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Pondering Careers – Edition 35 – Should we be talking about qualifications, or skills?

Welcome to another edition of Pondering Careers, where we come together to talk about all things related to our pathways through life.

Last week we took a tiny pause to celebrate all things #SoMuchMoreThanTalkingAboutJobs which was just an incredible campaign in 2024 and I’m so thankful that I got to play my little part. Bella Doswell CCDP, RCDP and Katherine Jennick have truly created something amazing and got people thinking differently about the work we do as career professionals.

From Bella’s campaign wrap up it seems we received over 1.6M eyeballs on the campaign – over double what was achieved in 2023!

Ok, so that was last week, but now we’re back and I’ve got to warn you it’s another whopper.

When I sat down to start writing this edition I really didn’t know where to start. I’ve had all these ideas about skills, qualifications, learner passports, and vocational pathways rolling around in my head, but sometimes it’s like there’s so much going on that I can’t get a grip on any of it.

Fortunately, once I started putting virtual pen to paper things started to crystallize and in the end I managed to get 1,500 words onto the page in about an hour, and that was just my notes…

So, bear with me while I get this idea off my chest, and please share your own thoughts, ideas, opinions, and perspectives as I’m still developing my own position at this stage.

If you’ve been following along for the past few weeks, you’ll know that I’ve been spending some time looking at the language we use within the careers space, and really trying to question the way we talk about jobs and work right now.

This week I want to continue this theme, not only because there’s just so much to unpack and explore here, but also because the shift from qualifications to skills-based hiring is shaping up to be as transformational for our sector as the shift from narrow definitions of work to broader, more holistic pathways.

I feel like in all these situations there comes a tipping point.

A point at which people who are innovating and looking for better ways to do things move away from established practice and towards new ideas because the balance finally tips in their favour.

I’m wondering if we’re approaching that point with the shift away from traditional, rigid qualifications and towards skills and experience.

Qualifications vs. Skills – what do we think?

Personally, I’ve always seen them as two distinct, separate concepts, which are complementary but not necessarily translatable.

In my sessions, we’d often talk about them as individual concepts:

  • Which qualifications do you have, or do you want to have?
  • Which skills do you have, and which do you want to build?

Sure, sometimes a conversation about skills might cross over into a discussion about qualifications, or vice versa, but by and large we would treat them individually.

But I have this feeling that things may be changing.

It all started when I saw this article shared by Jan Owen AM this week:

And I’m going to be honest, I was pretty skeptical, but it checks out.

Here’s a job for a Principal Data Engineer with no mention of any degree requirement, but offering a salary of up to $145k USD, and another job for a Test Barn Coordinator (which I didn’t even know was a job) with no degree or qualification requirement.

This is a pretty big step, but one that seems to be working so far, but it got me thinking about what’s causing this shift – what’s moving us towards this tipping point?

What’s causing the shift?

I think there are a few things at play here which are contributing to the change, and each factor in isolation would perhaps not be enough, but together I believe they’re driving the shift at multiple levels.

Factor One – Qualifications are becoming more expensive

It’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone that the rising cost of university degrees are putting some students off. I’ve noticed more students asking about the cost of the degrees they’re considering – they want to know what they will be up for – and while I don’t know if there’s any data on this yet, it seems that some students are reconsidering if they even want to start degrees when they’re not sure they actually need them.

I’m not sure this is a good idea – there’s something to be said for the more general degrees that give you time and room to learn about yourself and explore new topics, and my first degree was a Bachelor of Arts. It is, however, inevitable that young people will think harder when a degree is going to cost them a significant amount of money.

There’s an article here with a comparison across generations that’s worth a look, and this graph from the article (thanks Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)) gives you a good visual reference into how the price of a degree has changed over the years:

For context, my Arts degree from the early 2000’s cost around $10k (although the RAAF paid for my degree, so I was doubly lucky).

As the costs of tertiary qualifications rise, it’s natural that people would begin to question the value of the qualification…

Factor Two – There are other ways to learn

Gone are the days where the only way to learn a skill was to enrol at university. The burgeoning availability of alternative education platforms, including Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms like edX and Coursera, have provided a more accessible and often more immediate route to skill acquisition. These platforms enable individuals to learn specific, in-demand skills within a matter of weeks, and you don’t even need to leave your bedroom.

Microsoft Credentials and Google Professional Certificates are cheap (or free), flexible, and highly regarded, and it’s no wonder that people are seriously considering their alternative options.

Factor Three – We have more options

Once upon a time, it would have been unimaginable for organisations like UCAS to offer apprenticeships, but it’s now easy for students based in the UK to apply for apprenticeships at the same time as they apply for university courses.

