Bridging the Skills-Gap with Competency-Based Learning

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“Oh to be young and underemployed,” said no one ever. Yet this is the case for many entering the workforce today. In the eLearning industry we call this the skills-gap crisis, and it affects both college graduates and skilled trade workers alike. According to a 2013 Talent Shortage Survey conducted by ManpowerGroup, 39% of U.S. employers were having a difficult time filling jobs, and the survey ranked “Skilled Trade worker” as the toughest job to fill.

Colleges and universities have been unable to remedy the growing concern. According to a 2014 Gallup survey, only 11% of business leaders believe that college graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. Asked to rank the importance of four factors in employers’ hiring decisions, 84% said the amount of knowledge the candidate has in the field is very important, and 79% said the same of the candidate’s applied skills in the field. Shockingly, only 9% said a candidate’s alma mater is very important, and 54% said it’s not important at all.

Of the hardest hit facing the skills-gap crisis is the manufacturing industry. According to the 2014 Accenture Manufacturing Skills and Training study:

  • 50% of manufacturers were planning to increase their staff by at least 5%.
  • 75% of those hiring manufacturers were having moderate to severe staff shortages in skilled workers.
  • Of those job openings, 80% are classified as highly skilled and 20% are classified as semi-skilled.

However, it isn’t all bad news. Associations have a unique opportunity to address the skills-gap problem if they stop delivering courses and start delivering competencies.

What is competency-based learning and how would it work? A competency-based model involves creating learning journeys around high-need roles within an industry.

For each competency, the association education specialist creates an assessment. This assessment measures what a learner knows or can do to prove that he/she has acquired that competency. Assessments could be assessment questions, video demonstrations, internships, etc.

Next, the association takes each competency and creates specific learning activities that teach that competency. Activities could be books, videos, webinars, self-paced eLearning, conference attendance, etc.

Their learning management system (LMS) becomes a learning engine. Learners choose the role they want to pursue, and then complete a self-assessment to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Their LMS tailors the learning journey for that learner, prescribing the right mix of learning activities to address the skills-gap. As learners complete the activities, they reassess to determine the learning gains. For areas still needing improvement, learners are remediated and returned to the learning activities to review, and then reassess. For those competencies acquired, learners earn micro-credentialing or badges.

In this model, learners needing a skill or competency are connected with those members who already have that competency. These “mentors” can opt in to provide feedback and advice to these learners. This is a great opportunity for associations because, according to the 2015 Membership Marketing Benchmark report, the number one reason members join an association is for networking. In fact, studies have shown that the millennial generation highly values the mentor/mentee relationship, and this model could encourage more millennials to join an association.

The competency model offers a win-win-win situation for associations, industries, and learners. For the industry, job competencies mean a more adaptive learning environment. For example, when a new welding technique is introduced, the LMS can easily track the content related to those competencies. When the education specialist updates the assessment and activity resources, the learning journey is updated. All new learners receive education that tracks back to what the industry needs. To keep a micro-credential updated, members who completed that role can complete refresher training that only addresses the differences since they earned that competency. Now, the industry has a more reliable resource for their training and a network of potential job candidates.

The competency model establishes a closer connection between industry and associations to mitigate risks from third-party education providers. This model also creates a value-add to attract new members, drive renewals, up sell related educational products, and solidify the association’s relevance in a continually changing world. For associations, we think this is the #futureoflearning, and for the learner, this is the start of a learning journey that will support their careers today, tomorrow, and into the future.


Jack McGrath, President and Creative Director, Digitec Interactive – Jack joined Digitec in 2000, and is a recognized expert in the e-learning field, having won a number of industry awards, and is an acclaimed speaker and educator on the topic.

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