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Using Competency-Based Decision Making to Declutter Career Pathways

Postsecondary education continues to be a high-speed entrance ramp to rewarding career pathways. As recently as May, the National Center for Education Statistics noted in a report that educational attainment is associated with favorable employment and earnings. Many additional studies confirm links between college and career earnings and other desired labor market outcomes.

But experts caution that cognitive biases create an element of self-fulfilling (and, as it turns out, self-limiting) prophecy that may influence these assumptions. That can cause HR professionals, corporate leadership, and other key workforce development players to overlook promising talent hidden in plain sight. During a recent webinar hosted by executives with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), panelists presented skills-based hiring as a pathway to more equitable recruiting and retention practices.

Although he stressed education as an important source of skills, panelist Byron Auguste, who is chief executive officer and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, focuses on their experiential origins. Mirroring CAEL's work around credit for prior learning (CPL), Auguste advocates employers to be inclusive of workers who are "skilled through alternative routes," or STARs. 

More than 70 million Americans are STARs, according to Auguste, meaning they completed a high school degree or equivalent but not a bachelor's degree. They are "attached to the labor market." They typically have valuable military or workforce training experience, but their educational attainment often limits their career advancement. 

"There tends to be this very lazy assumption that if a job is low wage, it must be low skilled," said Auguste. Because higher-paying jobs and low-wage jobs share many skill requirements, he argues, career pathways are strewn with needless obstacles. Such credentialism, Auguste notes, disproportionately thwarts Black, Hispanic, and rural employees, as well as women in the workforce.

Even when STARs do advance along career pathways, progress is incremental at best, says Auguste. Workers with bachelor's degrees or higher tend to take "much bigger leaps" into jobs that "they know less about, whereas STARs are typically only promoted into jobs that are really close to the jobs they're in." 

In fact, according to his analysis of 130 million job transitions, STARs saw a resulting pay increase only 40% of the time. In what August dubs a double penalty for equity, among STARs with the same skill sets, Black workers were half as likely as White workers to receive an increase. The same disparity existed in female-vs.-male outcomes. 

With companies scrambling to fill positions, Auguste argues that workers aren't the only ones held back by talent tunnel vision. "One of the saddest things is that some of these people who could do these jobs might be within your own company today," he said. "But you've put in place arbitrary barriers for them moving up within your company, even though they're performing."

A stark picture of those barriers emerged from a study of 5 million STAR profiles hosted on LinkedIn. Each worker in the study was among the minority of STARs who command a high-wage job, earning more than twice what the average worker makes. 

"It was so interesting to see what were they doing five years ago, what were they doing 10 years ago," said Auguste. "They were doing jobs that companies say they would not hire them [for]. And yet here they are now crushing it ... you could have had [that talent] five years ago, if you weren't so short sighted as to only look at this narrow pathway."

One of those very STARs, LaShana Lewis, now chairs the STARs Advisory Council at Opportunity@Work. Hailing from an underserved community, she loved computing from a young age, but financial and other challenges derailed her college plans. Despite her strong competencies, without college credentials, she struggled to get interviews. After 10 years and finally validating the skills she had long possessed through an alternative training pathway, she landed a job with a major company. 

Today, she is the CEO of her own company. Auguste will never forget what she shared during a panel discussion: "Now that I'm successful in tech, everybody wants to tell me that I am one in a million. But I know I'm one of millions." 

"And that's true," Auguste said. "We have the data to ... show that [she] is one of millions. Employers know they have this problem, but they don't know this is the answer."

Maurice Jones, another of the webinar's panelists, is chief executive officer of OneTen, a coalition of business executives supporting the mission to "hire, promote, and advance one million Black individuals who do not have a four-year degree into family-sustaining careers over the next 10 years." He argues that skills-based hiring can remove systemic barriers to support diversity – and company success.

Jones says that job seekers who lack a four-year degree are not competitive for nearly 80% of all jobs that pay $60,000 or more per year. Even for jobs that pay $40,000 or more, that percentage is still high, at 71%. Meanwhile, among workers 25 and up, majorities among several demographics do not have four-year degrees, he points out, including 76%, 83%, and 66% of Black, Hispanic, and White members of the workforce, respectively. 

