Making Sense of Industry-Based Skill Standards

Publication December 1995

The skill standards movement has emerged from a conviction that technology and market changes have caused significant modifications in the types of skills and behaviors needed by workers on-the-job. This conviction has motivated a broad education reform movement that involves changes in curriculum and pedagogy and seeks to tie education more closely to the emerging needs of the workplace. Industry-based skill standards are believed to be a crucial component of that movement. Advocates not only argue that skill standards will strengthen the educational system but that they will also become a critical part of reform efforts in the workplace. Working together, educators and employers will get a chance to reexamine not only their relationships with each other, but activities within their own institutions. As a result of the growing conviction that skill standards can make a significant contribution to improving both education and work, the 1994 Goals 2000: Educate America Act established a National Skill Standards Board to promote the development of a national system of voluntary industry-based skill standards. Even earlier, starting in 1992, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education established twenty-two pilot projects to help lay the groundwork for a national system.

The fundamental goal of this report is to contribute to the development of a skill standards system. It does that in several ways. First, it provides some basic information about the skill standards movement and the pilot projects that will be helpful to groups trying to introduce or improve standards systems. Second, it seeks to raise some basic questions about the purpose of such a system. We argue that there are short-term goals which focus on improving the flow of information among schools, students, and employers. There are also long-term goals that place skill standards within the context of broad efforts to reform schools and workplaces. While both sets of goals are important, the nature and governance of skill standards systems designed to meet the long-term goals may differ sharply from systems focused on the short-term goals. Our report is designed both to clarify the tradeoffs involved with achieving those goals and to evaluate the extent to which the current efforts to build skill standards systems address either the long- or the short-term goals. Our conclusions are presented in the form of a series of suggestions for strengthening the pilot projects and broadening the system of skill standards. These recommendations are grouped into three broad categories: (1) goals, (2) substantive content, and (3) governance.


1. Clarify the goals of the skill standards movement.

Advocates hope that skill standards systems can help achieve a variety of goals. Any assessment of the effectiveness of these systems as well as judgments about the level or resources that should be devoted to these systems will depend on the ultimate objectives of the movement. At this point, there is no strong consensus about the central goals, and indeed, different stakeholders may have conflicting goals. Simplifying greatly, there are two overall goals–one short-term and one long-term.

The short-term goal is to improve the information available to students, prospective job applicants, and employers. A set of skill standards for a relevant occupation will let employers know more about what job applicants can do, and tell students what types of skills they need to acquire to be eligible for particular jobs or occupations. Many employers involved with the skill standards projects appear to be interested primarily in this type of improved information.
According to the long-term goal, the skill standards movement is part of a much broader strategy to reform both work and education. The objectives of this strategy are to develop and deepen the partnership between schools and employers; to increase learning that takes place on the job; to help change education so that it will be more in tune with current needs of the workplace; and, ultimately, to help move workplaces towards high-performance work systems.
The current skill standards projects have made significant progress towards the short-term goal. The process has given many employers a framework in which to articulate their needs in ways that can be understood by schools and students, although there is still a long way to go before the pilot projects develop fully functioning programs with associated assessment and curriculum.

For some, the motivation for the skill standards movement is more ambitious, however. Educators, policymakers, and analysts involved with the projects tend to take this broader view, although some employers also agree. According to this view, the United States already has many job analysis and certification systems that could be used as vehicles for improved communication between employers and educators. The dramatic increase in the interest in standards arose from a conviction that significant reform is necessary, particularly in the training and education and the management and utilization of so-called front-line workers–nonmanagerial and nonprofessional production and service workers. Advocates hope that the skill standards movement will be a central component of that broad reform strategy. From this long-term perspective, there has been some important progress.
Nevertheless, there are some significant areas in need of improvement as efforts continue to move towards a stronger consensus on the broad objectives of the system. For example, not all employers have altered their workplaces in accordance with the tenets of high-performance work organizations even though few dispute the rationale and benefits of establishing them. If skill standards are being developed to highlight the demands placed upon workers operating in high-performance workplaces, one must not underestimate the difficulty of achieving “buy-in” from employers with less progressive work environments who will see little use for high-performance standards in their current operations. Indeed, these employers and employees will have as much, if not more, impact on the ultimate success of the skill standards movement as those operating in high-performance work organizations.

