Game-Changing Essential Skills Program Brings ‘Soft’ Skills into Focus

They’re sometimes known as “soft skills,” but for those most in-tune to the needs of California employers, the term is hardly sufficient. 

“For a long time now, employers have told us that there’s a lack of the interpersonal and intangible skills among their employees that they need to really succeed,” says Josh Sweigert, Assistant Director of Employer Partnerships for the North Far North region. 

Sweigert prefers the term “employability skills” – those such as communication, self-awareness, resilience, adaptability and problem solving. These “soft” – yet significant –proficiencies form the core of the new Essential Skills Program (ESP), a network of skills-training modules designed to dismantle one of the key barriers to workforce success. 

“You can be the best coder in the world, but if you can’t communicate with the client, you just can’t get the job done,” says Blaine Smith, Executive Director of the North-Far North Regional Consortium, which will pilot ESP in all 15 of its colleges this fall.  

A decade ago, Strong Workforce Program funding from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office allowed for the development of New World of Work (NWoW), an online program designed to tackle the “soft skills” problem. NWoW was piloted in the NFN region and eventually scaled across all 116 California community colleges. 

Created with input from employers across the state, the program focused on the 10 competencies that employers most valued. Alongside technical skills, these competencies were deemed essential to succeeding in ever-evolving work environments. The open-sourced curriculum was designed for post-secondary students with lessons taught by instructors in a classroom setting.  

But in today’s post-pandemic environment, it became clear that NWoW was due for a 21st-century refresh. 

“With the advent of more online learning and hybrid classes, we needed to develop lessons that could be taught in a different way,” explains Rajinder Gill, co-founder and CEO of Essential Skills, the program that has replaced NWoW.

Gone are the fat binders and USB hard drives. Today’s Essential Skills Program has been built digitally in Canvas. And while many of the soft skills covered are similar to those taught in NWoW, both the language and the scenarios of the modules have been updated. Each module is now supported by a trained instructor and by peer-to-peer interaction, whether that takes place in a classroom or chat room.

“We know that online learning that is completely self-directed has a very low rate of completion,” says Gill, stressing the vital role played by the instructor, who can either use the lessons as stand-alones or incorporate them into a scenario relevant to the subject matter. An instructor in an automotive class, for example, might present students with a behavior-based challenge that represents a change to a normal procedure, challenging adaptability and problem-solving skills. 

The focus throughout is on behavior-based learning. A self-reflection guide helps learners integrate the lesson and consider a behavioral change, while an assessment evaluates their comprehension and results in a digital badge that provides proof of mastery of the topic, not just completion of the module. 

These digital badge certifications are verified credentials that serve as an important part of the program, according to Gill: “We know that the strongest use of digital credentialing is when it’s tied to an assessment.”

The badges will reside on a global platform, so they can be accessed by the learner and potential employers.

“What’s great about having ESP in the content management system is that we can see who accesses it, how many times they do, and how students and faculty respond and the types of questions they ask,” says Smith. “As first adopters, we’ll be able to collect some useful data. Is the information helpful? Will instructors use it in their coursework? How are the faculty and students responding to it?”

The update comes at an opportune time. More than ever, Golden State industries are demanding future-ready workers fluent in traditionally undertaught skills critical to working as a team, solving problems and adapting to an ever-changing work environment. In fact, LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report noted that a whopping 89 percent of recruiters say that when a hire doesn’t work out, it is most often due to a lack of these non-cognitive skills. Meanwhile, 80 percent of employers confirm that these skills are increasingly important to the overall success of their company.

The Essential Skills pilot program will be made available primarily to career education students. After initial review, the program will roll out to other California community colleges, as well as job seekers, adult learners, and employees of any company seeking to strengthen their employees’ skills in key areas. 

For Sweigert, adopting a single program across all of California’s community colleges is key to providing a common language and set of values. “This is a universal issue, and it’s helpful to put some universal definitions to these abstract concepts.”

Strong Workforce Program funding has supported the growth and adoption of the Essential Skills Program, as well as the development costs of the digital badges, according to Kate O’Rorke, co-founder and company COO. “By leveraging grant funds, we are not in the position of having to pass the cost on to students. Once ESP is embedded into the CMS, Strong Workforce funds can be used to pay access fees. And because soft skills can go across so many disciplines, funding streams can be very wide.” 

Indeed, providing the program at no cost to learners is important, because it means that ESP is adhering to equity standards. 

“From the beginning, the idea was that the program should not be fee-based, and we would not pass on costs to learners,” O’Rorke reflects. “Doing so removes one of the barriers to education and career success.” 

“Everything we do is to benefit the development of a strong, capable workforce that’s prepared to advance within their fields,” adds Smith.