These programs offer a practical, hands-on approach to learning, allowing participants to earn while they learn and apply their skills in real-world environments. This path can be especially appealing to those who prefer a more tangible learning experience and immediate application of their skills, negating the need for traditional tertiary pathways.

And as these options open up, the traditional certificate goes from the only path to a professional job to just one possible path (and potentially not the quickest, easiest, or most cost effective).

Factor Four – The shift in status of vocational pathways

For a really long, we careers advisors have been trying to educate young people (and their families) about the benefits of vocational training, and I feel like we’re finally getting somewhere.

Parents are asking about apprenticeships, not just as a backup or second choice option, but as their preferred pathway, and at the end of the school year new apprentices are celebrated in the same way as the academic achievers.

The broader education and employment landscape has recognised the value of vocational training, with its emphasis on practical skills and job readiness. This shift is not only driven by the economic imperative but also by a broader societal acknowledgment that multiple pathways to success exist and are valid.

As we recognise that there are multiple versions of success, and the hierarchical tiered system begins to break down, it’s not surprising that people are thinking about how we can build skills, rather than how we can collect qualifications.

Here’s why I think we’re at a tipping point

It’s one thing to think that change is afoot, and another entirely to acknowledge that we’re shifting from one way of thinking to another.

If I’m right, and we’ve reached a point in history where traditional qualifications are in decline, then there could be significant implications both for individuals (and the choices they make) and for our workforce and society as a whole.

Of course, there’s no global button or light that comes on to let us know we’ve moved from one phase to another, but there are some indicators that change is happening:

People are questioning the cost and value of degrees

This really wasn’t a thing a decade or so ago, and certainly when I left school the general suggestion was that if you could get into uni then you should go, and only if you couldn’t should you consider other options.

There were 150 kids in my year, and the one who chose to leave for an apprenticeship copped some serious flack, but he’s probably earning more than many of the rest of us right now…

Politicians are also questioning the value of degrees, and this article neatly summarises UK political policy around higher education for the past 25 years.

Here’s a quick screenshot of recent news related to the cost of a degree:

Not all of these articles are negative, but it indicates a shift in how we think and talk about tertiary education.

Hiring practices are changing

The World Economic Forum have just released an article on trends to watch, drawn from the recent annual meeting in Davos, and one of their six key trends is that skills will become even more important.

In it, they discuss both the trend towards skills-based hiring and the ‘race to reskill’ as some jobs decline and others grow, but also the role of skills-based hiring in levelling the playing field.

Which is essentially what this does, when we move towards skills-based hiring we recognise that a degree is not the only way to prove our capability, and we open up access for all.

You can find a great overview of skills-based hiring here from Bryan Hancock and Brooke Weddle. They clarify what it is and why it’s working for many organisations:

“I think there are two things that are coming together to make skills-based hiring something that many organizations are thinking about. One is about creating access to opportunity. Look at a college degree: if it’s not needed for a job, not having one shouldn’t be a barrier to somebody getting the job. If you have the skills, no matter where you learned them, and you can do the work, you should be able to do the work.

We’re also seeing skills-based hiring come to the fore because organizations in many technical roles are having trouble finding the people that they need. If they can eliminate formal job requirements, they can peel that back and say, ‘What we need are these underlying skills.'”

Which brings me to my next point:

Industries in our fastest-growing and most cutting-edge sectors can’t find enough people

The past five years have seen enormous change in the shape and size of some industries, and our training systems have been largely unable to keep up with demand. The Future Skills Organisation identify three key challenges limiting our ability to meet this demand:

  1. There aren’t enough people training to become digital workers,
  2. Learners are not being taught the skills that industry demands, resulting in suboptimal training and employment outcomes, and
  3. The training system isn’t flexible enough to quickly adjust to what industries need.

This is a big problem, and if our traditional training institutions can’t keep up then people won’t slow down, they’ll simply look for other ways of gaining skills.

Doctor apprenticeships are now a thing

Apprentices will end up with the same qualification as someone who went through a traditional path, but they’ll also be working from Day 1 and earning a wage throughout their study.

If we can offer alternative pathways for medicine, then surely we can find a way to offer an alternative pathway for everything else?

Even if we can’t get enough people with the ‘right’ qualifications, the work will still need to be done

I work with schools, and you would have to be living under a rock to not know that there is a teacher shortage, and that this is impacting on the education we provide to our young people. And it’s not just teachers – tradespeople have held their spot at the top of the Skills Priority List for years, which means we can’t build enough homes to keep up with demand, fuelling skyrocketing house prices and rental demand.

When you take all of this together, it starts to become clear that things have got to change.

What’s the difference between skills and qualifications?

