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CAEL Pathways Blog

Competencies Alone Are Not Enough: The Tools that Put Competencies to Work

Employers are starting to rethink job descriptions in terms of needed competencies rather than years of work experience or credentials that may not actually be needed for the job. And education providers are starting to offer degrees and other credentials that are designed around the competencies needed by target occupations and industries. Those shifts alone are necessary but perhaps not sufficient for us to enjoy the benefits of a competency-based learning and earning marketplace.  What is next needed are tools and strategies designed to help individual workers/learners, employers, and education providers support learning, hiring, and talent needs tools and strategies that put competencies to work in creating a different kind of learning and earning marketplace.

Enterprising organizations and education technology vendors are already working on different aspects of a competency-based education and labor market ecosystem, but three components relating to competency transparency consistently stand out: tools that support occupational and career pathway transparency, credential transparency, and achievement transparency.

Occupational and career pathway transparency. Over the past several years, there have been numerous efforts to map career pathways in a way that illuminates what competencies and credentials are needed for specific occupations, and how a worker can progress from one occupation to another by adding new competencies and work experiences. Examples include: CAELs career platform models, such as industry-specific initiatives like Petrochem Works and Banking on My Career (as well as cross-industry models for the State of Tennessee and an in-development career pathway exploration tool for high school students funded by FIPSE); Pipeline AZ, designed for Arizona job seekers; and the new Job Progression Tool developed by McKinsey & Company on behalf of the Markle Foundations Rework America Alliance. These various career exploration platforms have been (or are currently being) piloted in different locations and with different target populations, but the purpose of all is to help learners and workers understand their career options, how competencies and training lead to new career opportunities, and how some pathways can lead to advancement and employment in occupations and industries with long-term growth potential. 

Credential transparency. Being explicit and public about credential offerings helps everyone understand the connections between learning and working. Credential transparency refers to making public in formats that both humans and machines can read essential information about credential offerings, such as the competencies they develop, assessments, quality, costs, transfer value, and outcomes. Credential Engine, a nonprofit organization, advances credential transparency using linked open data strategies, including the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL) schema, the Credential Registry, and support services. Currently, the Credential Registry is the largest repository of such information and is used by hundreds of education and training organizations, certification and licensing bodies, the U.S. Navy, 27 states and regions, and a growing number of vendors and developers to describe a diverse range of credential-offering information. As ecosystems richly describe credentials using the Credential Registry, multiple stakeholders stand to benefit from this information. 

  • Learners can see all of their options for securing and advancing their career.
  • Workers can explore how their personal credentials connect to emerging pathways.
  • Education providers can contextualize their instructional and assessment practices.
  • Employers can articulate specific job requirements using the same language as credential providers.
  • State agencies can promote student success via credential connections within their state and across the region.

Achievement transparency. People need new types of records to better capture the details of their personal achievements in order to connect with relevant jobs and helpful learning opportunities. Comprehensive Learner Records (CLRs) digital and portable records of a persons verified achievements, including their demonstrated competencies, experiences, and credentials. CLRs package this information together so that learners can more easily decide how their achievements should be shared. IMS Global, the nonprofit publisher of the comprehensive learner record standard, provides a helpful graphic (inset) showing how various learning and work experiences could be captured by the CLR into a convenient format that could be used, curated, and controlled by the individual. Without better records, a lot of important and career-relevant information is ignored because it is unavailable or difficult to share. A CLR could have numerous uses. Job seekers could use it as a competency-based resume with embedded digital records of how their learning was acquired and validated. Employers could request a CLR from job candidates and be able to use machine learning tools to scan for needed competencies, credentials, and work experiences. Any achievement documented in a CLR can be usefully described using linked open data networks (for details, see Credential Engines technical guidance). In this way, competencies become a new kind of currency in the labor market. Labor market


With better systems for making competencies and competencies more transparent in job descriptions, credentials, and individual learner records, we could expect the market to respond by creating additional tools and applications that help the larger education and workforce ecosystems function more efficiently and effectively. For example, new tools to:

  • Help job seekers easily map their achievements and competency demonstrations to open jobs or career pathways.
  • Help employers find talent based more on competencies and less on personal networks, the idiosyncratic preferences of a hiring manager, or biases toward certain credentials or education providers. This shift could conceivably allow for race-, gender-, or location-blind searches for talent that could create more equitable access to job opportunities. 
  • Help education and training providers differentiate their offerings based on how well they meet the needs of individual learners and local employers.
  • Help policy makers better understand the productivity and readiness of geographic areas for economic growth and social mobility.

As these new tools emerge, an important consideration is the extent to which the tools remove systemic barriers to opportunity based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, physical ability, country of origin, or other category. Without such careful consideration, a competency-based system may simply make it easier to entrench existing patterns of learning, hiring, advancement, and economic mobility. But if the tools and strategies can open new opportunities based on competencies rather than personal categories, our learning and earning marketplaces can become easier to navigate for all. 


This blog is part 3 in a CAEL-Credential Engine series exploring competency transparency in our learning and labor market systems, the potential role that postsecondary institutions can play, and the work needed to get there. The full series is:


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