Employability Skills Can Be Learned

As someone who tracks the recognition of learning and achievement using Open Badges, I found Learning to be Employable, a report from UK’s City & Guilds a very interesting read, despite its narrow focus on Further Education (FE). Although this report focused on youth in vocational programs, there was lots here that can be adapted to other groups along the spectrum of lifelong learning.

I’m becoming more and more interested in how Open Badges can provide evidence of employability soft skills. I last wrote a blog post on this back in June 2016 and plan to write more on the topic. This post is a further instalment in what I hope will be a series, but is also doing double duty as a submission for the City & Guilds Employability Practitioner CPD ENGAGE Open Badge – eating my own dog food… yum!


Jill Dawson CC 2.0 BY

First Part: What Are Employability Skills and Which Are Most Important?

I  found this section (actually two sections) the most difficult. I guess I was expecting a simplification of an area I’ve found difficult to pin down (I sometimes call soft skills “slippery skills”, because getting them to line up nicely is like trying to nail jello to a wall.)

Instead, I was treated to a historical survey and research summary that emphasized  overlaps between terms. I found the definitions interesting, but still had difficulty parsing terms such as perseverance and resilience (NB: “Resilient” capability  on page 33 includes “perseveres” and ‘displays grit” – ack!) and the authors’ constructs of “habits of mind” and “transferable skills”. As more of a “lumper” than a “splitter”, I found lots of commonality across categories!

Here in Canada, I’m hoping to bring people to agreement on soft skills, building on frameworks such as:

Given all the overlap and the difficulty in getting universal agreement on terminology, I think that for recognition of employability soft skills via Open Badges it makes sense to simply link to individual frameworks as needed or demanded by different audiences, especially badge consumers such as employers. This way, earned badges will be more locally relevant, aligned to employers’ hiring contexts with a minimum of adjustment on their part (“Don’t make me think!”). The technology should be able to accommodate this  in version 2 of the Open Badges standard: alignment to skills framework(s), which could be a feature of  post-facto third party  endorsement.

Moving on from frameworks, it was very useful to read about the need to remove the concept of morality from character and the focus on “performance character”,  a useful term gleaned from the Character Education Partnership (CEP) in the US:

‘those qualities needed to realise one’s potential for excellence – to develop one’s talents, work hard and achieve goals’‘those qualities needed to realise one’s potential for excellence – to develop one’s talents, work hard and achieve goals’

In an amoral world, this might make a good Assassin’s Creed, however reprehensible that goal might be. If you must be an assassin, you should find your passion and work on your performance character to be the absolutely best one you can…

Second Part: Pedagogy of Employability Soft Skills

This part is where the report came alive for me. Again, there were no simplified prescriptions to follow, but lots of useful case studies and characteristics of exemplary institutions.A key lesson is that employability must be embedded across the curriculum and beyond it, not shoved into its own curriculum silo, or dumped into student services, to be accessed at the end of the program.

Wearing my Open Badge lens, I picked these effective practices out on page 42:

  • student-led recording evidence of personal development, accompanying school-led approaches to measure character (note to self:  personal learning pathways)
  • use of reward or award systems schemes (note to self: uh, badges?)
  • older students working with younger students (note to self: badge the older students)
  • opportunities to take part in voluntary programmes and social action in school and in the local community (note to self: badges as modular Co-Curricular Records)

The Ofsted case study of the Halton Borough Council on page 43 hammered on the importance of real employer engagement to get the skinny on opportunities  for Work Integrated Learning and employment, but also to get their input on programme design – which skills and what to call them, so that job candidates are speaking the same language as their employers.

Speaking of language, I appreciated this paragraph on page 45, suggesting the notion of developing ingrained work habits rather than ‘learned’ employability skills:

While most employers, colleges and training providers tend to use a language of skills – employability skills, soft skills, NCS, for example – it is important to see the bigger picture. The CBI has clearly grasped this in its various educational initiatives, and we suggest that we follow its lead by using the word ‘habit’ to elevate this debate to an institutional level rather than allowing it to sit within discussions about individual courses. The evolution of thinking about employability exemplified by the CBI also has the benefit of focusing on ‘employability habits’, skills which have become so much second nature that they are also habitually used.

This helped me see how these are soft skills (or habits!) that could be acquired by many, rather than traits to be recognized in a lucky few. The key super-habit being Dweck’s “growth mindset”:

a combination of self-belief, a willingness to give things a go, seeing mistakes as an inevitable part of making progress, being willing and able to take and learn from feedback, being pre-disposed to share emerging ideas with others and look for their input, valuing hard work and effort, and seeing perseverance as an essential part of human activity.

This is an amalgam of skills that have been defined in various ways in this report. An employer might recognize the totality without troubling to check off each component part.  (But my ePortfolio background tells me that the employer should seek confirmation of his/her conclusion through triangulation of evidence to  avoid the “halo effect” a single impression might create.)

I was interested to learn that non-cognitive skills are still malleable  at the adolescent level, so that resilience, persistence, etc. can still be effectively worked on in high school and early college.

The authors report that “GenY” (Millenial?) workers seek more immediate feedback than Boomer, “attributed to their exposure to instant communication and feedback via internet access and social media.” This suggests personalized digital badge development pathways to monomaniacal people like myself.

The chapter on Co-Curricular learning was particularly good. I hadn’t heard of Learning Companies (pg 54) per se, but I see parallels with practice firms or virtual enterprises, out of continental Europe (see Forbes article.)

I also hadn’t heard of UK’s National Citizen Service, which seems to be quite effective and successful and has surprisingly won support across the political spectrum in the country. Something to think about here in Canada, as we emerge from the rubble of the Katimavik and Canada World Youth programs.

One quibble: the assessment section did not even mention badges, though it did talk about ePortfolios and “the use of technology to support the recording and assessing of employability skills.” I suggest that the authors may want to examine the affordances of digital badges and Open Badges, given their discussion of the tension between formative and summative assessment and ePortfolios.


This report joins my library of resources on soft skills and I’ll be following up on many of the references cited in it.

I do like the City & Guilds approach of focusing on PD of instructors using Open Badges for reflective learning. This makes for better change management for one thing, getting instructors to reflect on the changes needed. Also, the Scottish Social Services Council has discovered that the reflections contained in such badges are a great source of feedback and qualitative research. I’m sure that City & Guilds will also find this.