Employer upskilling programs need to consider both durable and perishable skills

In 2019, a team at the edtech consulting firm Entangled Group, which Guild later acquired, kicked off a project to examine the impacts of lifelong learning on curriculum and learning path decisions for academic partners. The focus eventually revolved around skills working learners developed via formal education channels. When I later joined the company in 2020 and read the research, my mind lit up with the various implications of the research. 

What got me so excited was that while the rest of the L&D industry was single-mindedly embracing the short half-lives of skills and churning out endless change-oriented content, the people at Entangled dared to stop and ask the question, “If some skills are more perishable, what are the implications for how we invest in skills development?”

Before I continue further, take a look at the graphic below to see what I mean by durable and perishable skills. As I’ve written about previously, viewing skills on this spectrum gives much more nuance than another commonly-used binary: “hard” and “soft” skills. 

This framework is derived from competency-based education (CBE) frameworks, wherein the most durable skills are discussed as “dispositions,” semi-durable skills are considered “knowledge” and “frameworks,” and perishable skills are often referred to as “abilities.” In the above image, we denote the half-life of these skills with the CBE framework to illustrate how design learning can address all three classifications.

I believe that much of the L&D world has adopted a hamster wheel mentality with skills that constantly churn out throw-away content that will get you as far as a process change, a software upgrade, or a new platform rollout. These perishable skills are the leaves on the tree that turn over every season. Though there will always be some need for this, every L&D department must be able to respond to several other various needs of the business. As a result, the question this research set off for me is two-fold:

  1. If we (L&D) do a better job at upskilling people on more durable skills, could those employees better weather the changes of constant processes, software, and system changes? (Put another way, can we strengthen the roots and branches so the tree can grow whatever leaves it needs each year with less effort?)
  2. How do we ensure that we’re striking the right balance of teaching the tool (perishable) and the disposition (durable) and knowledge frameworks (semi-durable) so that learners can act immediately, but also gain skills that allow them to climb the ranks of their organizations in time?

The example I often cite for this way of thinking is Agile. Agile is one word that describes a vast array of practices in software development. It makes me cringe whenever I see it in a job posting because it’s such a narrow use of a word that describes such a wide-open framework of skills. Sometimes, when a candidate or employer says that they have experience with Agile they mean they know how to use Jira, Asana, or some other workflow tool to manage Agile processes. The ability to use those tools to manage stories and backlogs is the most perishable form of the skill because those systems will have upgrades monthly, be reconfigured quarterly, and are likely to be replaced by an employer every two to three years.

The next step above the Agile skills tree is knowledge of Scrum or Kanban frameworks for managing work. If you know these frameworks, you understand and can participate in the ceremonies: grooming, planning, retros, etc. You understand story points and velocity and all of the other words that go with Agile. Those frameworks are likely to serve you well for years with only slight modifications as new frameworks (like Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe) are rolled out or updated.

At its core, the disposition for working with Agile is this: deliver the smallest possible unit of value for your customer as soon as you can, iterate upon it, and make it better while you build the big thing. If you learn this way of thinking, the framework of two-week sprints (Scrum) or backlogged Kanban boards are just ways of working. If you know how to create minimum viable products as detailed on an Asana board or Jira board, those are just details about how we track the work that can be updated with minimal effort. 

To “train” a learner in Agile, we need them to have the disposition, the framework, and the tool at the same time. But I can invest minimally in upskilling in the future as platforms change if I’ve done a good job of building out a solid understanding of the Agile disposition and frameworks.

From a business perspective, the difference of whether a skill is hard or soft has little financial impact. Instead, the more relevant approach is considering how durable or perishable skills are. As in, weighing the difference between a skill that is durable and will serve a company well for years, versus a skill that is perishable. The latter will require constant upskilling, and has a large impact in workforce planning, upskilling costs, and employee productivity. Companies cannot altogether avoid training employees with whatever trend in skills that may come along in their industry. But by thoughtfully designing their education and training systems with durable skills in mind, they can make sure their workers continually get the training they need to succeed in both the short and long term.   

Written by Matthew Daniel

Principal, Employer Solutions

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