Michael Hansen (Courtesy of Cengage Learning)

Michael Hansen, chief executive of Cengage Learning, an education technology company, argues in favor of competency-based learning, where students progress as they master the material, going at their own pace. — Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

The world of education is no stranger to criticism from the business community, which has become quite comfortable in its assertion that we’re not doing enough to give learners the skills they need to succeed in the workforce.

In fact, some businesses have decided to bypass the traditional educational system altogether, as evidenced by Kaiser Permanente, which is building its own school of medicine.

And it’s true that we need to be doing more. All of the statistics around higher education tell us this: Too few students at colleges are graduating, and when you factor in the high price of education and the likely debt, many are worse off now than they were when they finished high school.

At the same time, employers have increasingly reported having a surplus of jobs that require certain skills but not always a college degree — jobs they cannot fill because they can’t find applicants who are qualified.

But to say that education has not been innovating is truly incorrect. In recent years, education has been moving forward to disrupt the traditional classroom. From massive open online courses — better known by the acronym MOOCs — to personalized learning, we’re using technology to make education more effective, efficient and — most importantly — have more impact.

However, the most exciting development during this time hasn’t been an algorithm or a piece of software. It’s a new model that rethinks what an education should look like, and one of its aims is to produce the type of job candidates that companies in the United States are looking to hire.

Competency-based education is an alternative to the credit-hour-based system of learning that most of us grew up with. In competency-based education, students progress when they’ve demonstrated proficiency or mastery, not when they have spent a certain number of months sitting in a lecture hall.

Colleges have traditionally only offered two credentials: the associate’s degree and the bachelor’s. There’s now a third option. By carefully defining key skills and aligning them to the needs of employers, competency-based programs yield credentials that have clear value. This approach allows learners to play a more active role in curating their own education, and it gives institutions the opportunity to offer nonacademic credentials for areas such as professional licensing and on-the-job training alongside more traditional academic credentials.

Learners not only have more choice when mapping their education journey, they’re also able to accelerate the process of earning a credential they can use to start a career from the time they enroll.

For adults without a degree, or for younger students for whom a traditional two- or four-year degree is not an option, competency-based education is a great alternate pathway to success. It also holds promise for the more than 80 percent of employers who are finding it difficult to fill open positions because they can’t find applicants with the right skills. This comes with a real economic cost: Unfilled jobs cost companies $160 billion annually.

Competency-based education works because it’s focused on the learner. Not only can learners progress at their own pace, they can more quickly respond to career opportunities and workforce trends — like the 348,000 home-health-aide jobs that are expected to be added by 2024.

It also presents an opportunity to make education more affordable. Students may not be required to take courses that don’t align with their objectives, allowing them to streamline their coursework. It’s the “skinny bundle” of higher education.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of competency-based education is its potential to build learner confidence. By helping learners visualize their education as a series of smaller, interconnected competencies instead of a trip on a one-lane highway that lasts for four years, competency-based education makes the concept of getting a college credential more attainable. Competency-based education also encourages creative experimentation. Like a product designer, students can prototype their own education: testing out different ideas and pathways and making course corrections before ultimately settling on their chosen path.

Analysts are already projecting that by 2020, more than 500,000 students will be enrolled in a competency-based program. But learner demand alone won’t be enough for the system to have the impact it should.

There must be a way of assuring the quality of credentials earned through competency-based programs. This will invariably require competency-based programs to adopt some of the processes of traditional higher education. The key is not to lose the flexibility and portability of these micro-credentials.

Most importantly, businesses must buy in by recognizing the value of micro-credentials from competency-based programs. Only when businesses start hiring people with credentials from these programs, will more people start to take advantage of them.

This buy-in can start with collaboration. Colleges and businesses must work together to identify specific job skills and requirements and ensure that these micro-credentials align with skills employers are looking for. Once these interests are aligned, the chances that a micro-credential will get you the job you’re looking for will increase dramatically.

In many ways, competency-based education is the education community’s collective response to the realization that if we’re not doing things that help students get a good job, then we’re not doing the right things. Of course, there will always be a place for traditional higher education, but we must advance the competency-based model for the many students who don’t fit into the standard model.

For the business community, the time to show your support is now. Competency-based education represents the path to your workforce of the future. If the skills gap is the reason you’re not hiring more American workers, then you can’t ignore the hundreds of thousands taking action to earn the necessary qualifications.

Competency-based education isn’t just about filling jobs. It’s about the desire of those without a college degree for a better life, and understanding that traditional higher education hasn’t done enough to give it to them. All of us, especially the business community, should support this movement, because we all have something to gain.