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  • Competencies: The Not-So-Uncharted Frontier

    November 28, 2017 | By Troy Nunamaker, Kristin Walker, and Neil Burton

    A group of professionals discuss career readiness competencies.

    TAGS: operations, program development, journal

    NACE Journal, November 2017

    When NACE published its definition of career readiness and original set of competencies in 2015, the association got career centers talking. The campus chatter led to conference brainstorming, webinars, and roundtables, which inspired Clemson University and the University of Tampa to co-host a competency symposium in May 2017 with more than 180 attendees representing 60 institutions and employers.

    Hearing different institutions and functional areas agree on the importance of infusing competencies into the curriculum and co-curriculum while appreciating that the “how” would look different based on context was exciting. Listening to upper-level administrators, faculty, and employers embrace the competency movement was inspiring. Everyone even seemed to agree that assessment would be the most challenging part of this undertaking.

    But before diving into any calls to action, it’s important to understand when and how the competency discussion started.

    Historical Reference

    Peck (2017) compellingly argues that for more than 2,500 years, older generations have been bemoaning younger generations for not living up to the same standards as their predecessors in the workplace. Each new generation that enters the work force is believed to be less qualified and less motivated than the previous. However, even though business leaders, supervisors, educators, and politicians hold a bleak view of how well-prepared college students are for entering the workplace, the recent graduates themselves are very optimistic in their abilities to join the work force and bring the desired employment skills with them. And as Peck (2017) points out, “very few [students] indicate that they are not gaining these skills in college” (p. 63). Here, we see another opinion-based gap in employability. Could these discrepancies be alleviated by moving performance evaluations away from subjective, soft skill-focused definitions toward objective, competency-focused measures?

    Defining Competencies

    Competency is defined as “the combination of observable and measurable knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance and ultimately result in organizational success” (Human Resources-UNL, 2017, p. 1). Academia and employers have had competencies on their radar for quite some time due to the impact they have on the success, or lack thereof, for an organization and its stakeholders. For example, Huron Institute’s three-year implementation study published in 1980 focused on “curriculum reform that integrated academics and experience, and emphasized individualization, competency-based instruction, basic skills . . .” (Farrar, 1980, p. 1).

    Fast forward a couple of decades, and applied skills, or competencies, have quickly outpaced the need for basic skills, or content knowledge attributes, as employment success factors for a number of employers in the 21st century (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006). And there is a growing body of research suggesting that these competencies are important predictors of career success in the workplace for recent graduates (Stecher & Hamilton, 2014).

    Research institutions, accrediting bodies, and professional associations alike produced multiple discussions, surveys, research reports, and executive summaries on the importance of developing the next generation of working professionals. These discussions and publications evolved into lists of comprehensive competencies focused on students’ outcomes. Student affairs practitioners saw their own national and international associations—ACPA (College Student Educators International) and NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education)—come together in 2010 to develop 10 competencies and three levels of proficiencies to emphasize different outcomes of the same competency. However, these were competencies student affairs practitioners could acquire; they were not geared for student attainment. A task force revised these competencies in 2015, reinforcing the ideas that competencies are not static. For many practitioners, it was the first they heard of competencies, although, again, this set didn’t apply to college students.

    NACE published its formal competencies list in October 2015; these focused on the skills college students should develop. Even though the list was new, NACE has surveyed employers for years to determine the transferable skills they seek in college graduates. The competencies took the skills a step further. The list comprised critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communications, teamwork/collaboration, digital technology, leadership, professionalism/work ethic, and career management; a year later, global/intercultural fluency was added. (See

    A number of colleges and universities quickly incorporated these competencies into their career development work, while others opted to develop lists more specific to their institutional culture and needs. However, to accept or to modify the NACE list of competencies is not really the challenge for professionals working to help recent college grads. The more pertinent challenge has been how to move the conversation from subjective competency measures to objective competency measures. For example, first-generation and non-first-generation students subjectively rate themselves differently on competencies associated with career readiness (NACE, 2017). Ensuring that all students have an equal and equitable chance at understanding and showcasing their competencies is only one concern for taking subjective bias out of the workplace skills conversation. To avoid this discrepancy, and many others like it, higher education has an opportunity to help all matriculating students through college by developing objective competency measures.

