Projects Developing Standards for Skills, Knowledge of Workers

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ARLINGTON, VA.--On the second floor of a high-rise office building here, just outside the nation's capital, groups of adults are learning how to use one of the fastest-growing technologies in American industry: computer-aided drafting and design.

The technology, which is rapidly replacing manual draftsmanship with sophisticated three-dimensional blueprints done on computers, requires skills seldom taught in vocational schools and community colleges a decade ago.

But today, competence in CADD, as it is known, is one of the central requirements in technical fields ranging from architecture and electronics to chemical and mechanical engineering.

Computer-aided drafting and design is also one of 13 broad occupational areas in which coalitions of industry, labor, and education groups are striving to develop voluntary national skills standards for what workers should know and be able to do. The projects are funded under grants awarded last year by the Labor and Education departments.

Such occupational standards could become the basis for designing up-to-date training programs such as the one in Arlington, offered by Republic Research Training Centers Inc., and for crafting school-to-work transition programs.

Certificates earned through programs like these could also provide non-college-educated workers with a portable credential that would be widely recognized by employers as evidence that they had the skills needed to perform on the job.

Congress is debating the creation of a national board, proposed by President Clinton, that would stimulate the development of such voluntary standards across the full range of American industries.

The 13 projects currently funded by the federal government--soon to be expanded to 22--were designed to test just how such skills standards and certificates might be developed. And they offer a glimpse of both the promises and the obstacles entailed in such an endeavor.

The projects, whose total federal funding is just over $4.7 million, span a wide array of industries, ranging from metalworking, printing, and electronics to the health sciences and the retail trades.

Each consortium is trying to identify the core set of competencies required for a broad occupational cluster of entry-level workers, and for at least one specialty in its field, and to begin planning a related system of assessments and certificates.

The Education Department grantees--whose contracts extend over two 18-month cycles--have also been asked to provide criteria for education and training programs, including the minimum instructional time, tasks, tools and equipment, and instructor qualifications needed to meet the skills standards.

'Major' K-12 Impact

According to Debra J. Nolan, the Education Department's senior program adviser for the skills-standards projects, such standards could eventually have a "major impact'' on the K-12 system. They would specify both the general employability and job-specific skills that students need to learn and the related academic skills that are now largely taught in traditional subjects.

Most of the projects have pursued a similar course to set standards: reviewing the existing curricula and standards available in the field; pulling together task forces of front-line workers and supervisors to do detailed job analyses of the tasks that people perform at work, and of the knowledge and skills required; and sending drafts of the skills standards out for review and validation by representatives of labor, business, education, and government.

In general, the projects are still refining what someone should know and be able to do to enter a particular industry. They have yet to set performance criteria or develop assessments that would let a prospective worker know how well he must perform to be certified as competent.

The skills standards in computer-aided drafting and design, for example, are broken down into core CADD skills, related academic skills and concepts, and general employability skills. In addition, workers identified a set of manual drafting skills that are no longer needed on the job, but whose theoretical underpinnings they thought were important.

A CADD skill, for instance, is the ability to use editing commands, such as "trim, extend, scale, and stretch,'' on the computer; a related academic skill is the ability to manually bisect lines, arcs, and angles; and a "fundamental'' drafting skill is the ability to identify line styles and weights.

Developing such standards poses an array of technical challenges, from how to define a cluster of occupations that share common tasks to the creation of measurements that accurately assess job performance.

A Question of Culture

But the biggest hurdle that the projects have faced thus far is not technical, but political: how to insure that the right stakeholders are involved when such standards are developed and how to entice them to the table.

"The difficult part of this, when you're talking about a national activity in an industry or an occupational area, is who really represents them,'' said Ronald D. McCage, the director of the Vocational Technical Education Consortium of States, which is leading the standards project for the heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration trades.

"In this case, we came up with well in excess of 100 different organizations that had something to do with heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, power engineering, and so forth,'' he pointed out. "So we had to deal with which ones really represent labor, the contractors, the manufacturers, education--all of the different parties involved.''

Even once such players are identified, securing their cooperation can be difficult.

"We have gone out of our way to involve industry,'' said Judith Leff, the project director for the effort to develop standards for entry-level laboratory technicians in the biotechnology fields, which is being spearheaded by the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass.

But, she added, "We're finding varying results with employers, and it really comes down to corporate culture.''

While some companies are committed to training and developing their workforces, Ms. Leff said, others are not. And many cannot see beyond their current workforce needs.

The project has yet to attract all of the unions that represent various segments of the industry.

'Employer Owned'

The Education Development Center may be at a particular disadvantage, because it does not represent a trade or industry group.

One of the central lessons of the pilot programs is that business leadership in such ventures is essential.

"It has to be employer-owned,'' maintained Cheryl Fields Tyler, the director of the skills-standards project for the American Electronics Association. "The value of the credential is only tied to how much the employers want it.''

