Earlier this year, ACT released its Breaking New Ground: Building a National Workforce Skills Credentialing System report. In the paper, ACT looks at the current state of the economy, the role that community colleges in particular can play in better preparing Americans to effectively hold the jobs of the future, and the specific job and personal skills one needs to work in a given sector in the 21st century.
Sounds like a good idea, huh? Linking postsecondary education to career paths. Identifying the skills employers need to fill the jobs they have. Making clear to workers what they should know and be able to do if they are to be successful in the workforce. All terrific goals. It is a wonder we have never thought of this before.
Funny thing is, we have. Back in the mid- to late 1990s, Eduflack worked with a little outfit in the U.S. Department of Labor called the National Skill Standards Board. NSSB was tasked by Congress to identify and develop the basic and advanced skill standards necessary to work in about a dozen industry sectors. First out of the gate was manufacturing, with NSSB working with the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing, along with a slew of educators, labor unions, and industry voices. NSSB then proceeded to develop basic standards for the education and technology sectors, before the effort was shut down by the Bush Administration and efforts to fund it outside the government couldn’t quite come together. Almost wiped off the electronic records, NSSB is actually best described on Wikipedia these days.
Of course, NSSB itself wasn’t even a new idea when it was created in 1994. The National Skill Standards Board was the offspring of SCANS, or the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. SCANS began in 1990, and led with its What Work Requires of Schools report, which outlined a range of skills, qualities and competencies needed to perform in the workplace of the 1990s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to what ACT is doing. it is important for our nation and our educational institutions to continue to look at issues of relevancy and how best to connect the classroom to the workplace. The credentialing framework offered up by ACT looks remarkably like the frameworks that NSSB built and advocated for. ACT mentions SCANS at the end of its report (explaining that SCANS resulted in the development of ACT’s terrific Work Keys effort), but there is no mention of NSSB (even though ACT was involved in the NSSB movement).
Why must we re-invent the wheel on this again? NSSB had its positives and its negatives, sure. But if we are serious about better preparing folks for work and ensuring a higher level of skills in the workforce, can’t we build on previous successes and learn from previous setbacks?
I’ll be honest. I lived NSSB from 1998 until it was shut down in 2002. I’m not sure I’d want to wish that total experience on many others. But I’d love to see someone benefit from the work a lot of good people put into NSSB, particularly in the early years. If ACT is serious about moving Breaking New Ground forward and changing policy and behavior, it needs to take a close look at the NSSB case study. Otherwise, we should just prepare for yet another “new” skill standards movement to surface in a decade or so.