Redefining Success: The Urgent Shift from Traditional Education to Skills-Based Learning

Modern education systems are broken.

They emphasize grades and standardized testing, which often fail to measure the true skills and abilities of students. They fail to teach critical thinking, instead focusing on memorization and regurgitation of information. This approach leaves students ill-prepared for the real world, where employers are increasingly seeking individuals with practical skills and the ability to adapt and problem-solve.

Enter skills-based education. Skills-based education is a holistic approach to learning that prioritizes the acquisition and development of practical skills that are relevant to real-world challenges and demands. This would seem like a no-brainer, right?

Nope. Wrong.

Traditional educational systems have been slow to adopt this approach, clinging instead to outdated models of instruction and assessment. This is across all levels of education, from primary schools to universities. A complex web has been created, where school funding is tied to standardized test scores, and teachers feel pressured to “teach to the test,” leaving little room for skills-based learning.

Proponents of skills-based education were encouraged recently when companies began to remove traditional education requirements for job applicants. Instead of focusing solely on degrees and credentials, employers are placing more value on candidates’ specific skills and abilities. Students, therefore, don’t need to attend college “just for the piece of paper.” Instead, they can focus on acquiring and refining the skills that directly apply to their desired career paths, irrespective of where those skills are learned. This created a hope, that “replacing the proxy of a college degree with actual evaluations of candidate skill” might lead to meaningful change.

The recent Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School study is especially depressing when compared with that hope. They found that fewer than 1 in 700 new hires benefited from businesses dropping degree requirements. The research discovered that nearly 45% of the companies that implemented new policies seemed to only change their name, with no real impact on hiring practices after they removed degree requirements from job postings.

From 2014 to 2023, the yearly count of positions with no degree requirements nearly quadrupled, according to the report. However, this didn’t always lead to changes in how hiring was done. That study showed that, among 11,300 positions at large firms, those companies increased by 3.5% the number of workers without a bachelor’s degree. However, this only applied to 3.6% of roles that had dropped the requirement. Altogether, it means that there was only a minimal increase (0.14 percentage points) in the hiring of candidates without degrees.

This lack of significant change in hiring practices despite the removal of degree requirements highlights the persistent reliance on traditional qualifications and credentials in the recruitment process. It suggests that many employers still view a college degree as the gold standard and are hesitant to fully embrace skills-based hiring. This is a clear indication that there is still a long way to go in shifting the mindset towards skills-based education and hiring.

Skills-based education emerged as a response to the changing needs of the workforce, with an increased demand for specialized skills in various industries. This approach emphasizes practical learning and hands-on experience, aiming to prepare students for real-world challenges in their chosen fields. Skills-based education recognizes that traditional qualifications, such as a college degree, do not always accurately reflect an individual’s competencies and abilities.As the demand for specialized skills continues to grow in various industries, the importance of skills-based education and hiring becomes even more evident. The shortcomings of traditional qualifications have led to an increased recognition of the need for practical learning and hands-on experience.

What needs to happen to address the gap?

To address this gap, educational institutions and employers alike must prioritize the development and assessment of specific skills that are essential for success in the workforce. By shifting the focus from solely relying on degrees and credentials to evaluating and emphasizing the practical abilities of individuals, both education and hiring processes can better meet the needs of the evolving job market.

Skills-based education not only empowers students to acquire relevant and applicable skills for their desired career paths but also enables employers to identify and hire individuals based on their demonstrated competencies. This approach holds the potential to bridge the disconnect between education and the workforce, ensuring that individuals are equipped with the skills necessary to thrive in their professional endeavors.

For example, in a skills-based education program, students in a business management course may engage in real-world projects that require them to analyze market trends, develop business plans, and present their findings to a panel of industry professionals. This hands-on experience hones their analytical and communication skills and provides them with valuable practical knowledge that can be directly applied in a professional setting.

Similarly, in a skills-based technical program, students may work on industry-specific projects, gaining hands-on experience with the latest tools and technologies relevant to their field. This approach allows them to deeply understand their discipline and acquire the technical expertise employers seek.

Skills-based hiring can complement skills-based education by prioritizing the assessment of a candidate’s specific competencies and abilities rather than solely relying on traditional qualifications.

What are we doing?

GPM is working to enhance its education offerings and to provide more opportunities for skills-based learning.GPM recognizes the importance of equipping individuals with the practical skills needed to succeed in today’s workforce. Project management is hard enough – the technical side of project management is easy to learn, as anyone can fill in a spreadsheet or track a schedule. But, dealing with the people side of projects can be a nightmare.

(The idea that the army named these “soft skills” shows a lack of understanding of their true importance and necessity. The phrasing of soft skills first emerged in a 1972 US Army training manual. Contemporaneous “experts” continued with this, defining these skills as “important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized” and “those job functions about which we know a good deal are hard skills and those about which we know very little are soft skills.” Studies at the time carried consistent negative tone about interpersonal skills.)

We at GPM agree with Psychologist┬áNicholas Humphrey, who asserted that humans are defined by social intelligence and not qualitative intelligence. The ability to pass an exam via the regurgitation of information, without being able to think critically or actually deploy the knowledge in a real-world scenario, is not indicative of true competence. In order to build a more sustainable, and hopefully regenerative, world, we need to equip learners of all levels with the necessary skills and competence. That’s one reason we embed templates and practices into each course, and we provide the P5 Standard and the Standard for Sustainable Leadership free to any interested parties.

In order to drive meaningful change, it is imperative for both educational institutions and employers to embrace skills-based education and hiring practices. By doing so, they can effectively address the demands of the modern workforce and provide individuals with the tools they need to succeed in their chosen fields.


Michael Pace

Dr. Michael Pace is GPM's Director of Academic Practice, focusing on training and educating project managers on how to do their work efficiently, effectively, and sustainably. He holds a BS in forensics, an MS in forensics, and a PhD in business management; he is working towards a doctorate in education (EdD) at the University of Glasgow. He is certified in project management, portfolio management, agile methods, sustainability, cultural intelligence, and leadership; moreover, he has 20 years of experience in project, program and portfolio management across multiple sectors. He has consulted, mentored or taught in over a dozen countries across four continents - with plans to hit all seven - and has published books, chapters and articles on project management topics that focus on methods and practical skills. Additionally, he is the primary creator of a patented method to simplify the explanation of complex laboratory results to healthcare providers. Dr. Pace also serves as President Emeritus of IPMA-USA; an Assistant Professor of Practice at Texas A&M University's Mays Business School; a faculty affiliate of the Texas A&M Energy Institute; director of several study abroad programs in entrepreneurship & sustainable management; as well as a consultant for strategic planning projects.

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