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Can Competency-Based Education Help Solve the Manufacturing Skills Shortage?

Posted By Jeff Moad, August 30, 2016 at 12:34 PM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

INPE0524_Chalk_Board.jpgWe frequently hear manufacturers complain that recent graduates who they hire often turn out to lack the kind of knowledge and workforce readiness required to for them to become productive on the job quickly. A diploma from a community college, a career technical education center, or even a well-known university these days doesn’t guarantee that your new hire has mastered all—or even most--of the competencies need to excel on the job. This, say manufacturers, is an important component of a growing skills shortage.

In response, many manufacturers are investing in internship and mentoring programs that prepare high school students to deal with the expectations they will find in the real world manufacturing workplace. Some states in the U.S., for example, have created what are called Pathways in Technology (P-TECH) schools that combine classroom instruction with mentoring, workplace visits, job-shadowing, and internships aimed at preparing students for identified jobs in manufacturing and other industries. Employers can work with individual students over multiple years so that, by the time they graduate, they know what the students’ competencies are.

On a recent discussion on this topic among members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council, one manufacturing leader whose company has participated in P-TECH, said, “What I told [the students] when they came here for a tour is, ‘You go through the program, you get your diploma and right at the end of the stage after you pick up your diploma, I’m going to be waiting there with a package of applications for you.’”

Now some school districts and universities are going a step further, fundamentally rethinking the structure of education to focus on providing students with specific, demonstrable competencies that employers can count on. Some manufacturers are hopeful that these so-called Competency-Based Education (CBE) programs will eventually allow them to not only be sure that new hires have a basic set of capabilities as they enter the workforce but also influence the specific competencies that educators are helping their students acquire.

Most schools in the U.S. and elsewhere today measure student progress in terms of instructional hours. Students who spend a prescribed number of hours in class—and complete required work—are assumed to have “learned” the subject at hand. CBE essentially does away with the principle focus on classroom time and instead describe and assess “competencies” that students should know, as well as what they should be able to do.

“Competency-based assessments aim to test students’ ability to demonstrate what they can do in real-world applications and across a variety of contexts,” explains a recent article in EducationNext.

CBE potentially represents a number of potential advantages over the current credit unit-based education system. It allows for students to learn at their own pace, and it is a good fit for learning that takes place in context and outside of the traditional classroom—such as online or on a plant floor.

And CBE has been gaining momentum among educators at the secondary and post-secondary levels. U.S. Department of Education recently is funding an “Experimental Sites Initiative” to explore the benefits of CBE in post-secondary education, and more than 300 schools have reportedly applied for funding.

At the same time, 42 states have reportedly given select public schools approval to incorporate CBE. And 500 U.S. colleges and universities are reportedly preparing to launch CBE-based programs.

 Among the states leading the CBE charge is New Hampshire which, in 2005, began a transition to competency-based education with a goal of adding real world context and relevance to the state’s high school education curriculum and student assessments. On a state-wide level, New Hampshire has done away with credit units, and individual districts are being encouraged to adopt CBE with a maximum of local control.

Some manufacturers in New Hampshire believe the move to CBE has the potential to help close a looming STEM skills gap in the state by grounding classroom learning with real-world context. One New Hampshire-based manufacturers recently told the Manufacturing Leadership Council discussion group that most of his employees score relatively poorly on abstract math tests—about eighth grade level—and many have little confidence in their math skills. On the job, however, many of those same employees regularly use advanced math every day.

“If we can get more context-oriented math to the students by giving them internships or some sort of workforce learning activity where they can see how math is used, then I think we’ll make some progress,” says this manufacturer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the adoption of CBE among New Hampshire public schools has reportedly been mixed. A recent survey of New Hampshire high schools found that only half have pursued CBE aggressively, the rest continuing to use traditional tools such as whole-class pacing and end-of-semester finals.

At the post-secondary level, although many colleges and universities are planning to roll out CBE programs, student enrollment in CBE-based programs is still quite low.

It’s probably not a shock that the transition to CBE has been uneven and slow. It represents a fundamental change to an education system that historically hasn’t changed fast.

The shift to CBE, however, could help address the skills shortage that many manufacturers fear. For that reason, manufacturers may which to understand and support the transition to CBE in their local schools.


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Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit



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