What Do Students Really Need to Succeed? In Illinois, Education and Industry Decide Together

Published aug. 06, 2018

It’s a common refrain: employers ask, “Why can’t we find candidates with the skills our company needs?” while educators wish, “If only I knew exactly what employers need, I could better prepare my students.”

Together, JFF and the State of Illinois are boldly tackling these challenges. We are bringing together employers, state agencies, and leaders in K–12 and higher education to collectively define the competencies that students need for success in careers that will grow the state’s economy into the future.

JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity team supports state and regional partners to build career pathway systems for high school and college students that are reverse engineered from employer needs and lead to economic advancement. Illinois is one of only a few partners that have gone further. The state took a holistic, research-based, and industry-driven approach to defining exactly what high school and college students need to know and be able to do to succeed in their careers.

Illinois’s admirable 2016 Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act outlines four ambitious focus areas to better prepare young people to transition from high school, through college, and into careers. One focus area offers students a way to earn college and career pathway “endorsements” on their high school diplomas.

An endorsement indicates that a student is ready for college and career in any of the seven industry areas that represent the state’s economic development priorities. The endorsement system is voluntary for school districts to adopt. Many districts in the state are eager to offer these endorsements, though the fundamental question of exactly what an endorsement signifies to both schools and industry still needs to be answered.

What are competencies, anyway?
Competencies are statements that outline what students need to know and be able to do in specific areas. The Illinois competencies, co-developed by education and industry leaders, define requirements for career success, including knowledge, skills, and abilities that employees must demonstrate in any job and in certain industries.

Illinois Competency Mapping.png
JFF’s Five-Step Process for Competency Mapping

Over the past year, JFF worked closely with the Education Systems Center (Edsystems) at Northern Illinois University to lead a collaborative and iterative five-step process to define high-level competencies. JFF and Edsystems started by conducting national and state-specific research to identify key foundational and industry-specific employment skills.

Our approach to systems of college and career pathways is student centered and employer driven.

We convened business, industry, education, and workforce leaders in statewide public-private steering committees. We started with four committees, one each for four of the state’s seven endorsement industries: health, IT, business, and manufacturing and engineering. The committees defined the core competencies that are essential in all careers, as well as the specific technical competencies required in these four key industries.

Then, we surveyed business and industry leaders about the competency statements and incorporated their feedback because the more employers engage in co-creating the work, the more likely they are to implement it. We’re excited to announce that these competencies are currently recommended for approval by Illinois’s Workforce Readiness through Apprenticeships and Pathways Steering Committee.

Learn more about JFF’s innovative competency-mapping process and the specific competencies developed for health, IT, business, and manufacturing and engineering:

Read the Report

So, why do these competencies matter? They:

  • clearly describe both what students need to know and what they need to be able to do to succeed in all careers and in targeted industry sectors;
  • seamlessly connect learning across secondary and postsecondary education, which can help inform effective designs for pathways that span grade 9 through college;
  • provide employers and educators with a common language for and a shared understanding of the PWR Act’s endorsement areas; and,
  • are designed for anytime, anywhere learning because youth earn PWR Act endorsements by demonstrating competence in both classroom and workplace-based learning experiences.

JFF and EdSystems are now mapping competencies in the three remaining endorsement industry areas of agriculture, arts and communication, and human services (with a focus on education).

Our vision is that all students develop essential employability competencies, earn in-demand credentials, and launch rewarding careers.

The process we developed for mapping competencies serves as a valuable template for others seeking to do similar work across the country. Our approach to systems of college and career pathways is student centered and employer driven. Our vision is that all students develop essential employability competencies, earn in-demand credentials, and launch rewarding careers, starting with students in Illinois.

Contact Leah Moschella at lmoschella@jff.org for more information about JFF’s innovative competency-mapping work in Illinois.

This competency-mapping process has been led in partnership by EdSystems and JFF, thanks to generous support from JPMorgan Chase & Co.