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Interview with Lorenzo Esters of ETS

This month, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Lorenzo Esters.  Dr. Esters currently serves as Executive Director for Higher Education Partnerships with the Global Education Division of Education Testing Service (ETS), a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance quality and equity in education for all people worldwide.  Dr. Esters will be joining us at the CLOSE IT SUMMIT 2019 to be held October 15-16, 2019, highlighting the new initiative Skills for A New Economy.

Lorenzo, I am so pleased to interview you for the CLOSE IT blog, specifically as CLOSE IT less than one month away!  When I heard about your new Skills for a New Economy initiative I was immediately intrigued. Why is one of the globe’s largest assessment companies taking such a critical position around skills? What does this mean for your organization?

ETS is the worlds largest private nonprofit educational research and measurement organization with over 70 years of experience in assessment and learning.  We are well-positioned to do this work of closing the education to workforce skills gap.  ETS has 1100 research, development and psychometric researchers, over 100 data scientists, a rich history working with education, businesses and governments to conduct research, inform policy and build assessments and learning solutions. We have over more than 3000 employees all united for a common mission to advance quality and equity in education for all people. ETS administers and scores more than 50 Mil tests annually in over 9000 locations worldwide. With several of these research-backed assessments serving the business and higher education communities, ETS is in a unique position to help inform the discussion on the future of work and the skills needed for success in today’s economy.

Jamai:  ETS has such a large breadth across the globe, and the implications of preparing the next generation for the future economy are enormous.  How does this new initiative, Skills for a New Economy differ, specifically on incorporating “skills”, i.e. through a workforce lens instead of only higher education?

Lorenzo: Jamai, we are building off of our 70+years of expertise and applying our expertise to education and workforce pathways is something we believe is most critical at this time.  Data shows that approximately 50% of work activities have the potential of automation, and more than 30% of US workforce will need to change jobs or upgrade skills in the upcoming year(s).  At ETS, we believe we have an obligation to learners and our economy now, to ensure learners excel in the 21st-century workforce.  This requires alignment of appropriate skills, in both measurement and application.

Jamai: Lorenzo, there were three steps identified in your Skills for a New Economy information and report to ensure your work is successful.  They are 1) identifying key components of next-generation jobs; 2) developing a taxonomy that classifies skills for a new economy (SNE) into broader competencies reflecting the future of work; and 3) ensuring alignment between academic and workplace goals. Can you speak to how this first phase of the work’s data will help build your skills taxonomy?

Lorenzo: We have been very intentional to work directly with the market – identifying both the challenges and the opportunities, and plan to leverage co-development to address these challenges.  We have interviewed over 80 higher education administrators at more than 18 IHEs, including 2-year, 4-year, public and private institutions. We have also interviewed and have actively engaged with over 25 employers across six industry sectors.

Four higher order skills emerged from the interviews: communication (oral/written), intercultural competency, collaborative problem solving, and critical thinking. For sure we are not limited to these four. Now we are looking at how to approach co-development of solutions to address higher order skills important to our stakeholders. We are developing structures and processes through our own co-lab to effectively work together at the table, providing feedback through both the development and the piloting of these solutions.The co-lab and the continuous feedback is critical for this work to lead to solutions valued by both educators and employers.

Jamai: ETS has an incredible background in evidence-based research and assessment. We both know that the future of working and learning must involve ways to assess these critical competencies.  What type of assessments are you envisioning?

The type of assessment we envision will grow out of our discussion with the market, through this co-lab process. But, we are not just limiting the work to assessment, it may also relate to learning and development of these skills. Assessments can either be embedded in learning, or they can be in the nontraditional form.

Jamai: I agree, and actually both are needed.

And what about the EEOC? I+E has been working in assessment for over a decade now, and we continue to stumble on the issues that the EEOC has placed on employer use of assessment. Are you all looking at something that might be a hiring tool for the employers?

Lorenzo: We are at the nascent stage of our initiative. But one thing for sure is that as we continue to explore opportunities, we will be very cognizant of ETS’ mission which focuses on equity, fairness, and access. The solution we eventually offer could serve both employment and learning. It could also be something that helps employers skill up existing employees.

Jamai:  Lorenzo, I+E has been working in assessment for over a decade now.  We’ve always gotten feedback that assessment filters out.  We believe if built properly, assessment actually filters in, and improves equity in learning and work.  What do you say about this?

Lorenzo:  Anything we do at ETS has an equity and fairness focus, and anything we do through this initiative will be through that lens.  We must focus on developing those skills that are important for the future of work.  We may also seek to develop companion solutions that will not only assess but develop skills. Meeting individuals where they are, and giving those individuals tools for their success is critical for this work to be successful.

Jamai:  Thanks Lorenzo. What do you hope to accomplish at Close It and how can we help?

Lorenzo: We are very excited to partner with Innovate+Educate and the Close It Summit this year. We have three goals:

  • Engage with key higher educational executives;
  • We want to share broadly the goals of SNE;
  • We seek to identify the partnerships for the co-lab, in particular those that want to engage throughout the process.

Jamai:  Thank you so much, Lorenzo. The work you are doing is so important for this space, and I am so glad you all are leading such an important effort. We look forward to learning more about Skills for a New Economy and working together with you all in the future!