I’m not an expert on the science behind the measurement of skills or the construction of competency frameworks. What I know I’ve learned from years of promoting to business and labour the need to address literacy issues in the workplace. I know that understanding what is required to perform a task is not simple, that requiring a certain grade level is not sufficient, and that ensuring people have the requisite literacy and essential skills is critical to success.
In this post I want to look at some the content of Skills for Success. The documentation is scant as I’ve mentioned before. I’ve based this blog post on the information contained in the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation’s (SRDC) publication Research Report to support the launch of Skills for Success: Structure, evidence and recommendations, the only background document posted on the Skills for Success website.
To be fair, throughout the report SRDC emphasizes the interim nature of its work:
“the range of actions, processes, and descriptors built into the constructs at this stage represent a provisional, not definitive, structure for each skill.”
Each skill of the nine skills in the Skills for Success framework has a definition, a series of components and sub-components as well as an explanation as to why the skill is important. SRDC describe the components as “important sub-processes or behaviours that make up each skill.” I’m not familiar with the use of the term component in the context of skills articulation.
I was surprised to see the use of the word ‘ability’ throughout the definitions. My understanding is that there is a difference between ‘skills’ and ‘abilities’ with skills being the “capabilities or proficiencies developed through training or hands-on experience. Skills are the practical application of theoretical knowledge,” while abilities are “the innate traits or talents that a person brings to a task or situation.”
The focus on an individual’s abilities shifts the narrative. Under the ES Framework, for example, my own overall skills levels were not as important as whether I had the requisite skills to perform the task at hand, making it possible to possess greater skill levels than required. The focus on individual ability could lead to these skills being seen in a way similar to grade level attainment without referencing a particular context in which to apply the skills.
Integrating document use into reading, writing and numeracy is not something I would have suggested (and apparently others felt the same). Having spent years promoting workplace literacy to employers and labour, I saw that understanding the difference in using documents as opposed to reading books was a revelation for many. It opened many employers’ eyes to the value of workplace literacy programs based on improving document literacy. Using workplace documents to improve workplace and skills assessment performance changed how practitioners taught and how employers considered job skills. I would like to see more documentation on the pros and cons of this change.
I’m curious as to the differences between the Skills for Success skills and Employment and Social Development Canada’s (ESDC) newly created Skills and Competencies Taxonomy. As one report stated, “The absence of a common framework in Canada has led to the development of multiple classifications by governments and private firms alike.” The Taxonomy is designed to:
…streamline terminology across a number of competency domains and concepts (e.g., skills, personal abilities and attributes, knowledge, interests), occupational work context, work activities, and tools and technology information, while aiming to improve the comparability of their incidence and application throughout occupations and sectors.
The Taxonomy was apparently constructed on a number of ESDC internal products including the Essential Skill profile/framework. Why not take the opportunity to align the skills definition? If not, then ESDC ought to outline the reasons for the differences between the two skills lists and the implications.
Supposedly there is to be a link between the Skills for Success skills and labour market outcomes, but the SRDC paper deals primarily with assessing the skills rather than validating these skills against real job tasks. With the Essential Skills framework, assessment tools came after the description and validation of the skills. The Essential Skills were validated through in-depth personal profiling of proficient workers across all entry-level National Occupational Classifications. Is a similar process planned for Skills for Success?
Much more information about the skills is needed. Are these skills discrete or do they overlap? Is there a hierarchy of skills with some being either more important or more foundational than the other?
Many questions about the soft skills remain unanswered, particularly since much of the research in this area deals with children.
- Are soft and social-emotional skills “foundational to technical and literacy skills development” and how do we know that?
- How much do social-emotional “skills” mirror employer requirements or values about work? Assessment in the workplace is a high stakes operation – people’s jobs depend on having a reliable and valid assessment tool.
- How teachable are these ‘skills’ for adults?
- How can we measure these skills in adults?
I have questions about how cultural bias or mainstream constructs of work in the definitions could affect assessment and training. For example, how does one demonstrate that they “acknowledge and accept differences among people (e.g., characteristics, abilities, cultures, religions, values)”? Under “Demonstrate responsibility” is the component “Manage your time to demonstrate your understanding of limited resources (e.g., punctuality, not wasting time).” Does understanding mean accepting limited resources and not applying a critical lens to the way in which work is organized?
Much more work is needed before Skills for Success can be a viable framework, work that is acknowledged in the SRDC report:
…there will be opportunities to further refine the processes and facets within individual constructs as our understanding evolves with the significant work that still lies ahead in curriculum and assessment development, further engagement and testing with practitioners, and the inclusion of diverse voices.
The Minister’s announcement and indeed the Skills for Success website leads one to believe there is a fully formed existing program that is ready to train up to 90,000 Canadians. I fear we are months if not years away from that program.
 Social Research and Demonstration Corporation. Research report to support the launch of Skills for Success: Structure, evidence, and recommendations. May 2021. Page 12. https://www.srdc.org/news/srdc-releases-major-report-on-canadas-new-skills-for-success-model.aspx
 Social Research and Demonstration Corporation. Page 12.
 See Social Research and Demonstration Corporation. Page 54.
 Public Policy Forum. Skills Next: Competency Frameworks and Canada’s Essential Skills. Prepared by David Gyarmati, Janet Lane, and Scott Murray. November 2020. https://ppforum.ca/publications/skills-next-competency-frameworks-and-canadas-essential-skills/
 Social Research and Demonstration Corporation. Page 33
 Social Research and Demonstration Corporation. Page 12.