Unless companies see the need for skills standards, take ownership of them, and value the certificates that workers earn, Ms. Tyler and others warn, the exercise is essentially worthless.

But even with industry leadership, bringing all of the parties together poses a major challenge.

The printing industry, for example, encompasses some 50,000 companies without much experience in working together and with a strained history of labor-management relations. The project in that field has gotten off to a slow start, largely because of the negotiations involved in pulling groups together.

Other projects have found that unless educators are involved in standards-setting efforts from the start, the results may not be usable in education and training programs.

'Core Skills'

Yet another tension running through the projects--and throughout the debate about national skills standards--is just how broad or narrow such standards should be.

The national board proposed in President Clinton's "goals 2000: educate America act'' would identify broad occupational clusters in which skills standards would be developed. Some experts have suggested that the clusters be limited to no more than 20 in total, covering most of the American workforce.

Of necessity, such standards would be very broad, covering only the foundational knowledge and skills required for numerous different occupations and job titles within an industry or industries. And there is a heated debate about whether such generic standards are useful.

The biotechnology project, for example, is clustering entry-level lab positions in pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and medical laboratories into one broad "training occupation,'' known as a "bioscience technical specialist.'' This "training occupation'' does not exist in the federal government's voluminous Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Instead, it reflects a composite of different jobs that share a common core of knowledge and skills.

"If you look at any industry,'' argued Ms. Leff of the Education Development Center, "you can find a common set of core skills that everyone needs to get into the industry. Things like terminology and, in the case of bioscience, certain lab techniques and procedures, that cut across all of a certain level of occupations.''

The advantage of such broad training occupations, she and others assert, is that they prevent tracking people into narrow job categories early in their careers; allow workers to move more easily from one job to another, as the labor market shifts, with minimal training and retraining; and provide employers with individuals who are prepared for the kind of teamwork and cross-training now demanded in high-tech firms.

Similarly, the skills-standards project spearheaded by the American Electronics Association has grouped all of the entry-level jobs in the electronics field into just three occupational clusters: a manufacturing specialist; a pre- and post-sales analyst; and administrative and information-services support.

The A.E.A. envisions that the competencies required for these occupations would span a number of different job titles and that some could be pertinent to other industries as well.

Different 'Languages'

In the CADD project, for example, the core competencies that are being developed would be the same, whether an individual used computer-aided drafting to map public-utility systems or to design the electronics of a car.

"We have to make sure they're core skills,'' explained Jane Beardsworth, the project director at the Foundation for Industrial Modernization, the education and research arm of the National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing. "Whatever we develop has to apply to each of those uses.''

One problem she has discovered, however, is that the very language that architects, mechanics, and civil engineers use to describe their work with computer-aided drafting and design is different. CADD software packages also vary, posing challenges for how to assess generic competence.

Such difficulties have led some projects to question whether broad-based skills standards are feasible.

"When you really get down to the skills that are involved in being an automotive technician or an air-conditioning technician, or a manufacturing specialist,'' Mr. McCage of the vocational-technical consortium said, "it still gets back to things that I'd call a 'job' or an 'occupation.'''

"There's got to be a fence put around it somewhere,'' he said.

Fast-Changing Needs

The effort to develop skills standards has also underscored how rapidly workforce needs are changing, particularly in such high-tech areas as computer-aided drafting and design.

"I think the major lesson we have learned is that the standards are constantly evolving,'' said Joe Reddy, the president of the Foundation for Industrial Modernization.

"There's a veritable explosion in technology these days,'' he noted, "and the main thing is to maintain flexibility, the ability to change these standards, so that they're kept current with the practical needs of the employers.''

"The only way to do that,'' he added, "is to have the standards really controlled and driven by the employer community.''

But if the standards projects already under way highlight the hurdles that a national skills board would face, they also underline why one might be needed.

Right now, each of the projects is defining differently what a skills standard is and how to go about measuring it. In addition, the occupational clusters represented by the projects do not cover the full spectrum of the American workforce or divide it up in any systematic way.

"All of the projects are going about it in different ways,'' Ms. Leff said. "That might be good for experimental purposes, but at some point there have to be some commonalities mapped out at the federal level.''

"This whole idea of ... making it up as you go along has left me underwhelmed,'' Mr. Redding said. "From the beginning, I was quite concerned that the departments of Education and Labor had not set out a clear format for these standards: who would be the repository of them, how they'd be administered, how they would relate to the schools.''

"It was just inviting everybody in the world to go out and invent some standards,'' he added.

Flexibility Stressed

A national board, according to its proponents, could systematize such efforts by providing a common framework, common definitions, and criteria for quality control.

Such a board presumably would also have enough standing to convene all of the interested parties across a range of industries and occupations.

But the politics of doing so, nearly all observers stress, must focus on three key adjectives: voluntary, industry-led, and flexible.

Whatever happens, Ms. Nolan of the Education Department said, "the lessons learned from these [existing] projects will help the national board determine how to move forward in the future.''

Vol. 12, Issue 35

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