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Skills Standards for High-Tech Workers Unveiled

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The first voluntary, industrywide skills standards for high-technology companies were released here late last week by the American Electronics Association.

Creating voluntary national standards for what workers should know and be able to do is central to the Clinton Administration's workforce-development efforts. And Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, whose department helped finance the groundbreaking work by the electronics group, was slated to attend the news conference announcing the standards.

Such standards could help shape the design of education and training programs and provide youths and adults with a portable credential that would be widely recognized by employers.

Just as the development of voluntary national standards in the core academic subjects could help set targets for students' academic mastery, the skills standards would attest to their technical competencies and work readiness.

Congress is expected to approve the creation of a national skills-standards board this spring as part of the "goals 2000: educate America act.'' The board would be charged with encouraging industry-led coalitions to establish voluntary skills standards in a range of occupational fields.

The A.E.A. project was one of more than a dozen funded by the Labor and Education departments in the past two years to test the feasibility of developing such standards, and is the first of the projects funded by Labor to complete its work. In addition to $300,000 provided by the Labor Department, the A.E.A. and its members leveraged more than $1.5 million in in-kind contributions.

'Arduous Work'

Because the A.E.A. is the largest technology trade association in the country, representing more than 3,000 of the nation's most advanced high-tech firms, its work could be particularly important in helping the national board set a framework for how such standards-setting should proceed.

"It's quite arduous work,'' said Cheryl Fields Tyler, the project's director, "and it takes a real commitment on the part of employers. The only way you get access to information is through people who are doing these jobs now and doing them extremely well, and those people are very valuable to their companies.''

For almost a year, the trade association worked with hundreds of managers and front-line workers from such companies as Motorola, American Telephone and Telegraph, and Hewlett-Packard to develop the standards. They are described in the A.E.A.'s new guidebook, Setting the Standard: A Handbook on Skills Standards for the High-Tech Industry.

So far, the association has developed skills standards for three occupational areas: manufacturing specialist, administrative/information-services support, and pre-/post-sales. Each category includes the broad competencies required for several specific jobs.

Ms. Tyler said the A.E.A. decided to focus first on clusters of jobs that typically do not require a four-year college degree, because those positions constitute the majority of the industry's front-line workforce.

'Brief and Clear'

Although some high-tech companies have developed their own standards in the past, these tended to be narrow, applying only to specific jobs within the companies. In contrast, the A.E.A. standards will apply to many jobs in many companies across the country.

One of the most notable things about the standards is their brevity. For each occupational cluster, the standards fill three pages. The idea, said Ms. Tyler, was to focus on core competencies that cut across various job titles and work settings.

Such standards must be somewhat general, she said, to be useful across a variety of companies. It is up to firms to adapt them to their specific needs and workforce requirements.

In addition, she said, "People in this industry won't use something if it's not brief and clear. So a lot of that is marketing: How can we state this as succinctly as possible and get the point across.''

More Work Planned

To develop the standards, the association used occupational-analysis groups of front-line workers and supervisors to determine the critical functions performed by employees within each job cluster.

It then ascertained the key activities that had to be mastered to perform such tasks. The standards also specify how someone would know when a worker had performed the activities well. Corporate executives, workers, managers, educators, and trainers helped fine-tune the standards.

Many of the competencies--such as those calling for an ability to "identify customer needs'' or "integrate improvement processes into each critical function''--ask front-line workers to engage in complex problem-solving, communications, and analytical skills that were seldom demanded in the past.

Next year, the trade association hopes to identify the underlying knowledge and skills needed to achieve the standards. Such information could help guide education and assessment efforts.

Officials say the association will refine and fully validate the standards so that they could be used for testing, hiring, and credentialing.

To field-test the standards, the A.E.A. plans to use companies and education sites in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington State. In addition, the project plans to create new standards for other occupational areas.

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