Why Skillful Wants To Make Skills, Not A College Degree, The Ticket To A Career

In a world defined by difficulty recruiting the right employees, and an ever-escalating list of positions which require a college degree, is there a better way to find workers to fill jobs—which doesn't rely on college degrees as a qualifier for jobs, but instead uses the actual, practical skills needed for those positions? Skillful (, a new online service launched by the Markle Foundation, attempts to bridge the gap between skills, a college degree, and what is actually needed from workers to fill jobs. We spoke with Wan-Lae Cheng, Senior Director at the Markle Foundation, who is responsible for Skillful, to better understand why a college degree may not be the right filter for filling many jobs, particularly in the IT and technology world. Skillfulrecently launched itself in Colorado and the Greater Phoenix area as its pilot markets.

What's the idea behind Skillful?

Wan-Lae Cheng: Skillful is an effort to bring a set of both digital as well as offline tools, to provide the support to get more Americans, particularly middle skilled individuals, to better career pathways. We've been at this process for the last year and a half, starting with research to understand the demographics and sectors to focus on, what locations, and setting up examples of partnerships to develop the solution that has become Skillfull. Obviously, this is a first version, what in technology could be considered a minimum viable product, which puts something out there an see what works and what doesn't.

If you go to the site, you'll find resources for job seekers and employers. For the job seeker, we help someone identify the skills and interests they have, and how they match up with hot jobs, and help them find meaningful growth and career pathways. For the two locations we are in, we are focused right now on IT, advanced manufacturing, and starting to explore healthcare. We have four tools, which sit alongside information about skills and hot job, including a training finder – if I want to pursue this type of role, and realize that I don't have the skills, what is the training program I need in order to fill that gap? That's on the job seeker side. On the equally important, demand size, we have been working with employers at their side, to figure out what skills they actually need. Part of this is a change management strategy, working with employers to change behaviors on how they hire. The big goal for us, are skills-based practices. With the sectors we've chosen, and where we are doing our research, we've found around ten specific roles in advanced manufacturing and roles in IT, which identified with our partners, and through doing employer roundtables. Those roles are based on skills and competencies, and not on the standard language employers have been using to communicate those job descriptions, where they have used proxies like a college degree, even if that degree is not necessary. At the same time, we've learned along employers on how to implement those competencies in those job descriptions, and thought about that as a thread for educators and for education partners, since those educators are building that pipeline of people who flow into the work force.

What's your definition of middle skills?

Wan-Lae Cheng: We have designed our target around middle skill individuals, who have had some educational attainment—high school and some college. It is a little bit of a circular definition, but middle sklil jobs are those that don't require a college degree, but require high school or secondary education. Given what I was saying about employers, we're actually trying to expand that pool. We use middle skills more as a way to target specific individuals.

Can you talk about what you mean and what problem you identified with using college degrees as a proxy for specific skills?

Wan-Lae Cheng: One of the challenges of employer job descriptions, is that they have not been updated in a long time, especially in some of the occupations where technology has really changed the job. There are new types of skills that just aren't captured, or those descriptions are just not specific enough. We want to be able to un-bundle that college diploma into what the competencies employers are actually looking for, even if there is a degree associated with that job description. In some areas, it's easy to articulate the specific skills needed for a position, such as type of programming language, such as Java, or specific skills for IT roles. Those are easy. But the harder things to articulate are things like communications and problem solving. Part of that challenge, is figuring out what does that mean for a specific role. Skillfultries to figure out what problem solving plays out in this job, and hopefully that can help take a person, and help them about a curriculum to reach those goals through experiential learning.

How did you end up picking Colorado and Phoenix as your first locations?

Wan-Lae Cheng: We went through a couple of months looking at locations. The criteria we had, were places which were experiencing growth, and in particular, had growth in industries with middle skill jobs and occupations. Greater Phoenix and Colorado both have a volume of openings. Leadership was also super important. We needed local leadership and sponsorship of this, to get enough momentum behind an initiative like this. Obviously, Markle is a foundation based in New York. We are an outsider, and to be successful, we need to be embedded into the local fabric. For Colorado, you've seen Governor Hickenlooper speak on these issues as part of his agenda, and the Mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, is very supportive. Those are probably the two biggest pieces. The third piece, is we wanted places that didn't have their own, unique challenges already, which would affect our pilot or first go around. We needed a clean test. There are some other locations that just had too much going on, or other circumstances.

So what's the next step in this process?

Wan-Lae Cheng: We're trying to see if this works. Obviously, like with any new product, we are going to be tweaking the product itself, honing our messaging, and obviously tracking the metrics on participation and usage, to see where people are falling off. We want to see if they are following through with coaching sessions, enrolling in training, and getting new jobs. We also want to expand the group of employers committing to this. Lots of the first few months is monitoring participation, and seeing if this is leading to behavior change. In parallel, we're looking to expand into different sectors, and figure out what that looks like. For me, apprenticeships and experiential learning is a great place for us to do something. Assessments are also important, to figure out soft and hard skills, and we'd like to create an assessment tool to help give job seeker some direction on their job skills, and also help employers assess those soft skills and other factors, so they don't need to use a college degree as a filter We are excited about all the things we might be able to put on our docket for exploration, but for now, we're focused on getting the model right in Colorado and Phoenix, which we think will take at least a year.

Is this a solution to the arms race over college degrees?

Wan-Lae Cheng: This is not necessarily being anti-college. It's more about creating more pathways. For some 18-year olds, college might not be a fit at that point in time, and college may not be the right thing at all, and you have to let them evaluate the other options. We think that if we can start generating innovation and competition to create more quality, accessible options for training, that doesn't necessarily lead to a degree. We believe in the concept of lifetime learning, and we want to figure out as you go between 18 and 21, how you build along the way, with such things as micro-credentials, or stackable credentials, and not necessarily a college degree.