The role of assessment in the development of employability skills
Amid changes in the world of work, it is in the best interests of employers, career development practitioners and educational institutions to help jobseekers develop employability skills
With an increasing number of young people entering the workforce with post-secondary education in hand, and employers saying they are more concerned with workers’ punctuality and interpersonal skills than with their technical abilities (Lerman, 2013), the factor differentiating graduates who get hired from those who don’t may be employability skills. While schools are providing the next wave of employees with sectoral knowledge and technical skills (often called hard skills), employers are lamenting graduates’ lack of soft skills (Cassidy, 2006).
Lest young graduates be unfairly criticized, soft skills are also required of adults entering or re-entering the workforce later in their careers. Jobseekers who are part of vulnerable populations including the homeless, chronically unemployed, people with disabilities and newcomers are particularly susceptible to the negative implications of employability skills deficits.
So, what are the skills necessary to work in Canada and how can we assess them?
What are employability skills and why do they matter?
Employability is rarely clearly defined and a search of the relevant literature divulges a fairly wide variety of descriptions. Most of these, however, contain the core idea that employability relates to an individual’s capability to obtain a job (Harvey, 2001). Thus, employability skills – or soft skills, as they are often referred to – are the skills that increase one’s capability of obtaining employment.
The shift from an industrial economy to a service and/or office economy has shifted employers’ emphasis to hiring for integrity, attitude, responsibility, self-management and communication skills (Robles, 2012). It is clear that non-academic or non-technical skills are important and the literature confirms that these employability or soft skills are not only integral to getting a job, but pay dividends in terms of job mobility and earnings (Lerman, 2013).
Soft skills have been described as a combination of interpersonal and social-emotional skills, in contrast to the technical and administrative skills and procedures that typically constitute hard skills. Hard skills are often acquired through formal education and training while soft skills are, for the most part, developed through personal experience and reflection. However, these skill sets are complementary in the sense that they are both necessary if an employee is to remain employed and both contribute to the success of the organization (Rego, 2017).
Can these skills be assessed?
It is incumbent that educational institutions and career development personnel be able to assess the development of employability skills. Unlike hard skills, however, which can be evaluated using more traditional means such as tests, employability skills are difficult to objectively assess. Assessment of employability skills most often involves the observation of a particular activity or task as it is being performed (Kechagias, 2011).
Formative assessment occurs when observation is combined with the provision of timely and supportive feedback. Unfortunately, programs that teach technical skills for future specialization often don’t assess and develop employability skills effectively, as sustained effort in the formative process of observation and feedback is typically needed to reinforce these skills. The job of assessing and developing these skills is made even more difficult because they are contextual and are best learned and most applicable in connection to a specific job. A formative assessment process that involves supervisors and employers is likely the most effective way to assess employability skills.
So how should employability skills be assessed?
There is a lot of variability across the literature on how best to measure employability skills. Valid and reliable assessment tools are available (eg, the Employment Readiness Scale [Ward & Riddle, 2014]), but these tend to focus on a broad but limited number of employability-related factors. Some sectors have established methods for assessing and benchmarking soft skills (eg, health care or public relations), but this is not the case for the majority of sectors (Cukier et al., 2015).
There is evidence to support the belief that these skills can and will be learned in the course of gaining experience. In fact, research suggests that the development of employability skills may require learning in actual workplaces (Lerman, 2013).
Gibb (2014) offers a number of suggestions, based on the work of Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006), for making effective use of experience and feedback in the interest of developing and assessing these skills. He advises that the assessment of employability skills needs to take place in a safe environment and involve the following practices:
- Connecting employability skills with the performance goals of the organization in an explicit way. This means clarifying what good performance looks like. Rubrics are useful to this end for formative and summative forms of assessment (DiMartino & Castaneda, 2007).
- Paying equal attention to both observable behaviour and an employee’s perceptions of their own behaviour.
- Ensuring that the information used to support feedback is sound – observations are valid and reliable, the information used is concrete and relevant and inferences are minimal.
- Providing feedback that is goal-referenced, actionable, timely and consistent, and pointing out opportunities to close the gap between the level of performance that has been observed and what is required.
- Encouraging self-assessment and reflection on learning and skill-development opportunities.
- Encouraging positive beliefs and self-esteem that contribute to motivation for learning and skill development.
- Employing assessment that is adaptable to new skill requirements and allows opportunities for creativity on the part of the employee.
- Giving equal and objective treatment to all employees.
The world of work is changing and so are the skills employees need to participate in it. Formative assessment of employability skills should be an integral part of practicum and co-op experiences for students. Programs and workshops already exist in Canada that will provide training in employability skills and many of these use a formative assessment approach. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of employers to use assessment strategies as part of their performance review process with employees, as this can increase retention and reduce hiring costs.
Jeff Landine is Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC) and Licensed Psychologist in New Brunswick. He works as a Counsellor Educator at the University of New Brunswick but also maintains a private practice where he particularly enjoys helping clients with career and employability needs.
Cassidy, S. (2006). Developing employability skills: Peer assessment in higher education. Education+ training, 48(7), 508-517.
Cukier, W., Hodson, J., & Omar, A. (2015). “Soft” skills are hard: A review of the literature. Ryerson University: Toronto, ON.
DiMartino, J., & Castaneda, A. (2007). Assessing Applied Skills. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 38–42.
Gibb, S. (2014). Soft skills assessment: theory development and the research agenda. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(4), 455–471. https://doi.org/10.1080/02601370.2013.867546
Harvey, L. (2001). Defining and measuring employability. Quality in Higher Education, 7(2), 97–109. https://doi.org/10.1080/13538320120059990
Kechagias, K. (2011). Teaching and Assessing Soft Skills, MASS Project, 115-117.
Lerman, R. I. (2013). Are employability skills learned in U.S. youth education and training programs? IZA Journal of Labor Policy, 2(1), 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/2193-9004-2-6
Rego, A. (2017). Soft Skills: Who says they can’t be taught? Canadian Journal of Medical Laboratory Science; Hamilton, 79(2), 11.
Robles, M. M. (2012). Executive perceptions of the top 10 soft skills needed in today’s workplace. Business Communication Quarterly, 75(4), 453-465.
Ward, V., & Riddle, D. (2014). Weaving soft skills development into everyday employment services in Canada. Career Development Association: Online Resources. Retrieved from https://cannexus.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Weaving-Soft-Skills_canada_20141.pdf.