How Corporation for a Skilled Workforce Plays a Key Role in the World of WFD, Credentials & Competencies

Feature Article – By George Lorenzo – Published April 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

For another installment of WFM articles about veteran professionals in the field of workforce development (WFD), we talked with Larry Good, President & CEO, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW).

Launched in 1991, CSW is a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, co-founded and led by 70-year-old Larry Good. Larry’s work is an extraordinary 40-year journey in the field of workforce development. His first-hand experience before forming CSW goes back to the early 80s as a staff member of a Michigan state senator’s office. Following that, from 1983 to 1990, he was employed with two-term-governor of Michigan James Blanchard (described at the time as “the toughest governor’s job in America”), working in his newly created Job Training Office, which wound up getting national attention.

Influential Literature
Larry explains that in the early 1990s there were two key pieces of literature that had a big influence on his thinking and career development, both of which still resonate today: the report “America’s Choice: high skills or low wages!,” published by the National Center on Education and the Economy, and the book “The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism,” by Robert B. Reich.  

America’s Choice posited, in brief, that “the only way to justify high wages is to have high productivity, and high productivity requires higher skills,” Larry says. Reich’s book, in short, focused on skills, along with policy making, including the notion that “no matter what happens in any given industry, if you’ve got a workforce that has a lot of skills and embraces new ones, you are going to be able to ride the waves of economic change.”

Building Community Coalitions
From this base, Larry says CSW progressed across a good number of directions over the years, including two early initiatives during the 90s in Flint, Michigan and Elkhart, Indiana, both rapidly changing manufacturing cities that had grassroot movements geared toward getting “a diverse range of actors working together from education, workforce and community groups, and local government to try to understand what was going on in their labor market and what kind of strategies could take on major issues.” It was through several kinds of connection-oriented initiatives like Flint and Elkhart that “gave CSW a way to start really doing community-coalition work.” 

The Next Level: Credentials
CSW’s growing capabilities through several more initiatives that built workforce development coalitions led the nonprofit to start thinking more about credentials and concerns about the fact that not all individuals go to college and earn degrees. For example, in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 36% of people age 25 or older have earned a bachelor’s degree, and in 2010 that figure was 29.9%.  

“We started to look at non-degree credentials – industry certifications and what colleges and others issue – where they fit into the big picture and how we could think differently about that marketplace,” Larry says. Several years later that work led to conversations with the Lumina Foundation and a partnership that became an extraordinary initiative called “Connecting Credentials,” a four-year project (completed in 2018) to engage more than 100 stakeholder groups in a shared cause to build competency-based interconnections among degree and non-degree credentials.

As noted on the now-archived Connecting Credentials website, a national summit on credentialing was convened in 2015, consisting of 200 leaders representing more than 150 organizations. The discussions from that summit “made it clear that critically needed changes in credentialing policy and practice can only be realized by coordinated actions taken among diverse stakeholders.” 

Over the following year, “more than 100 diverse stakeholders participated in five work groups charged with thinking through actions needed around important elements of building a stronger credentialing ecosystem. The five work groups included: Common Language, Data and Technology, Quality Assurance, Employer Leadership and Engagement and Pathways for Equity.”

“The core idea of Connecting Credentials was that everybody’s learning should be able to count,” Larry explains. “An employer should be able to use that when hiring. And if we do that, then we can make the educational choices people make through their life smarter. People can make transitions faster. Companies can ensure they got a labor force doing what they need more crisply, and that’s a win-win proposition.” 

Some of the work that came out of the Connecting Credentials initiative resulted in Credential Engine getting started, as well as work currently happening through a variety of services in the world of e-transcripts. “You can point to a lot of things going on now that came out of the breakout groups that worked on different issues, thinking about credentials,” Larry says. 

Breaking Down Competencies
“Ultimately, we argued that you can break down any degree, any credential, any academic program, or any job description into underlying competencies. Some do that explicitly. In some cases, you have got to ask 20 questions to get there, but you can do it,” he further explains.  The idea is to describe credentials in a common language that would enable everyone to see marginally what competencies a person has. So, if an individual has certain competencies – let’s call them A through D – and the job they are interested also requires E through F, that catalyzes a focused learning on obtaining E through F. “You can start customizing the learning people do to get to the next step, and it also allows them to communicate what assets they already have and what they know they can do a lot better for employers. It also allows employers to write job descriptions that really get at the competencies somebody needs to succeed at a job.” 

In the end, it’s all about competencies. “We’ve come a long way in the last several years,” Larry says. “The potential is limitless.”