    The challenge of moving from subjective to objective measures has been on Australia’s radar since 1992 as noted in the news article, “Committee to Advise the Australian Education Council and Ministers of Vocational Education, Employment and Training on Employment-related Key Competencies for Post-Compulsory Education and Training” (Williams, 2005). Williams points out that allowing bias to remain in competency metrics generates confusion around learnability, and creates stumbling blocks for policy makers and educators. Alleviating subjectivity should be at the forefront of discussions involving the development of new employability frameworks. Williams suspected that the project would “be subject to refusal, resistance, contestation, or appropriations in various ways by educators, trainers, and worker-learners alike” (p. 33).

    Measuring Competencies

    In more recent times, authors like Peck, Hall, Cramp, Lawhead, Fehring, and Simpson (2016), and Jackson and Wilton (2016b) continue to explore what type of career management impact experiences inside and outside the classroom have on what has historically been called “soft skills”: teamwork, decision making, problem solving, computer skills, influence/sales, processing data, and planning/organizing/prioritizing. De Vos, De Hauw, and Van Der Heijden (2011), as well as Jackson and Wilton (2016a), looked at links between career choice, career success, career management, and career competencies. De Vos, et. al (2011) found the presence of possible correlations between career satisfaction and perceived marketability with competency development as a predictive variable. De Vos’s group self-identified the work it was conducting as a subjective career success discussion, so, even at that time, the group knew there was a big gap in terms of incorporating objective language into the discussion. Likewise, Jackson and Wilton ascertain their early career choice and career success correlation on the concept of “perceived employability” (2016a, p. 1) measures rather than actual employability measures. Progressing from perceived employability measures to actual employability measures would move the discussion from a subjective to an objective talking point. Lenz, Freeman, Rutledge, and Williams (2015) discussed how to use career development practices, such as creating portfolios and practicing interviews, to develop competencies and the ability to communicate competencies in interview settings. Again, the Lenz, et al. article supports the argument that competencies should be incorporated into higher education curricula. However, many faculty members will want to see more concrete proof of competency development via career development practices before they do so.

    The interest in measuring and encouraging competency development does not stop with higher education. Employers also want accurate assessments of soft skills before hiring, and the current use of achievement tests are missing or mis-measuring these coveted soft skills (Heckman, 2012). The “Workforce Readiness Report Card of 2006” reveals a discrepancy between employer expectations of a new hire and reality (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006). NACE (2016b) has published employers’ perspectives on the importance of specific competency scores based on a 5-point scale. Critical thinking, problem-solving, professionalism/work ethic, teamwork, and communication skills rise to the top of NACE’s competencies, and are regarded as the most important of the nine competencies by responding employers (NACE staff, 2016a).

    A number of scholars are pushing to move the conversation from subjective inputs to objective measures. The question is whether career services professionals have effectively explored several questions: “What are competencies intended to do? Are they doing the right things? Are they getting desired results?” (Packard, 2014, p. 1). Although these questions may have initially been intended for professionals working in human services, they can easily be extended to other settings. Packard does extend the conversation to other fields when the editorial content turns from a human services focus to a focus on improving general organizational performance and outcomes. Universalizing these settings is done through the use of leveraging competency research in multiple educational and professional development programs.


    A large portion of Peck’s (2017) text builds upon this concept of objectifying measurable competencies by encouraging the use of common language through an established set of terms and definitions that can be shared amongst all constituents. Parents, students, employers, educators, and policy makers all have a stake in the discussion. We, as educators, can help establish common language by leveraging the practice of mapping activities to competencies. This theme of mapping content to activities and learning outcomes is identified as a missing link for colleges and universities in pinpointing specific gains associated with any given competency. “One of the major challenges in designing educational interventions to support these outcomes is a lack of high-quality measures that could help educators, students, parents, and others understand how students perform and monitor their development over time” (Stecher & Hamilton, 2014, p. 1).

