Board Urges Skills Standards for 16 Sectors of Economy

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In a big step toward defining what future workers should know and be able to do, a national board has sliced the U.S. economy into 16 sectors to allow the creation of separate standards for each.

Work on the first of those standards is expected to begin this year. When completed, they will spell out for each sector of the workforce the specific academic and technical knowledge that workers need for entry-level and first-line supervisory positions.

Both the standards and any certificates based on them will be voluntary: Businesses must decide whether to use them, and states and school districts must decide whether to modify their curricula to reflect them.

It is envisioned that as students earn their high school diplomas they also could begin work toward skills certificates based on the standards for their chosen careers. Although students may require additional education or training beyond high school to earn those certificates, the new standards may strongly influence the high school curriculum.

The National Skill Standards Board, created as part of the federal Goals 2000 legislation, released its proposed categories in the Dec. 19 issue of the Federal Register. Written comments were due last week, and a revised proposal is expected next month.

The categories include such fields as communications, health and social services, and hospitality and tourism. Many, though not all, of the sectors correspond with the career clusters now being developed by many high schools to better prepare students for work.

Three-Tier Structure

Specific standards for each section of the economy will be written by voluntary partnerships that will include employers, union representatives, workers, the public, and educators.

By the middle of this year, the board hopes to begin working with the first partnerships--those in manufacturing, installation, and repair; wholesale and retail sales; and business and administrative services. Together, those three sectors employ about half of all nonsupervisory workers.

Under the proposal, the partnerships would identify the core knowledge and skills needed for all employees within a sector. They also could designate as many as six broad concentrations that require additional knowledge and skills. And they could designate an unlimited number of specialties that would apply to work in particular jobs or companies.

But there would be only two types of certificates: a basic certificate for either the core alone, or the core plus one concentration level; and a specialty certificate.

Common Criteria

Under the plan, the national board would endorse the standards for the basic certificate in each economic sector, if they met its criteria. Outside groups, such as trade associations or educational institutions, could submit proposed standards for specialty areas to the partnerships.

All of the standards must address the academic skills and knowledge, the occupational skills and knowledge, and the general employability skills need for work in a particular sector.

They must also meet a common set of criteria to qualify for endorsement. They must, for example, follow a common nomenclature to be set by the board; be consistent with civil rights law; and be at least as rigorous as the best international standards.

The 16 sectors are: communications; wholesale/retail sales; hospitality and tourism services; financial services; health and social services; education and training services; public administration, legal, and protective services; agricultural production and natural-resource management; mining and extraction operations; construction operations; manufacturing, installation, and repair; energy and utilities operations; transportation operations; property management and building-maintenance services; business and administrative services; and research, development, and technical services. The last three sectors cut across multiple industries.

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