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Skills for the Evolving Workforce: Emerging Trends and Practical Design Recommendations

Co-authored by Julian L. Alssid and Kaitlin LeMoine


Process of Skills-based program design

Our last article prompted a series of questions from readers about skills. What do we mean by skills? What are the emerging skills needed for the workforce of the future? What steps can academic institutions, training organizations, and employers take to validate skills and incorporate them into program design? We wanted to take this opportunity to drill down into these questions and provide some practical recommendations based on current research in the field and our own lived experiences. Skills-based program design is very difficult work and we will be as grounded as possible to make this article actionable for others.


What do we mean by skills?

Recognizing that the term “skills'' is defined in many ways, we find the definition provided by the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 Concept Note to be consistent with our current thinking. The Note specifies, “Skills are the ability and capacity to carry out processes and be able to use one’s knowledge in a responsible way to achieve a goal.” When we consider the skills needed in today’s workforce, they range in type and complexity. As informed by the OECD Concept Note, World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2023, and the National Skills Coalition (among other relevant resources), when we think about strong workforce skills, we see them falling into five categories:


  • Foundational skills (e.g. reading and writing),

  • Cognitive skills (e.g. critical and analytical thinking),

  • Technical skills (e.g. digital, physical, and job-specific),

  • Durable skills (e.g. communication and teamwork), and;

  • Intrapersonal skills (e.g. reflection and adaptability).


Within these five broad categories lies an intricate web of knowledge domains, sub-skills, and abilities that span disciplines, overlap with, and build upon one another to inform competencies. For those of us developing programs (i.e. skills- or competency-based curriculum, work-based learning, and training), one challenge is how we remain informed and adaptable to create content and materials that are skills-centric and reflective of evolving workforce needs. Which brings us to the future…


What are the emerging skills needed for the future?

The skills needed in our economy are shifting rapidly as technology and AI change job requirements. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023, employers anticipate that their training needs between 2023 and 2027 will shift to increasingly focus on AI, Big Data, and technology skills in order to keep pace. With the rise of technology that rapidly produces information in various modalities (text, art, media, etc.), employers need to prepare employees at all levels for higher order analytical and creative thinking skills over content-specific skills. Similarly, Dr. Chris Dede, Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, mentioned in a recent keynote that he anticipates a greater emphasis on “judgment” skills (i.e. practical wisdom), while “reckoning” skills (i.e. calculative prediction) will be overtaken by AI capabilities. Though this does not suggest that technical skills will become completely irrelevant, cognitive and durable skills will likely remain timeless and persist as individuals work alongside each other and with machines. According to the 2023 Microsoft Work Trend Index, cognitive and durable skills including analytical judgment, flexibility, and emotional intelligence (e.g. empathy and interpersonal skills) will matter greatly as we shift toward a digital future, as those skills will allow us to effectively evaluate information that AI readily generates and apply it where appropriate.


With all this being said, how do we incorporate these skills into programs and practices?

This work is incredibly complex - no single partner can take on the effort of building skills-based programming alone. Whether starting from scratch or building from an existing program model, it is essential to identify key stakeholders from relevant academic and employer constituents and determine their roles as facilitators, designers, and subject matter experts in the program build process. Who will act as lead on the initiative? Who are the decision-makers? What organizational supports are in place? In these cross-partner initiatives, team members may come together with great intentions but face organizational inertia when they return to their day jobs; to keep skill-based program design moving forward, intentional roles, processes, and project plans need to be established at the outset and sustained throughout the build and implementation.


With the appropriate stakeholders and plans in place, building skills-based programs can begin. Working through the entire design process is intensive and iterative, but we have outlined a few key steps to successfully integrate skills into programs:

  1. Validate existing skills data - Consider the roles/set of roles and industry for which you are developing the program. Dig into specific job tasks, responsibilities, and requirements. Numerous existing tools can inform this process, including O*NET data, HR system reports, job-specific artifacts, and automated keyword extraction from job descriptions. Observing employees performing the applicable job(s) and interviewing industry- or job-specific subject matter experts (SMEs) provide more detailed qualitative and contextualized insights into roles, skills, and emerging responsibilities. SMEs also validate what the data suggests and share how skills intersect and play out in “real-world” scenarios.

  2. Analyze and integrate curriculum needs with skills findings - With skills data in hand, the challenge is then in the process of either building or redesigning program curriculum to align with those skills. The curriculum should explicitly describe the embedded skills using language that reflects academic/discipline requirements and job/industry-specific findings. Skills need to be carefully written to ensure they include similar details and like-levels of complexity. How the skills themselves are written provide clarity for educators, learners, and employees alike. Additional considerations that shape the design process include the overarching curriculum model, assessment approach, learning modality, stackability of content into a program or other industry certification, and potential credit or certification requirements.

  3. Build and test curriculum content - With the skills written and agreed upon by all stakeholders, curriculum development begins. Throughout development, learning materials and resources should be developed and reviewed through the lens of how they reflect the determined skills to ensure close alignment. Curriculum should be continuously refined based on data about the value of the skills learned and impact on employee/employer productivity.


To sustain and scale this work, leadership at both academic institutions and employers need to gain buy-in from all organizational levels and codify, institutionalize, and fund this skill-based approach for the long haul. Too many innovations are short-lived and die with a change of leadership or end of a budget cycle. The steps we’ve outlined are replicable across many contexts and central to our efforts to create a culture of skills development among our clients and partners. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. If you want to explore how to implement this process at your organization, please Get In Touch with us.

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