PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"National Skill Standards: An Effort to Expand Employment Opportunities,"

by Marcia Greenberger & Frank Gallo September/October 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

America's growing economic inequality is a sadly well-established, if not adequately recognized, fact of life. Causes include outright discrimination, whether by design or effect, as well as great disparities in educational opportunity which especially impact minorities, women, immigrants, older workers and the disabled, and which lead to their disproportionate lack of skills and/or credentials. In addition, inadequate access to education and training to acquire the necessary skills in the first place; inadequate access to on-the-job-training; inadequate recognition of actual skills attained through credentials or other means; and broader discrimination in education and employment all combine to deny job skills and credentials to those most in need of them. A growing consensus on the importance of the attainment of job skills and credentials was behind the passage in 1994 of the Na-tional Skill Standards Act and creation of the National Skill Standards Board to implement its provisions.

The National Skill Standards Act

The National Skill Standards Act seeks to establish a voluntary system in the United States that will specify the knowledge and competence necessary to perform successfully in a particular occupation or broader field of work.

Underlying the legislation is the belief that skill standards will help the country meet broad goals, such as boosting economic growth, productivity and international competitiveness. However, there was also clear legislative recognition that if the goal of expanded employment opportunities is to be achieved, particular efforts are necessary to ensure that a new skill standards system does not inadvertently exacerbate existing inequality. The legislation states that the skill standards themselves not be discriminatory; that they be used consistent with civil rights laws; that they protect workers against dislocation; facilitate career advancement; enhance the ability of individuals to reenter the workforce; increase opportunities for minorities and women (including removal of barriers to the entry of women into nontraditional employment); and that they promote portable credentials and facilitate worker mobility. Particularly following welfare reform, never have these goals been more important.

To bring a national skill standards system into being, the Act established a 27-member National Skill Standards Board (NSSB), comprised of representatives of employers, unions, educators, government and community-based groups, including civil rights organizations. The Board itself does not set specific skill standards: these will be set by broad coalitions (called "Voluntary Partnerships" in the Act) comprised of employer, union, worker, community, civil rights, governmental, and education and training representatives. The Board has two basic roles. First, it is charged with the responsibility to stimulate -- through funding, technical assistance and research -- establishment of the overall system. Second, it must develop criteria that it will use to decide whether to endorse the skill standards established by the Voluntary Partnerships, in order to ensure that the standards will achieve quality and fairness.

Achieving Fairness

While certainly not an answer to all of the existing formidable barriers to educational and employment opportunities, skill standards have the potential to truly
benefit individuals and groups who have historically faced inequality and disadvantage. First, skill standards can clearly articulate to individuals who often lack information about work requirements the skills they need to succeed and progress. They also can provide clear and consistent standards by which individuals can be judged -- whether in school, in hiring or on the job -- rather than by arbitrary or discriminatory measures or criteria. And they can provide clear guidance to education and training providers of the key curriculum elements to include in order to better serve their students.

But without careful attention, and safeguards incorporated into their design and implementation, these standards could exacerbate current problems. Skill standards carry some of the same risks and drawbacks as educational degrees or industry certifications. Any type of credential can serve to undervalue actual merit and achievement, or -- because of starkly unequal access to education and training programs that lead to degrees or certifications -- become a barrier. International experience with skill standards systems (or similar systems such as apprenticeships) has also demonstrated that in certain cases standards have not removed barriers to mobility, and may have even reinforced them.

Determined to address these important concerns, the Board has established a subcommittee to identify how the skill standards system can meet access, diversity and civil rights imperatives. Through research, public education, involvement of civil rights and other groups committed to equity, technical assistance on legal principles of non-discrimination and practical solutions that have actually worked, the Board has developed criteria that will help the Voluntary Partnerships avoid the pitfalls of standards and realize their full potential.

Involving Community and Civil Rights Groups

If fairness, access and diversity are to become a reality, it is essential for a broad array of community, civil rights, women's and other groups to have a seat at the table. The National Skill Standards Act requires that the Voluntary Partnerships include the "full and balanced participation" of (among other stakeholders) community-based organizations and non-governmental organizations with a demonstrated history of successfully protecting the rights of racial, ethnic or religious minorities, women, individuals with disabilities or older persons.

