Passport4Work: Towards a common understanding of skills
Why is P4W necessary?
Despite the economic growth that we witnessed in many EU countries in the past few years, there are still many challenges relating to work. Careers of today are changing at a rapid pace and will continue to change in the future. Furthermore, we live longer than before and are therefore required to extend our working life. The expectation is that in the very near future our working life will encompass 60 to 70 years. This poses a difficult challenge, because the life expectancy of certain skills, contrary to our lives, is decreasing. Within software development, for instance, there is a constant need for adjusting and updating of workers’ skills. The current COVID-19 crisis is a huge catalyst in this regard, and causes an even bigger need for an agile workforce.
What does P4W aim to do?
The Passport4Work (P4W) project aims to address this very issue, by facilitating individuals to gain insight in their skills and translating these skills to today’s occupations (and its requirements). Subsequently, job seekers can develop their skills through eLearning. This takes place in their so-called “Passport for Work”, in which all information pertaining to professional development and careers is stored. As such, a job seeker can answer the questions “Who am I, what can I do, and what do I want to do?”. P4W also caters to the employer side, by allowing them to match their job requirements with job seeker characteristics. As a result, the prospect of realizing sustainable employment strengthens through a more informed match between supply and demand.
What is unique about P4W?
The above-mentioned aim is not unique to P4W, in fact, there are many initiatives who try (or have tried) to realize the same. However, where many of these initiatives certainly have their own merits, they mostly fall flat when it comes to bridging labour demand and supply on a wider scale. In case of The Netherlands, home to P4W, previous efforts to introduce a significantly more transparent labour market have failed. The explanation for this is that, simply put, employers and employees speak a wide variety of languages when it comes to skills. For instance, an organization looking for a candidate with strong “analytical skills” might overlook a job seeker who has “problem-solving skills” listed in his or her resume. Skills come in many synonyms and are subject to many different interpretations. This is a logical consequence of jobs and job seekers being extremely heterogeneous. As such, imperfect matches arise with various adverse effects (e.g. costly job search, turnover and retention problems, job dissatisfaction).
The above mentioned information problem results in “inoperability” of skill-based career systems and tools. These systems use their own unique language, which typically fails to cater to differences in labeling and interpretation of skills used by others. The implication is that when a job seeker has a skill-based profile in system X, he or she will not be able to transfer all of this information effectively to system Y. This results in a lot of scattered information about individuals’ careers, stored in HR systems of organizations and online intermediary databases. Yet, there is no way to bring all of this information together.
This is what separates P4W from existing tools and services. It wants to create a common ground through which information on skills can come from a variety of sources. The prerequisite for this is a shared understanding of skills. On a national and international level, there have been many efforts to facilitate this through the development of skill frameworks (simply put, skill languages). These frameworks generally comprise information on the labeling and definition of skills, as well as, in some cases, their relevance for occupations. Ironically, these frameworks also contribute to the information problem, due to inconsistent use of terms such as skills and competencies (which are in fact distinct but used interchangeably in some frameworks). There is no overarching framework (analogue to a “Google Translate” of the labour market), and as such there is a heavy reliance on the specific frameworks on which a skill-based system is built.
How will P4W achieve this?
Going back to P4W’s aim for a second, to ensure that job seekers can gather useful insights in their own skills, and those required on the labour market, an overarching framework is required to prevent scattering and fragmentation of information. This posed a fundamental question in the early stages of the project: how will P4W ensure an effective exchange of information between involved parties?
Three options were considered. One option being the development and introduction of a labour market “Esperanto”. This boils down to introducing a new, neutral, language of skills. This option was deemed unfeasible and undesirable because it entails the introduction of yet another skill framework and it fails to cater to contextual differences among sectors of industry and organizations (some firms have invested a significant amount of time in developing their own language of skills and are not likely to throw this overboard). The second option was the adoption of one of the existing and well-known frameworks and attempting to further promote its use. The objections were similar to the first option: success is contingent on parties adopting the chosen standard, and foregoing other standards (possibly already in use). A third option was ultimately chosen: bringing existing standards together and facilitating an exchange of information across different standards. As Andries van Vugt, representative of partner organization Organiq put it: “We do not believe one standard will be adopted by all targeted stakeholders, but instead a golden standard will be achieved through connecting different existing standards”.
This choice followed a thorough analysis of existing career tools and the skill frameworks on which they are built (including, for example, the American O*NET and the European ESCO frameworks). Pros and cons were identified by considering, for example: how often the framework is maintained/updated and through which sources, how abstract the skill definitions are and whether it caters to job seekers with different educational backgrounds. Furthermore, their complementarity was considered: could frameworks be strengthened by incorporating each other’s elements? This enables the project to draw in complementary information on skills. As such, P4W can effectively build on the merits of the multitude of skill frameworks in existence.
What are the next steps?
Through this process, important groundwork was established for advancing the P4W project. The next step is to align this direction with other relevant networks in The Netherlands who are committed to similar aims and objectives. Realizing strong levels of support among these stakeholders is of crucial importance for the further development, upscaling and embedding of this solution.