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Why a global skills passport can lead us towards a trust economy

Trust is in short supply on the jobs market – but a global skills passport could help both jobseekers and employers, Pictured are three co-workers holding a discussion in an office setting

Trust is in short supply on the jobs market – but a global skills passport could help both jobseekers and employers. Image: Getty Images

Jeffrey R. Tarr
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • A global skills passport could help establish trust in today's tumultuous jobs market.
  • The skills-based approach prioritizes individuals rather than their work histories or professional networks.
  • Standardizing skills is necessary to establish a global skills passport.

Amid global crises of every shape, one overlooked commodity is in short supply. It’s not food or water, gold or oil. It’s trust. With it, we can trade with strangers across borders. We can eat food we didn’t prepare and rely on machines we didn’t build. With it, our families and property can be secure.

Without it, we fear even the simplest exchanges that underlie all of our interconnected lives. Despite its value, trust is in short supply. Not because we’re individually untrustworthy, but because our trust can’t be demonstrated directly to the nearly 8 billion people we’ve never met.

That’s why we use proxies to simulate that trust, and credentials to stand in place of personal experience: brand names, diplomas, certificates, endorsements. All of value but none universal, especially across borders and cultures, where varying definitions obscure the common truths we need to convey.

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In the upheaval of today’s workplace, this failure of trust is acute. As jobs and workers reshuffle, within countries and across them, both employers and jobseekers benefit when they can perfectly match skills to roles. Within this marketplace flux, credentials and qualifications become both more important, harder to define, and, ultimately, trust. And trust is at the core of choosing who to hire.

Skills-based employment for social mobility

In January 2020, at its 50th Annual Meeting, the Forum launched its global Reskilling Revolution to benefit more than 1 billion people by 2030. The effort supports systemic change in recognizing the value of skills-based training and hiring, over historical methods focused on work history and degrees.

A skills-based approach is intrinsically more ethical than the alternatives, as it considers only what individuals are capable of – not their career histories or professional networks. Transnational and non-biased, a skills-based approach makes talent pools more diverse, especially as it empowers refugees, whose competence becomes visible and validated. Social mobility and shared prosperity are the result.

What’s missing: skills-based standards

And yet for all the importance of putting skills at the heart of recruitment and reskilling, skills themselves have yet to be standardized, which means there is no way to trust another’s definition of them – much less their competency. What’s missing is a common skills “dictionary”, one of the goals of the Forum’s Skills Consortium and its Global Skills Taxonomy framework.

When an exacting and consistent vocabulary of common skills is used by workers, employers, and learning providers, they all benefit from the network effect, where every new user increases the value of every existing one.

Standardizing those skills definitions is one critical need. Validating skill competencies is another. The urgency is for effective credentialing, consistent across countries, education systems and industries. When available, these elements – taxonomy, portability, credibility – would combine into a global skills passport, a trusted, portable credential attached to each worker, empowering them with mobility and personal agency.

A global skills passport requires:

  • Taxonomy: consistent definitions, role-specific and applicable
    across industries.
  • Portability: globally accepted, individually attached, agency-independent.
  • Credibility: transparent, accredited, tamper-proof.

Credentials at scale

While there is yet no single global skills passport, there are pilot programmes being trialled across the globe, and, common standards notwithstanding, all of them encounter a challenge that limits their ability to scale.

Since 2015, Europe has trialled the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees – a certification of academic transcripts, languages known and professional experience even in the absence of full documentation. Started in 2016, UC Davis’s Article 26 Backpack project makes secure cloud accounts for refugees to store academic and work credentials. In 2018, several leading universities created the Digital Credentials Consortium, focusing on standardizing academic achievement. In 2020, UNESCO launched the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for refugees and vulnerable migrants. There are numerous related efforts: Country Accelerators, academic consortiums, Europass and others.

But for all of them, a common bottleneck arises at the verification and benchmarking stage, limited by an interviewer’s ability to validate a worker’s skills and qualifications. That human process — research, assessment, verification – creates an unviable impasse. Relying on in-person trust to certify online credentials cannot scale from the thousands of current participants to even a million people, much less the billion-person target of the Forum’s Reskilling Revolution.

Digital badges as precursor

In order to scale the process, we must outsource the trust previously granted only to programme administrators. With the advent of micro-credentials, objective benchmarking and the transparency of blockchain, the components are in place to do so.

Among its recommendations for shifting to skill-based systems in 2019, the Forum promoted digital badges in accordance with the Open Badge standard. Digital badges are public and portable micro-credentials that represent tangible, often smaller-scale achievements. They can even be stacked to build a personal portfolio of demonstrated knowledge. IBM alone has issued more than 3 million of these badges to date, easily shared and portable across companies.

But standardized digital badges are more than just gamified accolades. When put on a blockchain, they become tamper-proof, trustworthy credentials unique to each person. Digital badges secured on the immutable, shared, public ledger of a blockchain verify who earned them, who issued them and their completion requirements.

Digital badges on the blockchain are durable, personal currency, a trusted precursor to a robust global skills passport.

Start with technology skills

As important as the badges’ reliability is what they measure, and technology and developer skills are best suited for this purpose. For these skills, testable benchmarks become the trustworthy arbiters of one’s competency.

In the IT field more than anywhere else, rigorous technical certifications have long proven their value. Verifying technology skills at a smaller scale can be equally empirical. My company Skillsoft, for example, offers criteria-based benchmark assessments, foregoing normative rankings to measure objective proficiency.

Several reasons point to technology skills as best suited for leading the adoption of a common skills passport. Their need is most acute; the skills are language-independent and transferable across industries and countries; the assessments are strictly objective; and unlike, say, leadership skills, technology skills are less reliant on specific cultural nuance.

Toward a global skills passport

With COVID still ravaging the globe, with so many of us now working remotely, with refugees spilling across borders, with a worldwide economy in turmoil from war and supply chain issues … matching workers with jobs anywhere on the planet, so they and their businesses can prosper in these times, is more important and more critical than ever.

The roadblocks are formidable: digital inequality, entrenched momentum, provincial interests, competing standards, leadership, cost. But scaling trust need no longer be the primary obstacle. Given the value of a global skills passport and its capacity to outsource trust at scale, the case is compelling for industry, academia and governments to collaborate for common benefit.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalJobs and the Future of WorkEducation and Skills
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