    Even with the limitations associated with self-reporting and opinion-based performance reviews, competency measures mapped to specific learning activities and then tethered to established or universal rubrics will help educators, students, and employers move the discussion from subjective gaps in the curriculum to objective gaps in the curriculum. Following the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s and the National Institutes of Health’s exploration of proficiency levels for competencies, higher education has an opportunity to change the way it prepares the next generation of working professionals, and it needs to act accordingly before the opportunity has passed. The University of Luton recognized the distinction between a student’s knowledge of a discipline and a student’s skills necessary to “enhance their prospects of employment” (Fallows, 2000, p. 75). The university purposefully embeds skill development into the curriculum and creates detailed templates of activities and expectations. Other institutions in the United States, such as the University of Tampa, Kansas State University, and Austin Peay State University, are following suit and finding ways to map activities to specific competencies and integrate competencies into their curricula.

    In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences pulled together a National Research Council committee and charged it with exploring how to best educate citizens for life after graduation. The product of that committee’s report is a series of observations, one of which is to highlight the need to cultivate systematic instructional methods for competency development and sustain those practices. The committee also supported Peck’s (2017) argument for the use of common language when it discovered that current research on the importance of 21st-century competencies covers “a wide range of different competencies that are not always clearly defined” (p. 3). In its summary, the committee advocates for more studies using statistical methods that are designed to approximate experiments and to produce valid and reliable assessments of specific competencies. This is yet another call for mapping activities to clearly defined objective competencies. As academic institutions strive to produce career-ready graduates, clearly defined, mapped, and measurable competencies will assist academic and student affairs professionals in developing a roadmap to success for the students they serve.

    Call to Action

    While on the surface goals may look different—a career center wants its students to find positions that align with their interests, skills, and values, while employers want to recruit and retain the best talent that aligns with organizational and positional fit—there is common ground. All of us can come together to help students understand the language and purpose of competencies, and how to accurately self-assess and accept feedback on where they are in their competency development.

    So where do we go? How do we accurately assess?

    At the campus level, idea sharing should occur regularly between career centers and their most committed employers. Typically, it is not feasible to connect meaningfully during career fairs or on-campus interview days, but there are opportunities for such conversations to take place in the normal course of operations: corporate partner retreats, joint employer/career center staff days, information sessions, employer panels, networking events, and so forth.  One suggestion would be to invite a few exceptionally engaged employers to campus to help educate career center staff on how companies conduct and assess competency development within their respective organizations. With continued dialogue, a common language around competency development, articulation, and assessment will naturally develop among career center staff, employers, and students.

    As opposed to other associations related to higher education and student affairs, NACE is uniquely positioned to bring together career centers and employers. In reflecting on the history and evolution of competencies, career centers and higher education can learn from employers about what is and isn’t working in how they are assessing employee competency development from a wider perspective. Campus conversations can be quite productive, but they are often circumscribed by the fleeting nature of the interactions: There is simply not enough time to dive into the subject matter beyond more than a superficial level. Whether it is through coordinated panels in a webinar setting or face to face at conferences and other events, continued conversations between these constituencies can foster a national dialogue that could eventually engage career-minded university administrators interested in student success, retention, persistence, and employability.

    All of us should make efforts every day to engage with one another because, in the end, everyone—most importantly students who become employees—benefit.


    Casner-Lotto, J., & Barrington, L. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers' perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century US workforce. Washington, DC: Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

    De Vos, A., De Hauw, S., Van Der Heijden, B. (2011). “Competency development and career success: The mediating role of employability.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79(2), 438-447.

    Evers, F. T., & Rush, J. C. (1996). “The bases of competence: Skill development during the transition from university to work.” Management Learning, 27(3), 275-299.

    Fallows, S., & Steven, C. (2000). “Building employability skills into the higher education curriculum: A university-wide initiative.” Education+ training, 42(2), 75-83.

    Farrar, E. (1980). The Walls Within: Work, Experience, and School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Huron Institute.