This is how I see it:

  • Qualifications are professional, recognised, and managed by industry gatekeepers who set the standards, and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo
  • Skills can be developed through training and education, but also through experience and the skills are what employers are actually looking for – a qualification is simply an indication of skill

Qualifications tend to be lengthy and intensive, slow to evolve, and there’s a strong chance you’ll cover far more than you need. Sometimes it’s more about the connections you make while studying, rather than the qualification itself (particularly when we’re talking about MBAs). The positives are that qualifications are easy to compare and well recognised, which means that employers can use the possession of a desired qualification as an indication that a prospective employee is capable of doing the job.

This doesn’t mean that qualifications directly translate to skills or ability, and a gap often remains which needs to be filled with on-the-job training once the new graduate hits the workforce.

Skills, on the other hand, come from a range of sources, which makes them harder to police. There are many highly skilled people working in our own sector with vocational qualifications such as a Cert IV, rather than a degree, or with a degree that’s not been recognised by the powers-that-be, and their lack of an authorised qualification does not impact on their ability to do the work to the highest standard.

Skills can be incredibly generalised or highly specific, with no change in the value of the skill; for example, teamwork is a general skill which is needed universally yet rarely acquired formally, but often given equal weight to technical skills like dressing a wound or installing a solar panel thing-a-ma-jig (don’t come at me I don’t do technical stuff) in a job description.

Skills acquisition is also hard to gatekeep, as it’s something that really only crystallises with first-hand experience, only some of which can be simulated in a classroom or lecture theatre. For example, my degree taught me the theory behind career development, and gave me counselling skills, but it didn’t teach me how to convince students to come for a chat about their resume – that I learnt from colleagues.

Skills can also be broken down into smaller parts, something that’s proving difficult to do with qualifications. Microcredentials may be on the rise, but we still don’t give people a recognised qualification if they only finish two years of their degree, and there’s no system that directly translates those years into a vocational qualification, but it’s easy for us to recognise skills that come stacked or on their own.

I know I’ve spoken about this before, but I don’t feel like we’ve yet reached consensus on a method of classifying skills. Tools like the Australian Skills Classification are a good start, but they don’t seem to solve all the problems. The good news is that we can use skills and skills-based hiring without formalising them – in fact, we’ve technically be using skills-based hiring for thousands of years.

That’s what we did long before people could acquire qualifications – we demonstrated our skills and used them to secure employment.

What do we need to think about?

If we’re working with young people we need to do even more and go even further to broaden our language to include both skills and qualifications. For career counsellors, this could mean we spend more time with students looking at the types of skills required for a job, and not just focusing on the first or most obvious post-school qualification required.

We need to name the skills that our young people are building in schools, and value them in the same way that we value their ability to solve algebraic equations. We can add skills like teamwork and communication onto report cards – not as another thing to measure and compare, but as strengths to celebrate and recognise.

I also think it’s worth thinking about the types of activities and experiences we offer our young people as they grow. Last week I took Rose to watch the new Mean Girls (and I was NOT prepared for a musical), but one of the things that stuck with me was the part where Cady’s Mum (played by Jenna Fischer) tells Cady that she needs to go to school because there are things she’s learning there that she can’t learn at home.

What she meant is that it’s not just about the academics – our young people also need to learn how to cooperate, to tolerate each other, and to handle themselves.

Some of the activities that we consider to be ‘extra’, like playing sport, or craft club, are actually places where we can build and refine skills that we don’t touch in the classroom. Should we also be thinking about which of these activities we can offer, and making them available to all students, not just those with parents who can fork out the cost and get kids there after school?

I believe these types of non-academic activities are going to become more important as we move towards skills and away from qualifications, and this is even being recognised by tertiary education providers – The Australian National University, for example, have a co-curricular and service requirement which they describe thus:

“At ANU, we value the contribution you make to your community. The co-curricular and service requirement (CCS) is an admission requirement. To be eligible to receive an offer you will need to demonstrate your involvement in activities outside the classroom during Years 10 to 12. You will also need to meet academic and other program-related requirements. These activities include sport, a paid job, volunteering, school clubs, creative competitions, student exchanges and more.”

These activities help create well-rounded humans with broad skill-sets who are capable of more than just one thing.

Most importantly, we need to give young people the ability to accurately assess their own skills. They need this so they can work out what might be possible, and align their skills with the needs of an employer or business opportunity. To do this, we need a common language, and we also need lots of examples, so they can evaluate their own skills against what might be required.

If we can do this, I think we’ll be setting our young people up for success, whether they choose to focus on qualifications OR skills, or perhaps a combination of the two.

That’s it!

Thanks again for staying with me, and for sharing your own experience, thoughts, and ideas on the topic.

As always, if you have any ideas for future newsletters please reach out, I’m always happy to collaborate.  

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