Four-stage developmental model
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Four-stage developmental model

Employability skills develop throughout the lifetime

In our research, we saw evidence that employability skills are malleable over the lifetime and can be developed and strengthened over four distinct stages. Though some interviewees believed that some of the skills were fixed and could not be improved through practice but for each still, we found examples of employers or educators who were sucessfully supporting learners in strengthening employability skills.

Seedling (small)
1. Preparatory Level
Build employability skills awareness.
2. Foundational Level
Establish basic employability skills knowledge and skills.
3. Apprentice Level
Establish applied employability skills competence
Illustration of a plant with flower in bloom
4. Work-Ready Level
Build applied employability skills competence

People develop employability skills long before they enter the workforce, but—according to many educators and employers interviewed—college-age and early-career technicians often don’t appear to appreciate the critical importance of these skills and have had limited experience with them. To address this gap, educators and employers call for a greater focus on employability skills during middle school and high school, as well as continuing to develop these skills in the postsecondary years. They want educators to convey the importance of these skills for all kinds of careers, but particularly technician careers that sometimes are perceived—incorrectly—as not requiring skills such as writing, speaking, and negotiating with team members.

Many of the development techniques discussed in this chapter focus on approaches that interviewees from college and industry recommended for use in secondary-level academic courses, career technical education classes, dual enrollment courses, informal education activities, student clubs, and youth employment programs. However, these approaches may be used by college instructors and managers at any point in a technician’s career to raise basic awareness of the importance of employability skills.

The most relevant literature concerning building basis awareness of the importance of employability skills comes from the K-12 applied research into 21st-century skills and social- emotional learning. The term “21st century” captures the skill sets young people need to develop today to prepare for future jobs and lives in which demands are constantly changing. Frameworks of 21st century skills usually include the employability skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving. The literature on social-emotional learning includes related readiness skills and mindsets. For example, the skill set of emotional regulation prepares for effective interpersonal skills, the growth mindset prepares for lifelong learning skills, and the skill set of self-regulated learning prepares for work ethic.

Once made aware of the importance of employability skills, learners can benefit from opportunities to rehearse, refine, and improve these skills. Such activities are helpful to “unlearn” unproductive beliefs about employability skills, such as “teamwork is bad,” “learning is something done only in school,” or “becoming a technician means not having to focus on writing, reading, or speaking.” Many of the resources for this chapter draw from college classroom interventions intended to provide practical experience to develop interpersonal and communication skills. For the other employability skills, the research team relied on research literature from industrial or organizational psychology.

After having the opportunity to participate in structured classroom exercises to apply employability skills, learners can benefit from applying the skills in an actual work setting. Structured forms of work-based learning—such as cooperative education and apprenticeships that combine authentic work experience with school instruction—have been increasingly recognized as a way to prepare youth for college and career. Particularly useful during transitions from formal education to the workplace, structured work-based learning also helps support better alignment of education and industry learning requirements. Work- based learning refers not only to cooperative education, apprenticeships, and internships, but also to any form of classroom instruction that brings real workplace cases or working professionals into the classroom or that helps students prepare for and reflect about learning from work experiences. Further, depending on the nature of the work-based learning experience, employers may count it in making hiring decisions.
While these applied practices assume that learners have had some basic exposure to past employability skills instruction, the educators and employers participating in this research repeatedly noted that it would be incorrect to assume that every student or new employee comes with adequate readiness to apply employability skills effectively. The early experiences with work-based learning are a time for experimentation and learning from mistakes—within reason. Further, working for outside employers usually involves careful preparation and screening. Both educators and employers use various techniques to gauge someone’s readiness for work-based learning activities: third-party referrals, direct observation, and gatekeeping assessments. They also use such data to personalize instruction for learners during internships, developing clear goals for the experience.
The research indicated that most educators schedule work-based learning later in the academic learning cycle (e.g., capstone courses) and most employers schedule such activities early in the workplace onboarding process (e.g., coaching and mentoring).

While opinions remain divided about how malleable employability skills are once a learner reaches adulthood and enters the workforce, this chapter takes the perspective that employability skills may be developed throughout a lifetime. This chapter also provides some elaboration on how employability skills take slightly different developmental trajectories in the fields of information technology and advanced manufacturing as a result of their different work contexts.