but here’s what I can also do as a result.

because I gained this in my classes. So at higher ed and post -secondary, we have not done a good job of connecting those dots for employers, for the individual learners, and for the institutions themselves, right? So that’s a huge, I’m under the belief it’s happening. We’re just not really good at connecting all of those dots. At the same time, we have thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands learners who entered education,

pathways who do not complete. So they may have two years worth of instruction or a year’s worth of instruction. And are you going to tell me they didn’t gain any skills as part of that learning experience? That’s kind of like those coming out of the military. So if we think in how do we package these things differently, whether for credit or non -credit into these non -degree credentials, that somebody has something that they can walk out with and demonstrate, here’s what I know and can do.

Then we’re up on the value and providing the on -ramps to potentially stack up learning in different ways that becomes so much more personalized to the way Naomi needs to learn and Matthew needs to learn and someone else needs to learn that will hopefully get us to that earning income value over time.

Matthew Sterenberg (10:17.966)

I mean, the 40 million Americans that have some college, no degree, it’s such a clear problem statement. Here’s why challenge or, you know, historically you’ve had the system, it’s like A through F, you know, how good were you at Latin American history or whatever it was? What grade did we get? And there’s a scale, right? We assume that if you got an A, you absorbed the content better, completed the coursework.

With badging and micro credentials, I see this as like a little bit of a challenge where a badge in and of itself is oftentimes binary. And I think you, you got a leadership badge. I think about my own work experience and there’s it’s contextual, right? I don’t think we can badge leadership in the same. It just seems disingenuous to say you got a leadership badge. Therefore you’re a good leader.

In what context are you a good people manager? Are you a strategic thinker? Are you coming across that? Like the we’re moving to a system that seems like a binary badge system, which I think the intentions are very good, but those durable skills and some of those things, it’s not like I have it or I don’t have it in a way. There should be some scale. It’s a challenge. It’s so hard to do. I want to just kind of leave it up to you to.

Give me your feedback on that.

Naomi Boyer (11:47.936)

I love that question, Matthew, because I’m going to push and pull a little bit on it. So leadership, for example, anyone who tells you that they can measure leadership by just identifying leadership is full of baloney because there are, while I do, there are sub competencies under that leadership title that would need to be demonstrated. And it’s those sub competencies.

that become more binary. When you get into those sub competencies and you’ve identified it, it now becomes observable, tangible, demonstrable, but it also allows for that context. Because in any digital micro -credential, it should be towards demonstration of competence, but leadership in what?

And that data underscoring it needs to tell you in what and why and how was that earned, right? The ability to pull that data in is critical. So the lab has nine durable skills credentials. And these are things like empathy. You can’t measure empathy for empathy’s sake. You’ve got to get into those sub competencies, right? Resilience, initiative, critical thinking, creative problem solving, right? I could keep going through the nine, but you get the sense. These are hard to measure things.

Now, on your suggestion about levels and, you know, A through F, and there’s a gradient, I’ll also throw out there that how many of those classes used a curve and didn’t really say whether you deserved that A because you knew all the content that was required. But the the leveling, I get concerned when we’re not necessarily using a binary approach with regard to these credentials, because what we’ve heard from learners in our work that we’ve done.

When they do earn the credential, they become more confident. They become more confident in what they know they do. They become more confident to be able to walk into an employer and describe when the employer says to them, hey, I see you’ve got critical thinking. What does that mean? And to be able to say what they can do. Now, I had a colleague and we were doing a research study that, and they were implementing levels of bronze, silver, and gold, let’s say. Now, all of a sudden I’ve earned a bronze level at critical thinking.

Naomi Boyer (14:15.104)

I’ve got a bronze badge and I go into this employer and the employer says to me, okay, you’ve got a bronze, what does it mean? And now I’m start, how do I describe what I really can do as a result of a bronze credential versus here’s the criteria. Now, I’m not saying that if somebody had earned that critical thinking badge, digital micro -credential, that they can use critical thinking on all contexts, all levels of leadership.

And in fact, we’re grappling with that right now is how do we have additional levels of a framework, kind of moving it into an ontology versus a taxonomy to be able to say it’s not just levels, but we can introduce features. Because for instance, in our oral communication digital microcredential, we use listen actively. That actually intersects with three other credentials, two other credentials as well. Listen actively is listen actively.

but it may be look different and had different depth and different job roles. So how do we think about that and contextualize that as well? So there was a lot, sorry, I threw a lot into that question for you.

Matthew Sterenberg (15:24.27)

No, you brought up a lot of good points. And I, the one I want to touch on is you’re an employer. It’s great. One, one initial step of this is the learner earner understanding what I know, what have I earned? What are the outcomes of this program so that I can communicate to an employer what it is that the program I went through the

The thing that you highlighted was bronze, silver and gold, for instance. If I get this badge or someone interviewing for a job says, oh, I have bronze leadership certificate. My initial reaction is going to be, were you attempting to get gold or are you bronze on your way? Do you have to get bronze before you get to gold? What’s the structure here? Which brings up the biggest question, which is the economy, the utility of these.