A skills-based approach to talent management, Jones argues, is not just an answer to the quantitative challenge of filling positions but can improve the quality of job matches. "You have ... a better fit between the competencies and the attitudes that the talent are bringing, and the requirements to do the job," he said, which lessens attrition. Focusing on skills, he added, can also avoid the inefficiency that results when academic programs are not well aligned with workforce needs.

Laura Maristany, vice president of external affairs for Bitwise Industries, added an individual employer's perspective on skills-based hiring. Perhaps in contrast with others in the tech space seeking STEM skills, Bitwise Industries "starts with the assumption that our communities are full of untapped talents," Maristany says. 

To help bring them to the fore, Bitwise Industries offers pre-apprenticeship programs free to most students. It also provides equipment, child care, and other wraparound support that helps expedite their progression into a paid apprenticeship.

Many of the incoming personnel for what Maristany describes as "one of the most representative” tech workforces in the country arrive with little or no higher ed experience. However, in a reminder that higher ed remains a valuable resource, especially when meeting learners where they are, she added that many later elect to further their education once established along a well-paying career path. "Some of those degrees obviously have their purpose. But the fact is that we need to be a lot more purposeful about the opportunities that we create."

Panelist Emily Dickens, chief of staff for government affairs and corporate secretary at the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), says that her organization's own extensive research affirm the broad and inclusive benefits of skills-based talent development. "Workplace leaders consider alternative credentials valuable for employer development, and workers who earn them gain more credibility."

She, too, argued that skills-based assessments allow companies to access a deeper pool of qualified candidates. "We could address the talent needs for this country by looking at those who want to be in the workplace, but are not getting that opportunity," she said.

As for how organizations can make talent development processes more competency conscious, change has to be supported by leadership and transcend individual departments to permeate organizational culture, panelists agreed. Establishing a skills-first culture requires "leadership from the top," said Jones. "This is not a 10-month journey, or one-year journey. This is something you need to commit to for a decade, at least."

"You've got to have alignment between the CEO, the HR professionals, and the people managers," said Dickens. Without that, she said, even if a skills-based approach is sanctioned by leadership, people on the front lines of hiring or promoting may yet be uninformed about how to diversify talent assessment. 

Maristany advises companies to include staff from all backgrounds and areas of the organization, especially workers who, despite traveling alternative pathways, have arrived at success. Echoing Auguste's example of the STAR who now inspires others to similar success, Dickens related the story of a woman she met at SHRM's annual conference. Twenty-five years down an HR career path unpropelled by a college degree, she recently ascended to the title of chief people officer at her company. "You know that someone like [her] is going to make sure that others like her who don't necessarily have that degree get an opportunity."

Experiential evangelists needn’t hail from HR to foment corporate cultures attuned to competencies. "Once you get that type of talent within your organization, every one is a recruiter" said Maristany. Companies can lean into their employees to sustain a "culture that wants to be more inclusive." “Use them in their networks, and even their family, to get the talent you need inside," she said.

Outside the organization, strategic partnerships can support the case for competencies. Dickens urges organizations to work with chambers of commerce, workforce development boards, and other companies to create efficiencies. Evidencing that a pivot to competency-based hiring and alternative credentials can be a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" process, she recommends that companies connect with community colleges and even four-year institutions.

Jones also stressed that although a competency-oriented ecosystem begins with companies, colleges and other education providers are "in the business of equipping the talent for those jobs," a process that can include pathways like apprenticeship and military transition programs.

Even strong partnerships and a competency-first culture around human resources can be foiled by something decidedly inhuman. Dickens cited the influence of AI in talent acquisition platforms, either in house or at vendors. If not designed to assess alternative credentials and/or competencies, they may act as ghosts in the machine, thwarting efforts to cast a wider talent net. 

Perhaps the best way to overcome biases -- automated or otherwise -- is to spend more time in the real world. Once per month, Auguste says, his insights team ventures into the field to engage with frontline workers in low-wage jobs. There, they find ample qualitative material to back up the data they've accrued on the untapped talents of frontline workers.

"If you actually talk to somebody about what it takes to do their job well," he said, you will discover people with tremendous skills who operate with no margin of error. "If you go and have those conversations directly, you will come away with that realization that STARs are not problems to solve. STARS are problem solvers."

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