Substantive Content

2. If an objective of the skill standards movement is to contribute to a broad movement of school and workplace reform, skill standards systems need to be developed that are more consistent with the broader, more “professionalized” role of workers in innovative workplaces–they need to move away from the skill components model and towards a professional model.

In this report, we developed a distinction between two broad conceptualizations of skills–the skill components and the professional model. In traditional workplaces, workers are expected to carry out well-defined tasks under the direction of managers and planners. The skills of these workers can be thought of as a collection of tools (tasks) available for the use of managers. In this case, it is reasonable to summarize the capabilities of the workers as a list of tasks that they can accomplish. Underlying academic skills such as literacy are seen as a foundation upon which tasks are accomplished. But in high-performance workplaces, the jobs of workers are less well-defined. Workers themselves have more autonomy to decide how a particular goal will be reached. They make more decisions about which tasks to use, when they will be used, and how they will be combined. In this case, it is the ability to carry out tasks that are seen as the foundation upon which broader functions within an organization are accomplished. Although the ability to carry out specific tasks continues to be important, the standards should be built around those broader functions rather than being limited to narrowly defined tasks.

In order to analyze the form and content of the skill standards and to compare them to the two models, we developed a two dimensional typology to categorize the form of the projects. This categorization revealed wide variation in the form of the standards.

One dimension was the extent to which the standards integrated vocational and academic material. Within this, we established three categories. In the first, which was most consistent with the skill components model, academic skills were sharply differentiated from vocational/technical skills (and listed separately). In the second, academic skills were applied to a generic workplace setting but remained distinct from vocational skills. In the third, which was most consistent with the professional model, vocational and academic skills were integrated.

The second dimension was the extent to which skills were integrated into workplace functions. There were three categories here as well. In the first, which corresponded most closely to the skill components model, skills were listed generically with no workplace application relevant to the specific industry or occupation. In the second, workplace applications were provided as examples to indicate how skills were used. And in the third, which was closest to the professional model, skills were integrated into critical aspects of the job and the relevant industrial and organizational contexts.

Six out of twenty-one projects that participated were categorized in the lowest level of both dimensions–we referred to these standards as compartmentalized. Four of the twenty-one projects were categorized in the highest level of both dimensions–these we referred to as consolidated standards. And the remaining eleven were categorized in the intermediate level on at least on dimension–these were referred to as contextualized standards.

The most common job analysis techniques reinforce the skill components rather than the professional model. DACUM and V-TECS tend to result in narrowly defined task lists, although some of the projects have been able to modify the process to support a consolidated approach to standards setting. More comprehensive approaches to job or occupational analysis that have been developed over the last few decades require more time, resources, and specially trained analysts. The search for rapid implementation and attempts to involve a wide group of stakeholders, especially employers, have created incentives to use the simplest method. This tendency will only be reinforced when projects turn to assessment. It will be much easier to check off the mastery of a set of tasks than to try to evaluate the effectiveness of workers to carry out broadly defined roles within their organizations. Furthermore, it is revealing that even job analysis methods that collect more comprehensive data end up developing job descriptions based on narrowly defined task lists. In other words, they do not use much of the information that they collect. Ironically, the same development that has spurred the interest in skill standards–the changing nature of work–also makes it more difficult and complex to create those standards.

Although we have argued that the professional model can serve as an important benchmark for the development of industry-based skill standards systems, this does not mean that current practice in professional education should simply be adopted. Professional organizations are struggling with some of the same problems that have confronted those developing systems for front-line workers. The overall objective should be to develop approaches to understanding skills in reasonably broad clusters of jobs or occupations. There is no question that this is an extremely difficult task.

There are important political reasons why project managers want to develop concrete results quickly. Nevertheless, experimentation is one of the goals of pilot projects, and given the current enthusiasm for standards, particular efforts should be made to address these admittedly difficult problems.


