Grasping at Competencies

I have previously written several blog posts questioning the conventional wisdom that new college graduates are both technically and socially unprepared for jobs. I’ve also called out employers for not doing the kinds of basic things they should be doing after they hire new college graduates.

If one follows the conventional wisdom, the traditional 3-credit course, based on hours spent learning in class, is no longer valid. The way forward is competency-based learning and concomitant mastery of material before advancing to the next step. It is my view that this approach, at least in higher education, is unlikely to result in either better educated students or students who are better prepared for their first job.

For example, critical thinking is a skill that employers say the value. Will traditional or competency-based education result in better critical thinking skills among graduates? It will not matter at all if organizational politics disables graduates’ critical thinking skills. What about writing? That is another skill that employers say the value. But if most communication is spoken and delivered via PowerPoint presentations or Excel spreadsheets, will competency-based education achieve any better result than traditional education? It would not seem so.

The shift to competency-based learning is a way to increase the number of people who obtain college degrees, based on the assumption that this will help them get better paying jobs. In the past, a key to upward mobility, both financially and socially, was a college education. But today, we see an emerging trend where college-educated people have difficulty finding jobs and are either underemployed or unemployed. The trend may be temporary, producing a lost generation, or long-term and result in lost generations.

New graduates, (presumably) better educated by competency-based education, by itself will not create jobs. Employers create jobs by when sales grow or when they need to develop or possess new capabilities. However, over the last 20 years employers have discovered that they have lower cost options than to hire people as regular full-time employees. They can manage both growth and new capabilities by hiring part-time employees or outsourcing work either domestically or to lower wage countries.

The rise of competency-based education seems to me to be a simple-minded political solution to a severe socio-economic problem that people do not understand well. The problem is widening income gaps and employers who claim they cannot find the skills they need in new college graduates. The former is the result of management not sharing in the financial gains that result from improved worker productivity, while the latter is the result of illogical thinking (a combination of false assumption, red herring, abuse of expertise, special pleading, and expediency).

Betting on competency-based education to correct these problems is grasping at straws. It represents action, rather than stasis, which gives the illusion of progress. It buys time and offers hope for a terrible situation. But it does not correct the underlying problems: Widening income gaps and employers who claim they cannot find the skills they need in new college graduates.

Globalization makes corporations less interested in sharing the gains from productivity improvement with employees, either at home or abroad. Claiming the existence of skills gaps helps depress wages. The two combined help deliver what narrowly-focused profit-seeking organizations want most: higher stock valuations (wealth creation), with little or no concern over harm that can be done. Sadly, the widespread acceptance of externalizing costs reflect what higher educational taught today’s leaders 20 or 30 years ago.

Will future leaders, recipients of competency-based education, be better at testing their beliefs and assumptions and avoiding illogical thinking and decision-making traps to yield more balanced results? It seems unlikely. Mastering these skills in a formal educational setting is far different than mastering them in the real world. This 50 year cycle may simply have to play itself out in order for business leaders, political leaders, economists, and others to plainly see its results. Perhaps then widespread change come about.

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