Competency / Skills Models & Learning Frameworks


There are two main contexts in which competency skills models and learning frameworks are commonly used in workforce development—on the supply side (preparation of workers) and the demand side (employment of workers). They are frequently viewed as equivalent terms, although educational institutions tend to use the term “learning frameworks” and employers tend to use “competency and skills models.”

Supply side: Learning frameworks are tools that specify the learning outcomes (often in competencies) that define, classify, and recognize knowledge, skills, and abilities (often referred to as KSAs) at increasing levels of complexity and difficulty. They are not standards, and they are not limited to academia, although they are commonly associated with educational institutions. These frameworks have many uses:

  • They allow for alignment, translation, and mapping of learning that occurs in various places (e.g., education, industry, and the military) in order to capture learning that can be valued and recognized by various entities.
  • They can support quality assurance mechanisms for reviewing aligned curriculum and training, provide guideposts for awarding credentials, and serve as end points from which learning experiences can be backward-designed.
  • They can help an institution meet institutional accreditation requirements which require that new programs clearly identify the learning outcomes embedded in credentials.
  • They can enable consistency; provide a common language within their user group(s); and assist in transferability within and across various education providers and learning pathways.

Demand side: According to the Training Industry, a competency model is a framework for defining the skill and knowledge requirements of a job. It is a collection of competencies that jointly define successful job performance. Competencies are usually defined and supported by key behaviors.

Competency models are widely used in business for defining and assessing competencies within organizations in both hard and soft skills. They are a key component of recruitment and hiring, as well as the talent- and performance-management activities of HR departments. Competency assessments often help form the basis for training programs and learning content, both formal and informal. The models can be created for specific jobs, job groups, occupations, industries, and organizations. In certain areas such as sales and leadership, necessary competencies have been extensively studied and a broad consensus reached regarding specific skills, attitudes, and behaviors needed to succeed. Another reason for the growing popularity of competency models is their role in revealing strengths and weaknesses, which aids in training.ii

Models can take on a variety of forms, but typically include several principal elements:ii

  • Competency names and detailed definitions.
  • Descriptions of activities or behaviors linked to each competency.
  • A diagram of the model.

Also, organizations typically employ the frameworks by arranging knowledge and skill requirements into specific categories, such as personal effectiveness, academic, technical, industry, occupational, management, and workplace competencies.

The rapid growth of internet-based technologies is helping increase interest in competency and skills models and learning frameworks. Organizations can embed success profiles in talent development and management processes, learning portals, and training processes and easily communicate and refresh content.

There are many models and frameworks in the U.S. learn-and-work ecosystem. Credential Engine  includes 972 such frameworks in its voluntary database.   

The U.S. Department of Labor hosts a Competency Model Clearinghouse (CMC) that includes 22 industry competency models based on a tiered “building block” framework. Each building block represents a competency—a cluster of related skills, knowledge, and abilities that are essential for successful performance in the industry or occupation represented. Users can revise, remove, or add new building blocks to create customized competency models that reflect the skills, knowledge, and abilities needed in their industry or occupation. The building blocks are arranged in tiers of related competencies. The arrangement of tiers in a pyramidal shape represents the increasing level of specificity and specialization of content on the upper tiers of the pyramid. The tiers of the building block framework include foundational skills, industry-related skills, and occupation-related skills   

The Water and Wastewater Competency Model is an example of an industry framework. In 2009, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) worked with its membership to identify the specific competencies required for workers in the water and wastewater industry. Through collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water and the Water  Environment Federation (WEF), the results of those efforts were translated into the competency model framework provided by the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) to create the first version of the model. In 2015, these organizations reconvened to begin the process of updating the model. Developed as a collaborative effort with subject matter experts from partnering organizations, the updated model was finalized in March 2016. In 2017, the model was revised again to incorporate foundational workplace health and safety skills from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Safe, Skilled, Ready Workforce Program workers. The updated CMC competencies were reviewed and validated by subject matter experts from AWWA. The model contains 539 Competencies and 539 Competency Alignments.


Relation to Ecosystem

These models and frameworks are bridging tools for workforce development in the learn-and-work ecosystem. They are part of an international movement to use outcome-based measures as a tool for increasing the connectivity between academic and occupational credentials.

Alternate Terms

Competency framework: A competency framework uses competencies (what the learner knows and is able to do) as common reference points. These common points help people understand and compare the levels and types of knowledge and skills that underlie degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, apprenticeships, badges, and other credentials.

Teaching and learning framework: A teaching and learning framework is a research-informed model for course design that helps instructors align learning goals with classroom activities, create motivating and inclusive environments, and integrate assessment into learning.

Qualifications framework: A Qualifications Framework (QF) is a formalized structure in which learning-level descriptors and qualifications are used to understand learning outcomes. All QFs are based on learning outcomes. Qualifications are developed using learning outcomes, and the set of hierarchical levels they consist of are described with a set of learning-level descriptors. QFs are typically found at the national, regional, and international levels. They emerged from two complementary education and training discourses in the late 1980s: the competence approach to vocational education, and the shift to learning outcomes, embedded within the broader concept of lifelong learning. As a result, the interrelationship between competencies and learning outcomes was not only firmly embedded in QF thinking from the outset, but was also used in a hybridized form.


Key U.S.-based tools include:

  • Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), a learning-centered framework for what college graduates should know and be able to do to earn the associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree.
  • Connecting Credentials Framework. An eight-level rubric that can be used to assess the level of knowledge and skills found in competencies. The levels  “indicate the relative complexity, breadth and/or depth of learning achievement,” rather than subject matter. This enables precise analysis and reflection of the attributes or profile of each individual credential rather than attempting to peg all credentials of a certain type to a fixed level. The requirements and competencies associated with knowledge are described in terms of depth, breadth, and dimension. Skills are broken down into specialized, personal, and social skills. The framework provides structure for profiling credentials according to “levels that indicate the relative complexity, breadth and/or depth of learning achievement” enabling transparency and comparison of different types of credentials. An accompanying guide provides instructions on how to profile existing credentials or develop new credentials.

International examples include:

  • European Qualifications Framework
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