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National Center for Research in Vocational Education
University of California, Berkeley
Number 8
October 1999

Context Matters: Teaching and Learning Skills for Work


Why Should Educators Worry About Workplace Skills?

Changes in work and the workplace are transforming the kinds of knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for successful work performance. Evidence of the need for new skills comes from many sources. For example, The National Employer Survey conducted by the National Center for Educational Quality of the Workforce indicates that employers are concerned that employees have "soft" skills in addition to technical knowledge and basic competencies. In addition, a growing body of empirical research on the nature of work suggests that employers need nimble-minded workers to a larger extent than ever before. They seek intelligent employees who can master the technical demands of their jobs, work without constant supervision, adapt to new technologies, teach themselves how to use sophisticated equipment, and have the right attitudes and dispositions toward work. Being book smart is rarely sufficient. Employers and workers together note that "generic" skills, such as problem solving, communication, and the ability to work in teams are more important than ever.

If we consider that a majority of the labor market--three-fifths in 1992--does not have a baccalaureate degree, then it becomes clear that high schools, community colleges, and on-the-job training programs must play a key role in preparing the nation's workforce.

In recognition of the demand for a more comprehensive skills, policymakers and others have begun to develop new ways of defining and providing instruction in essential skills. These new approaches retain traditional academic high school courses but also include generic skills and job-specific vocational skills. In 1990, a commission assembled by the U. S. Secretary of Labor introduced a new skills framework. These SCANS (Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) skills are organized in a two-part framework: "foundation skills," including the basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and mathematics; and workplace "competencies." In addition, the federal government is currently supporting the development of skill standards in 22 industries.

A Skills Glossary

Policymakers, researchers and practitioners have begun to use a number of terms to denote new skills--foundation skills, workplace skills, generic skills, workplace attitudes and dispositions. Here is a glossary of some of the more important skill terms.

SCANS Skills
SCANS skills come from the work of the Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. The Commission established four categories of skills thought to be required for most jobs: foundation skills, or basic reading, writing and arithmetic; thinking skills; personal qualities like responsibility and self-esteem; and, finally, five "work competencies." These competencies are (1) the ability to locate and use resources, (2) interpersonal skills needed for work, (3) the ability to use and communicate information, (4) the ability to understand and work within systems, and (5) the ability to use technology.

Basic Skills
These serve as the building blocks for future learning in school and life. They usually refer to the three Rs: reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic.

Generic Skills
Generic skills are needed for most jobs. Typically, they include problem solving, teamwork, and communication skills.

Work Attitudes and Dispositions
These are dispositions toward work such as honesty, responsibility, reliability, willingness for employees to learn on the job and to take responsibility for their own learning.

Communities of Practice
A community of practice is the social setting in which work is situated. It refers to the kinds of teams that employees learn and work within, their daily routine and expectations of one another.

Skill Transfer
Skill transfer refers to the application of skills learned in one setting--the classroom, for instance--to a different environment such as a workplace. Researchers have learned that though many teachers, employers, and workers believe that skill transfer occurs automatically, that is not necessarily the case. Many young workers struggle to understand which academic skills need to be used to solve real-time work problems.

Situative View of Skills
From a situative perspective, the social setting in which cognitive activity takes place is an integral part of that activity, not just the setting for it. The knowledge, attitudes, or abilities needed for a certain job can be understood only within that particular working context, from the perspective of the individuals in the social setting.

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