Initial Publication Date: July 14, 2017

Needed Competencies

Information compiled in 2013 by Karin Kirk and Monica Bruckner, SERC, and David Gosselin, University of Nebraska and informed by the Geoscience Workforce in the 21st Century workshop

Workforce Competencies

Competencies for today's workforce represent a blend of traditional industry-specific skills paired with additional strengths in interdisciplinary work, the ability to collaborate and communicate, and demonstration of personal effectiveness (a.k.a. "soft skills") that contribute to employees being adaptable, motivated, and capable in their jobs.

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Carlton Advanced Management Institute describes competencies as:

  • a way of talking about what helps people get results in their jobs.
  • a reference to skills or knowledge that lead to superior performance.
  • providing a framework for distinguishing between poor performances through to exceptional performance.
  • not "fixed"–they can usually be developed with effort and support.

Careful selection of learning outcomes can strengthen students' competencies in the classroom. However, these terms are not interchangeable - see Learning Outcomes vs. Competencies for more and check out example learning outcomes that can be used to build competencies.

A model pyramid of competencies was developed by a collaboration between industry leaders in the energy sector and the CareerOneStop (a division of the US Department of Labor) that identifies 6-8 major 'tiers' (see diagram with examples from the energy sector, right; click to enlarge). While these competencies relate to the energy sector, they offer an example of the types of skills that are part of each category.

  • Tier 1: Personal Effectiveness (e.g. professionalism, motivation, dependability)
  • Tier 2: Academic Competencies (e.g. communication: reading, writing, listening; critical & analytical thinking)
  • Tier 3: Workplace Competencies (e.g. teamwork, planning and organizational skills, problem-solving)
  • Tier 4: Industry-Wide Technical Competencies (e.g. safety, laws and regulations, quality control, troubleshooting)
  • Tier 5: Industry-Sector Technical Competencies (e.g. large scale understanding of work)
  • Tiers 6-8: Occupation-Specific Competencies
    • Occupation-Specific Knowledge
    • Occupation-Specific Technical Competencies
    • Occupation-Specific Requirements
    • Management Competencies (if applicable)

Career Training with a 'Sustainability Lens'

Interdisciplinary projects with real-world applications can be a selling point for employers, as they demonstrates the ability to solve problems. The challenge for educators is to train students to think broadly, yet have enough depth to build credibility and demonstrate rigor for graduate schools or employers. Employers still require depth and disciplinary expertise; yet they also are seeking competence in communication, problem-solving, and leadership (Mascarelli, 2013 ).

In his article How to Land a Green Job in 2014, Kevin Doyle describes which sectors will likely see growth and the driving forces behind this. These sectors include jobs related to ensuring industry compliance with eco-rules and regulations, climate resilience and disaster relief, clean energy, and the 'water industry.' Further, he describes that rather than creating new 'sustainability jobs,' employers are likely to build sustainability assignments and activities into existing jobs. Given this need to problem-solve through a 'sustainability lens,' academic institutions have an opportunity to prepare their students across disciplines, both inside and outside of STEM.

Mascarelli (2013) describes some of the approaches taken by academic institutions to prepare their students to work in the field of sustainability. Some programs reside within traditional disciplinary departments, while some are truly interdisciplinary. Another approach is that students work on research projects in multi-disciplinary teams. Either way, an interdisciplinary approach to research topics is common, and with that comes an emphasis on training students to think more broadly. Specific competencies that are being taught in sustainability programs and/or are desired by employers include:

  • communication skills - with people from a variety of backgrounds; written and oral; technical and non-technical
  • working in teams, particularly teams drawn from multiple disciplines and varied backgrounds. Learn more about interdisciplinary thinking skills.
  • understanding and applying systems thinking
  • engaging in strategic planning
  • having strong quantitative skills, especially beyond calculus
  • proficiency in computer skills, including GIS and the ability to work with spreadsheets and databases
  • applying the principles of return on investment for sustainable practices
  • evaluating environmental performance, economic performance, and social performance
  • understanding how values affect policy and decision-making
  • the ability to think critically and independently
  • working with multiple stakeholders
  • completion of a specific project or deliverable that serves an outside client, audience or community group (Mascarelli, 2013 )

Other sought-after personal effectiveness characteristics (identified by a set of employers from across the sustainability workforce) include:

  • strong work ethic, flexibility, curiosity, and motivation
  • dependability and reputation
  • interpersonal skills

In his 2011 survey of sustainability professionals, Davies adds that workers in the sustainability field also need an understanding of the business world and how decisions are made on a corporate level (Davies, 2011 ).

Take a more in-depth look at the types of competencies that are needed for the workforce. And see the Sustainability site guide for additional teaching resources on incorporating sustainability topics into the classroom.

References and Resources