A number of such organizations are already participating in one of the existing NSSB-initiated coalitions, including the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, the Center for Law and Education, Wider Opportunities for Women, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Urban Coalition.

To facilitate such involvement, the NSSB has conducted two roundtable sessions with community-based organizations to solicit their views and their ongoing participation. The Board has also assembled a directory, which currently lists more than 100 community groups, that the Voluntary Partnerships can use as resources to identify and recruit such organizations to work with them. In addition, the Board is seeking to identify employers that have exemplary track records, in order to encourage the Voluntary Partnerships to recruit these employers to join the coalition, and to encourage the Partnerships to study these employers' practices in creating and implementing a skill standards system consonant with the principles of civil rights, opportunity and access.

Endorsement Criteria

The endorsement criteria the Board will use to judge the skill standards and assessments proposed by the Voluntary Partnerships are key. The criteria the Board has developed to date are designed to achieve a standards system that:

1. Is not discriminatory and is consistent with federal civil rights laws. Among other criteria, skill standards and assessments must be "manifestly job-related and consistent with business necessity, reflecting only the knowledge and skills (including language and physical skills) actually required for competent performance."

2. Promotes employment opportunity and worker mobility. Voluntary Partnerships must demonstrate how their skill standards system achieves these goals, including (among other criteria) that "skill standards and assessments will be modular, allowing individuals to demonstrate proficiency in and receive credit for attainment of a portion of a skill standard."

3. Promotes access, through information and other means. The criteria specify the types of information that must be available to users of the system (what the standards are and the assessment system to be used, education and training available to meet the standards, and available information about employers that use NSSB-endorsed skill standards). The criteria also specify a number of ways to enhance opportunities to use the system. For example, "individuals who do not successfully complete an assessment are provided specific feedback on the skill areas in which they need improvement. Such individuals are also afforded an opportunity to be assessed again."

The Status of the Skill Standards System

Progress has been made in developing this national skill standards system, but substantial work lies ahead. The Board's first task was to combine types of jobs into broad categories, in a manner that made sense for the purpose of developing skill standards. It divided the American workforce into 15 industry clusters, and to date has initiated coalitions to work to establish Voluntary Partnerships in eight of these:

· Manufacturing, Installation and Repair
· Retail Trade, Wholesale Trade, Real Estate and Personal Services
· Finance and Insurance
· Construction
· Telecommunications, Computers, Arts and Entertainment, and Information
· Restaurants, Lodging, Hospitality and Tourism, and Amusement and Recreation
· Education and Training
· Business and Administrative Services

Because they began their work at different times, these coalitions are at various stages of progress. But they are all engaged in enlisting the participation of stakeholders (including civil rights and other organizations concerned with access and diversity) and identifying the skills and existing standards that will be integrated into their overall system.

Coalitions will be formed later for the remaining seven industry clusters:

· Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing
· Health and Human Services
· Mining
· Public Administration, Legal and Protective Services
· Scientific and Technical Services
· Transportation
· Utilities and Environmental and Waste Management

With the framework now in place, the Voluntary Partnerships will establish the standards themselves, while the Board further develops criteria for measuring their effectiveness in serving people most in need. In addition, much more must be done to provide the practical help and monitoring necessary to assure that the standards system actually works as intended. It will take substantial and sustained participation on the part of those with commitment to the disadvantaged and expertise about the problems they face in order to keep the work on track, but the mechanisms are in place for a high level of participation.

Getting Involved

The involvement of community and civil rights groups is essential to promote broad-based opportunity and access in a national skill standards system. Individuals and organizations may contact the NSSB directly, or the coalitions that are recruiting partners within each industry cluster. Contact information for each coalition is listed on the NSSB Web site -- at -- or may be obtained by contacting the NSSB office, 1441 L St. NW, #9000, Washington, D.C. 20005, 202/254-8628.

Marcia Greenberger , Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center (11 Dupont Circle, #800, Wash., DC 20036, 202/S88-5180), is a member of the Board of the NSSB and Chairs its Committee.
Frank Gallo is the NSSB's Director of Research and Information. Access, Diversity and Civil Rights Committee. Frank Gallo is the NSSB's Director of Research and Information.

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List