3. Continue the important progress already achieved on the involvement of employer organizations and associations.

The future of the skill standards process depends on collaboration among employers in articulating their needs and in developing and perhaps paying for training and appropriate education. Ultimately, employers will also have to be willing to use the standards in their hiring and promotion decisions. Furthermore, the experience of employer associations in the skill standards system may have been useful in the development of related education and human resource programs. For example, organized employer collaboration is also necessary for the development of widespread private sector participation in school-to-work programs, in helping schools design improved programs and curricula, and in bringing about changes in production processes and work organizations. Lessons learned in the skill standards movement may therefore be relevant to other initiatives. To gain the full advantage of this experience, an organized attempt needs to be made to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the role of employer organizations.

4. Strengthen the partnership between employer organizations and schools.

Most of the pilot projects have placed a strong emphasis on the involvement of employers. Perhaps as a result of this, while educators have taken the lead in a small number of projects, in most projects they have played a decidedly secondary role. Although they have been present on the governance and advisory committees, they have tended to be passive participants. To some extent this might be expected since the early stages of the projects were focused on the needs of the workplace, and it is only now that the staff is turning to assessment and curriculum development–areas in which educators are more likely to be needed. Nevertheless, modern thinking about organizational design suggests that projects are most effectively accomplished if they involve cross-functional and cross-departmental teams. According to this view, production, engineering, and marketing personnel should work closely with designers even at the design stage. Similarly, rather than promoting a system in which employers specify what they need and then hand off the standards to educators to develop curriculum, project managers should work towards more integrated involvement of these groups at all stages of the projects. Thus, educators should be integrated into the standards design process and employers should continue to be involved when curricula are developed.

5. The involvement of workers and worker representatives in the governance structure needs to be strengthened.

For the most part, workers have played an advisory role in the pilot projects. Often, as a result of the modifications of the DACUM job analysis technique, workers were only brought into the process after a complete draft of the standards had been developed. Worker participation in the governance is a central component of the professional model. The more autonomy involved with a job, the more important it is for workers themselves to participate actively in the development of standards that describe those jobs. The closer a firm or industry moves towards a high-performance work organization, the more important it will be to integrate workers into the standards-development process.

One possible explanation for the generally weak worker role in the pilot programs is that the move towards high-performance work is exaggerated. Employers are not really interested in broadening the role of workers either in their production or their standards setting processes. If this is the case, it may be particularly important for project managers to emphasize the role of workers in the projects as a means to promote discussion about organizational innovation in the industry.

There are also practical problems that thwart the increased participation of workers in the skill standards process. Attempts to simplify the job analysis process have tended to reduce the role of workers in setting standards. Convening groups of workers and involving them in a significant way is often difficult and time consuming. Employers are reluctant to release workers for the time required for them to participate even in the more passive roles assigned to them in the current projects. In other countries and indeed in some occupations in this country, unions represent worker interests, and union staff, who are often ex-workers, are assigned the responsibility of working more intensively with the standards projects. This avoids the time conflict experienced by workers with full-time jobs at the workplace. But the weak position of unions in this country reduces their potential contribution to the standards process. Although unions have been involved in some of the pilot projects, in other pilot projects, conflicts between the unions and employers, or explicit efforts to avoid working with unions, have prevented any meaningful collaboration.

Although we have suggested that the projects need to move towards the professional model, the best approach is probably not one in which workers have almost complete control over the process of setting and certifying standards, as is true in some of the professions. Managerial and consumer interests must also have a voice in the process. Nevertheless, project managers must find ways to establish meaningful partnerships between workers, employers, and educators. Many advocates see the skill standards movement as part of a broad reform strategy to promote high-performance work organization. A central component of innovative work organization is the increased autonomy of front-line workers. Thus, if the standards are seen as part of a strategy to promote greater worker autonomy, there is a conflict between a skill standards process based on a passive role for workers.

Bailey, T., & Merritt, D. (1995, December). Making sense of industry-based skill standards. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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