Connections: The Newsletter of the National Career Pathways Network

Volume 31, No. 1
Employability Skills

Stacking the Deck with Employability Skills

A novel approach for building students’ soft skills

It all started with a question Ohio University’s Greg Kremer posed to his employer advisory board in 2017. “What are those differentiating factors among students you hire and those you don’t?” Kremer’s goal was to help his engineering students improve their odds for employment. The answer from the advisory board, however, surprised Kremer: “When they can tell a story about how they’ve developed soft skills.”

Kremer had been experimenting with strategies for infusing “soft” skills—commonly referred to as employability skills—into his curriculum, but the board’s response was a sign to kick those efforts into high gear. Not only did employers value employability skills, but they wanted students to articulate which skills they had mastered and how. Companies need incoming staff with the ability to apply employability skills immediately.

Kremer and project collaborators T.J. Cyders and Cody Petitt started assembling a list of the employability skills that employer partners identified as essential. Kremer created a spreadsheet of these items, scanned employment listings in Glass Door, and reached out to alumni about employability skills that are difference-makers on the job. He debriefed students after job interviews to collect questions and topics that challenged them. Kremer then attempted to develop a taxonomy of competencies he could target through instruction. But he had done similar work in the past and knew that students articulate employability skills differently than instructors or potential employers. He needed a lexicon his students could not only relate to but take responsibility for mastering.

Almost by accident, Kremer discovered the US Department of Labor’s competency models during his research. The models are the result of the Employment and Training Administration’s collaboration with industry to develop foundational and technical competencies necessary for job success in key sectors of the economy—from manufacturing to energy. Kremer located the engineering competency model and quickly dissected it, looking for overlaps with the skills he and his collaborators had identified.

“All of a sudden, some things started to click. It was like, well, someone’s already done this better than I could do it,” said Kremer of the engineering competency model. “It’s got some authority to it. It’s got the participation of the engineering societies, and it had a nice structure. I took the model back to our employer advisory board and said ‘Does this resonate with you? Does this describe to you some of the key competencies?’ And overall, it did.” The important differentiators that were not included in the competency model were not eliminated but were included as “wild cards” that help students “stack their deck” even more.

cards The remaining challenge was to take a model designed for engineers and make it student-friendly with authentic competency development activities. To meet these goals, Kremer drafted a deck of cards featuring the competencies with prompts to help students seek out meaningful experiences and practice telling interview-style stories about them. The engineering competency model includes five categories (one example category is workplace effectiveness) that specify what engineers are expected to know, and how they’re expected to act. For each competency within a category the cards provide three challenges as well as three examples of interview questions related to that competency—many of which have been asked by leading engineering companies. Each student is guided to build up or “stack” their own card deck, adding a gamification element by helping students both learn and document gained competencies throughout their education.

The deck includes skills such as teamwork, dependability, and planning and organizing, along with the “wild cards” —things like humor, curiosity, and well-being—that the advisory board deemed important additions to the competency model. Students receive the cards their freshman year and create a personal plan based on self-identified strengths and gaps. They practice responding to challenges with their peers and have opportunities to hear employer partners discuss competencies they themselves continue to hone. This acknowledgement demonstrates the importance of lifelong learning for everyone, including successful professionals with years of industry experience.

Because the cards are similar in size to regular playing cards, students can easily carry them in their backpack. Each card features one competency with simple wording refined with student input, making students feel like they can dive into them at any time: they’re not overwhelming. Advisory board member Damon Givens of Cargill says the cards will help his company fulfill their talent needs. “I think the program is really giving students a structured framework by which they can develop themselves.”

Kremer says he is moving toward an action plan that will integrate the cards across the full engineering curriculum. “These aren’t characteristics that you learn about and forget—they’re lifelong challenges that will impact your relationships and effectiveness daily.” In the meantime, students’ continued practice will help them “stack the deck” toward improving their chances for winning in the workplace.

To explore the Department of Labor’s competency models for in-demand sectors in your community, visit the Competency Model Clearinghouse.

For more information, contact Greg Kremer at