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All Learning Matters: How We Can Empower People Through A Comprehensive Recognition of Their Skills

It has been nearly four years since a report revealed that 6.6 million Americans who had attended college but didn’t graduate might have “stranded credits” — academic credits they had earned but could not use at another college because institutions were holding transcripts as collateral over unpaid balances.

The report led to an immediate uproar. Some institutions forgave all or part of the debts or released transcripts. Several states banned the withholding of transcripts. In October, new U.S. Department of Education regulations prohibited institutions from withholding most college transcripts for unpaid bills.

Dr. Amber Garrison DuncanDr. Amber Garrison DuncanThis rapid response was good news for students. Learners who wanted to resume their pursuit of a college credential no longer had to choose between repaying old college debts with money they didn’t have or restarting their educational journey. But the reality is, waiving old college debts underscores a broader reality: Most learners lack true agency over their education and skills.

When students transfer to another college, for instance, they lose on average more than 40% of their credits. In many instances, students are charged for their transcripts, which means they must pay others for access to their skills and abilities when it should be theirs to share freely.

Moreover, institutions, employers and labor markets often don’t recognize the diverse and multiple avenues for acquiring knowledge and skills — such as work and military experience, community activities, short-term training, and other alternatives to traditional college programs — that take place outside of higher education. However, the solution is in sight.

Learning and Employment Records, or LERs, represent a comprehensive recognition of skills and capabilities that can help individuals stand out in the job market, organizations find employees with the exact talents they need, and states and localities build the workforces and industries they need to prosper.

Central to this work is giving the individual ownership over their skills. LERs are verified competency-based digital records that show not only the credentials someone earned or the places someone worked but also all of the knowledge and skills, both technical and durable, they acquired along the way.

LERs also enable smooth communication between learners, employers, and government agencies. By making LERs interoperable, learners and workers can find new jobs or advance in their current organizations. Organizations can locate external talent and identify internal talent with verified skills and credentials. Education and training providers can more easily align their curriculum and credentials with the rapidly evolving needs of employers. Local, state and federal governments can collect more accurate data they can then use to create policies and dedicate resources to support education and workforce development that meets the needs of their industries and residents.

Tim McCarthyTim McCarthyThis is not a distant possibility. LERs are here now, and they’re being demonstrated actively across the country — most notably in Alabama, where the Alabama Talent Triad is building the nation’s first true skills-based ecosystem.

Launched in 2023, the Alabama Talent Triad seeks to complement existing HR and talent management systems by using a competency-based approach to fill jobs faster with candidates who have verified technical and durable skills. This skills-based model uses a rigorous system that articulates the skills employers are seeking and validates the competencies that learners gain in Alabama’s credentialing systems. A skills-based job description generator enables employers to convey talent needs through skills and connects them directly to qualified job seekers. The Alabama Talent Triad enables the state government to support an education and workforce system that meets the needs of all sides of the economy, responding to different regions of Alabama.

There’s still more work to be done. Translating skills from the school to the workplace and connecting LERs to the specific needs of Alabama’s employers remains a work in progress. Alabama businesses are still adapting their talent acquisition and upskilling practices to this new model so they can benefit fully. But the early returns have been promising. In a little more than a year, this pilot program has developed skills-based LERs for nearly 20,000 Alabama residents and verified nearly 50,000 credentials and more than 550,000 skills.

Individuals should not be constrained by traditional notions of credentials, degrees and records. Instead, they should have the agency and ability to showcase their skills and competencies, regardless of where or how they were acquired, and have them be easily accepted by employers. By giving all learners, workers and employers a portable and transparent tool that promotes a comprehensive recognition of skills, we can unlock the full potential of all individuals.

Dr. Amber Garrison Duncan is the executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network.

Tim McCarthy is chair of the Alabama Workforce Council.

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