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Skills-Standards Board Gearing Up To Set Occupational Benchmarks

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A national board that will spell out the skills needed for success in the workplace met for the first time here this month.

Congress established the National Skill Standards Board last year as part of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. It is charged with devising a voluntary national system of skills standards and credentials.

The 28-member board--which includes leaders from business, labor, and education, among others--will help industry-led coalitions set standards that apply across a broad range of occupations.

The board will insure that the standards are compatible across industry lines, and it may choose to endorse standards that meet its criteria for quality.

James R. Houghton, the board's newly elected chairman and the chairman and chief executive officer of Corning Inc., said the only way for the United States to remain competitive in global markets "is by having not only quality products and services but quality people."

The board received $6 million in federal funding for fiscal 1995. Mr. Houghton said the panel hopes to encourage the development of standards that would apply to students preparing to enter the workforce as well as current employees.

Completely Voluntary

Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, who addressed the board during its first meeting here April 6-7, emphasized that the standards will be completely voluntary. No employers will be required to use them in personnel decisions.

"The success of the system will depend entirely on the quality of standards which industry partners develop and the relationship of the standards to the job market of the future," Secretary Reich said.

But board members acknowledged that few American companies now feel the need to hire the kind of highly skilled workers that the board envisions.

"There is a parallel imperative for corporations of all sizes in this country to move to high performance," said Paul F. Cole, a board member who is the secretary-treasurer of the New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O. and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

At the meeting, board members discussed the relationship between skills standards and the national academic standards that are also under development. A parallel national board that was to certify voluntary academic standards, the National Education Standards and ImprovementCouncil, is likely to be abolished by Congress. (See Education Week, 2/8/95.)

"I'm very hopeful about the success of this panel because I think it represents a true partnership among business and education and labor," Mr. Cole said.

"The intent of this board is to insure that there is a relationship to the school-reform movement," he added, "and an integration of the academic skills as we go along."

Across Industry Lines

The board includes six representatives of education; the Secretary of Education is also a nonvoting member. Its decisions could potentially help shape school-to-work and other education programs. But board members declined to comment on whether they would identify the basic academic skills that future workers need as part of a broad-based package of skills standards.

The board hopes to set standards in broad "industry clusters" as opposed to narrow job categories.

"We need standards that go across industry lines and go to general categories of work," said former Secretary of Labor William E. Brock. "In a global economy, people are going to have a lot more jobs. Their skills have got to be transportable."

Mr. Houghton said the board may end up with skills standards for no more than 30 or so industry clusters.'

As part of that process, it will look at the 22 sets of standards produced so far by industry-led groups that have been financed by the Education and Labor departments.

By law, the board must identify the clusters in which to develop skills standards by the end of this year.

"I think it's going to be a real stretch," Mr. Houghton said, "but we're going to try to do it."

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