Validate your skills after turning 50

When we turn 50, we have a lot of experience and skills, but it is harder to navigate the job market. For people to keep pace and consolidate their position, they have to validate these informally acquired competences. And know what skills to improve. There is already a way to do this.

The Economic Foundation in partnership with COMBIDATA Poland Sp. z o.o. and NSZZ “Solidarity” for the Gdansk Region have been working on “Business Academy 50+ project – an innovative model to validate and supplement the professional competences of people 50+”. The project focuses on sales representatives, however, its outcomes can also be used for other professions and age groups after developing a methodology for a given sector.

Validation involves comparing the knowledge and skills that a person has to those required to get formal confirmation of the achievement of certain standards. The model allows for competences to be accumulated/supplemented and enables validation of the existing ones, including the recognition of those acquired outside of formal education. So far, the validation of professional competences acquired through non-formal (training courses) and informal (self-education, experience gained during work) education was virtually impossible. The selection of courses is huge, but the offer is very expensive. Employers and employees, however, are not always able to identify their real training needs. In contrast, formal education does not always correspond precisely to the needs of the labour market. It offers too little in terms of practical skills and training in soft skills.

Employers: the problem of staff without the right competences

According to the statistics from the Pomeranian labour office, as many as 33 per cent of jobs posted in the first half of 2013 on recruitment websites were for sales related positions. This is the result of high turnover of staff due to the lack of real qualifications in these professions. The Economic Foundation conducted a survey among 40 Pomeranian entrepreneurs who are customers of consultancy and information centres (in 2011). As many as 60 per cent said they cannot recruit staff with the desired competences. They added that for employers, people’s real qualifications are important regardless of how they acquired them. Therefore, there is a demand for competences acquired in different forms and stages of life, but there are no mechanisms in which they could formally be confirmed. The only measure of the qualifications of a new employee is their high school diploma, so businesses bear considerable costs verifying the actual competences of their employees.

The problem is that the market is not able to recognise the professional skills acquired throughout life. In addition, people aged 50+ have a formal education that ended a long time ago, in the 1980s, and the only acknowledgment of their professional qualifications, in the form of their secondary school diplomas, are outdated. Their actual competences can be much broader. Unfortunately, the lack of documents confirming these competences reduces their attractiveness and mobility in the labour market.

Therefore, a model to validate actual competences has been developed that allows for:

  • self-assessment of competences needed in the sales profession (online tests),
  • an in-depth assessment of the professional competences desired by the labour market, based on the Development Centre (DC) methodology,
  • assessment of areas for further development (skills gaps),
  • development of personalised development programmes, responding to the educational needs identified in the validation process,
  • the granting of a certificate confirming competences.

74 per cent believe in its effectiveness

A single cycle for issuing certificates (conducting DC sessions, preparing reports, feedback meetings) according to the model lasts up to 4 weeks. It can be used by all institutions connected to the labour market: public employment services, private agencies, training companies, Centres for Lifelong Learning, participants in the social dialogue (trade unions, employers' organisations). Implementation of the model does not require major organisational and legal changes because numerous institutions offer professional competence tests, but without certification. Any organisation can issue certificates if it has adequate premises and staff: personal and professional advisors, assessors, trainers, psychologists and coaches involved in professional development (career coaching).

An example of the cost of diagnosis (including two days of training: 8 hours per day of teaching and five coaching meetings of 2 hours each, on average every 1-2 weeks) is PLN 740 in a non-profit institutions and PLN 2376 in commercial organisations. It is worth mentioning that the annual welfare payment for a single unemployed person with 20 years of seniority is PLN 9594 (data from the District Labour Office in Gdynia). As Gdynia labour office allocated PLN 4249 on support and activation for a single unemployed person in 2012 the cost was even higher - PLN 13,843.

The differences in the effects of both forms of spending can be best described by the participants themselves. The validation test participants not only spoke about the process being a perfect match for their needs, but also about motivation – “building trust, understanding, positive self-esteem and self-confidence”. The model reduced the sense of helplessness and the fear of taking on new challenges by people who were unemployed. The participation in competence testing allowed them to discover their strengths, but also to realise where they need to improve. They saw not only professional benefits, but also personal ones, such as “strengthening of self-esteem” or “look at oneself from the perspective of another person”. The results – in the course of the project 10 participants changed their status on the labour market: three changed jobs, and seven people started jobs (out of 24 professionally inactive, i.e. 29 per cent). The employment situation of 44 people remained unchanged; however, 74 per cent believe that through the participation in the project they know how to be better adapted to the requirements of employers. 59 per cent of participants said that having a certificate will be of benefit in the labour market, and 54 per cent said that it increases their chances of finding or changing jobs.

