Identifying a Skills Gap in the Workforce

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The gulf between the capabilities of a collective workforce and the level of aptitude an employer demands is known as a “skills gap” in the labor market. Serious problems arise when a workforce’s proficiency cannot keep pace with economic development. In an increasingly interconnected and global business environment, one lagging sector can drag down several others.


So, what does this have to do with credentialing programs? The role of certification—as with education and training in general—is to prepare people for the challenges of the world. Certifications don’t exist for their own sake. They exist to give employees and employers a reliable and effective way to supply people with a standard set of skills. This usually entails identifying a skills gap within a discipline.


In the certification universe, there are a myriad of offerings for skills, job roles and disciplines, from school teachers to accountants to information technology. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which is part of the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA), promotes 21 standards for administering premium certifications.


“The NCCA standards are a blueprint—almost a business plan in some ways—for how to build a quality certification program,” said Wade Delk, executive director of NOCA. “Whether you intend to be accredited by the NCCA or not, if you follow the standards to the best of your ability, you’re going to create a very high-quality certification program.”


Delk said employers should identify deficiencies in the workforce’s skills to determine if the certification is necessary. “First, determine there is a need for the certification,” Delk explained. “If you’re sitting around a table and saying, ‘You know, it might be fun to have a certification in this area,’ that’s certainly not relevant and valid enough to start it.”


Ideally, once the skills gap is identified, a certification will be developed and rolled out promptly. However, this is seldom the case, as job roles and requisite expertise change rapidly and program managers face resource limitations. For Scott Grams, director of the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), forming a credentialing program in geographical information systems (GIS) took more than a decade.


“Certification was an idea that had been discussed in the geographic information systems community for sometime—probably for 10 or 15 years in backroom discussions at various conferences,” he said. “As GIS continued to grow and got integrated into disciplines like planning emergency management, crime analysis, health and environmental sciences, etc., this profession sort of emerged out of it. In order to have a true profession, a number of GIS professionals felt that there needed to be some kind of credentialing program and a code of ethics.”


Roughly five years ago the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association researched the need for GIS certification to see if it was viable. “What it did was create a committee of 40 individuals from a wide variety of disciplines—academia, non-profit organizations and private and public sectors,” Grams said. “All those individuals started to investigate how such a program would work. Would it be examination based? Portfolio based? Would there be different tiers of certification? Would it be a binary certification—you’re in or you’re out?”


Once the ball gets rolling on the certification, determine how the levels of proficiency will be evaluated. To find a method to identify GIS professionals’ needs, GISCI ran a pilot program for the first few months of the certification’s existence. It used the applications the candidates submitted to the organization to identify their abilities. “The first versions of the program were very open,” Grams said. “The documentation requirements weren’t as strong. While the pilot program was going on, the committee kept meeting, and they were given updates of the program and saw all of the portfolios. The application wasn’t changed dramatically but significantly enough. They really wanted to do a certification program based on an application, and the only thing that’s going to give that approach some teeth is by having strict documentation requirements.”


When the pilot phase was complete, GISCI decided that it would keep this approach, evaluating applicants through a points system based on education, professional experience and industry contributions. It eschewed exam-based evaluations because of the diversity of GIS solutions. “There are different GIS platforms, and they felt creating an examination that involved all of these various activities would be something that numerous groups in the profession would be debating about until the end of time,” Grams said.


–Brian Summerfield,

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