The learner understanding what they know is great, but ultimately the employer side is so critical. And this is the biggest challenge. Anytime we talk about micro credentials or badging are, is anyone going to care about this and how do I communicate it to them? So without having the entire burden on the learner trying to communicate, no, this is why you should care about this. What work are you doing to engage employers to get them to care about skills and competencies so that it’s not just.

me having to explain what this credential is, why it makes sense on my resume. It’s such a big lift telling me about the work that you’re doing there.

Naomi Boyer (16:57.888)

Yeah, fantastic question because it’s really about the adoption. We’ve got organizations that are rewarding. We have higher ed organizations that are rewarding. We have K -12 institutions that are rewarding. We have employer organizations that are rewarding these credentials. But who’s adopting them? Who’s ingesting and consuming them and giving them value? They’ve got to have value and meaning in order for us to be putting them out there into the space, right?

So at the lab, we talk about skills visibility. That’s visibility, as you said, for the learner to understand the pathways to a specific career or job role, for the learner to understand their learner earn to understand their own skills. What do I know and can do so I can best communicate it, but also skills visibility for that individual to be able to use the skills they have as a currency and have employers seek and find them as well, right? So that skills visibility.

Matthew Sterenberg (17:52.718)

I think that’s huge. Like you have to create a marketplace where they can find you or else, you know, it’s just going to be information pushed to them and they’re never going to fully adopt it. I think that’s a huge piece.

Naomi Boyer (17:54.976)


Naomi Boyer (18:05.696)

Exactly. And I’m using adoption and the adoption concept is actually bigger. And this was like a ha moment. We were working with one of our funders and they pushed me on this. And I’m so glad they did because it restructured some of my thinking. Adoption is not just employers. How many of your higher ed institutions are actually accepting digital micro credentials from the K -12 institutions and their applications? They’re not. They’re awarding credentials, but they’re not necessarily having…

you know, ingesting that data, if we go into the technical side of things, to be able to bring it in. So across our system, thinking about how do we adopt these and give these value? The lab has had a series over the last year, a series of conversations with employers, HR tech vendors, the larger stakeholder community, poking at all of these issues. Where are the pinch points to adoption? Where are the pinch points?

in our technological data systems, because the interoperability, when we talk about interoperability, it’s not just the flow of data through the system. That’s a piece of it. It’s the technological components, but it’s the human component. So how do we move the individual from point A of award a credential all the way through to where they’re capitalizing on that in the employment space, right? And then some of these credentials are also not just for hire, but it’s for advancement as well within organizations.

And so thinking about that, so where are the pinch points? Well, I hear from the HR tech vendors that employer behaviors need to change. Great. I’ve heard from employers that Ed providers behaviors need to change. I’ve heard from both sides that the HR tech vendors behaviors need to change. What we haven’t done a really good job of in this space is lining up the incentives for each one of those stakeholders.

and helping all of them come together around centralized incentives to make this work. Employers have expressed that right now the credentialing space is full of a lot of white noise. There’s so many credentials, they can’t make sense of them in order to really give them the true value that they need. So there’s a number of projects underway that are kind of thinking about how can we look at the quality of a credential? What are the criteria? There’s a lot of…

Naomi Boyer (20:25.312)

discussion about the friction points between HR tech vendor systems. And I would say the same thing on the admission side systems of how do we, how do we ingest skills? How do we ingest verified credentials? How do we, how do we deal with this data and bring it in, in a way that makes sense? So there’s technological issues there that have to be worked through. Overall, the employers have a valuable seat at this table. And I’ve heard that some of the same things from them that I’ve heard from the education providers, which is.

Yes, we’re of interest in this. I work with Shurm Foundation has kind of accelerated that and elevated that. Yes, there’s interest where we want to do skills -based efforts, but it’s a lot of work internally, figuring out our own internal house of skills taxonomies, figuring out how to make this work, how do we connect these things? We’re not even sure how to bring these in. We’re not sure what it means. So there’s so many questions right now and helping them figure it out is so important.

Because so often on the education provider side of things, we want to assume that they’re not interested because they’re not at the table, but we keep asking them to come to us and we haven’t gone into their space to really figure it out together. And so as the ecosystem, we use that word way too much, but as this full skills ecosystem is emerging, it’s going to take some focused effort to connect all of those stakeholders together.

Matthew Sterenberg (21:49.23)

And I think what’s really cool is the work that you and others are doing where you can think about it on a local level, which is this little laboratory for can we make this work? But then you have the tension of, well, we want to build a system that can scale and all this other stuff, because there are local employers, local community colleges that are invested in this. You highlighted so much and we could dig into so much more, but.

I’m gonna leave it there and Naomi. Thank you so much for joining me I’ll leave you with the last word Is there anything that you want to highlight about your work or something that people should know?

Naomi Boyer (22:26.432)

I’m excited by the possibilities. And I think there’s, even though we’ve mentioned a lot of friction points along this journey, I think it’s just a matter of rolling up our sleeves. Education Design Lab, we’re a lab. We test, we try, we prototype, we iterate, we try again. And I think we’re really gonna have to kind of, as a community, adopt that. And this is a global conversation in order to facilitate change and advance and transform where we wanna go.

There’s always more to learn.

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