Measurement using scales

How does the model work? Observation scales are used to measure competences. Each scale contains a definition of competences and their indicators, written out on five levels of assimilation. Skills are described by a set of characteristic behaviours that can be observed in the everyday functioning of a professional employee. All the data is presented in a table. Each successive row in the table provides a description of one category of behaviour associated with a given competence.

In brief, the scale is as follows:
A/1 – lack of desired behaviours, making mistakes – basic level;
B/2 – mistakes occur, learning – intermediate level;
C/3 – independence, properly performs most tasks requiring the specific competence, problems with more difficult tasks – efficient level;
D/4 – efficient, flawless execution of tasks requiring the specific competence, copes well with difficult tasks – advanced level;
E/5 – efficient performance in even extremely difficult tasks requiring the specific competence, identifies and and translates expected behaviours for others – expert level.

In contrast, the methodology of the model is based on a method for measuring competences called Development Centre (DC), which is based on observing people while they perform various tasks, mostly simulations. Observation is made by an assessor, who has standardised criteria for analysing and evaluating the information obtained, i.e. the observational scales mentioned above.

Two separate profiles were developed for sales staff and sales representatives. Five scales for soft skill were prepared: communication skills, customer service and reactions to difficult sales situations (for the sales staff), the sales process and the result-oriented organisation of work (for sales representatives). Three scales of hard skills were also prepared: computer and internet skills and as well as mastery of office suite software in sales work. Each soft competence consists of five behavioural indicators, and each hard competence is made up of four indicators. This allows for an adequate number of behaviours to be observed, not too many, not too few. In addition, two sets of simulation exercises were created to be used during the DC sessions on soft and hard skills. Exercises were prepared that also allow for knowledge levels to be assessed. There was therefore no need for knowledge tests. In fact, studies show that employers consider practical sales skills as much more important than theoretical knowledge.

Certificate and development

Schedules for DC sessions were created. Within 14 days of completing them, the participants receive an individual report describing their strengths as well as areas that should be developed. Over the next two weeks feedback conversation is held, during which the soft and hard skills assessors provide information on the diagnosed skills. Each conversation should take approx. 60 minutes, although some can take up to 90 minutes. Action and forms of development are recommended during these talks. Participants can declare that they will undertake these actions or they can end the process at this stage and receive their certificate.

At the second stage, participants implement development plans by:

  • e-learning lessons, which fill knowledge gaps,
  • practical training, filling skills gaps,
  • individual coaching sessions, which model the level of competence in selected business situations and work on an employee’s approach.

The testing stage showed that the optimum number of trainees for hard skills is about six people, while for soft skills training it is ten. Everyone was able to use the help of individual tutors. It was observed that this promotes the consolidation of learning outcomes and increases the motivation to learn.

E-learning classes are offered to all. For people with a low level of competence, they are the primary source of learning. They also allow advanced learners to organise and define places where they have to go back and reorganise their knowledge or fill the gaps. They also strengthen self-study habits and systematic work on self-development.

An individual developmental process conducted by coaching techniques was recommended for the development of soft skills. And for hard skills, mentoring, advice, consultations, personalised educational work, practical training and one-to-one sessions were proposed.

During the certification, participation in at least three coaching sessions (soft skills) lasting approx. 1-2 hours each was recommended. Or five mentoring sessions of approx. 1 hour each (hard skills).

After completing all the planned development activities, the participant goes to another DC session. This is the third stage. The sessions look the same as the first ones. The results are the basis for issuing a certificate confirming the level of competence in a profession. They contain a description of the diagnosed levels of competence. They may also be issued with a supplement that includes a description of the individual development activities that a given person performed. Certificates are issued for an indefinite period.

A Model Users’ Guide has been prepared as well as an additional tool – online tests for self-assessment  of competences. These are available at the project’s website They require from those tested an understanding of selected professional situations and the prediction of the consequences of proposed solutions.

The model can be applied to employees, the unemployed as well as those who have not had experience in sales. They can be done separately in order to recognise hard and soft skills, without prejudice to its accuracy. Alternatively, the stage of implementing development activities can be skipped to focus on the certification of the possessed competences. The model can also be applied to persons younger than 50+.

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