    Heckman, J. J., & Kautz, T. (2012). “Hard evidence on soft skills.” Labour economics, 19(4), 451-464.

    Human Resources-UNL. (2017). The definition of competencies and their application at NU. University of Nebraska. Retrieved from

    Jackson, D. & Wilton, N. (2016a). “Career choice status among undergraduates and the influence of career management competencies and perceived employability.” Journal of Education and Work, 1-18. Retrieved from

    Jackson, D., & Wilton, N. (2016b). “Developing career management competencies among undergraduates and the role of work-integrated learning.” Teaching in Higher Education 21(3), 266-286. Retrieved from

    Lenz, J. G., Freeman, V., Rutledge, K., & Williams, C. (2015). “Promoting critical thinking in students: A career center’s strategy.” NACE Journal, 76(2), 34-37.

    NACE Staff. (2017). “Career readiness ratings yield parallels, differences.” Spotlight newsletter, January 25, 2017.

    NACE Staff. (2016a). “Employers identify four “must have” career readiness competencies for college graduates.”Spotlight newsletter, April 20, 2016.

    NACE Staff. (2016b). “Employers: Verbal communication most important candidate skill.” Spotlight newsletter, February 24, 2016.

    National Research Council. (2013). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Packard, T. (2014). “How competent are competencies?” Human Services Organizations: Management, Leadership, and Governance, 313-319. Retrieved from

    Peck, A. (2017). Engagement and employability: Integrating career learning through cocurricular experiences in postsecondary education.Washington, DC: NASPA.

    Peck, A., Hall, D., Cramp, C., Lawhead, J., Fehring, K., & Simpson, T. (2016). “The co-curricular connection: The impact of experiences beyond the classroom on soft skills.” NACE Journal, 76(3), 30-34.

    Stecher, B. M., & Hamilton, L. S. (2014). Measuring hard-to-measure student competencies: A research and development plan. Research Report. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

    Williams, C. (2005). “The discursive construction of the ‘competent’ learner-worker: From key competencies to ‘employability’ skills.” Studies in Continuing Education 27(1). 33-49. Retrieved from

    Troy NunamakerTroy Nunamaker is the chief solutions officer for Clemson University’s Center for Career and Professional Development. His path to Clemson from his undergraduate studies at Wittenburg University (Springfield, Ohio) began with a master’s degree in guidance and counseling – student affairs. Since joining Clemson, Nunamaker has earned a second master’s degree (human resource development) and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in educational leadership – higher education, with a focus on experiential education. He has served Clemson since 2000 in a variety of professional roles, with duties ranging from cultivating corporate partnerships and managing the center’s various internship offerings to developing new strategies and blueprints for keeping career services effective and relevant for all current and future constituents.

    Kristin Walker, Ph.D.Kristin Walker, Ph.D., currently serves as associate director of analytics and initiatives at Clemson University’s Center for Career and Professional Development. In addition to coordinating the center’s competency initiatives and assessment, she oversees the graduate and off-campus internship area. Walker has 14 years of experience in education and fraternity/sorority life. She earned her bachelor’s in English from Radford University, and her M.Ed. in counselor education and Ph.D. in educational leadership from Clemson University. She teaches in Clemson’s master’s and doctoral programs and has been a volunteer and board member of her sorority, Alpha Sigma Tau. Through her professional and volunteer roles, she has traveled to and worked with students at more than 40 college campuses. Her research interests include career development, fraternity/sorority life, and integrative STEM education.

    Neil Burton, Ph.D.Neil Burton, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Center for Career & Professional Development at Clemson University. His educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a master’s degree in English, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership. Prior to assuming his current role in July 2011, he worked for the cooperative education program at Clemson for 13 years, and in the university’s Office of Student Financial Aid for six years. In his time at Clemson, Burton has taught in four of the seven colleges and held the rank of lecturer in the College of Business and Behavioral Science. In addition, he served as an adjunct faculty member at two other universities in the area, and has taught everything from freshman composition courses to doctoral seminars.