Re-Thinking Competency: Using Visuals to Break Down Barriers to Employment

The Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German foundation, is working with labour market stakeholders to create a new system where job seekers, employment support services and employers can take a competency-based approach to hiring.

For employers, evaluating job seeker skills has typically meant reviewing education and certification credentials. Critical labour shortages create conditions for employers to think more creatively about how they recruit and hire talent. Germany anticipates skilled labour shortages to increase by 30% between 2015 and 2020. Given this outlook, employers are opening up to new ideas about how to assess worker skills and credentials, in particular among migrant groups.

According to Bertelsmann Foundation Board member Jörg Dräger, learning by doing is becoming the most important source of competence for working people. However, the increasing importance of informal learning presents a dilemma: illustrating skills developed from this learning is the most difficult to prove.

How could immigrants and refugees better document their expertise and skills to help German employers assess their competencies?

Focus on competencies

In 2013, the Foundation began their project, Further Education for All, to provide employment and migration counsellors tools to assess immigrant and refugee clients’ workplace competencies.

The Foundation found no standardized instruments for determining the potential of immigrants. Counsellors working with them found the existing assessment landscape confusing and overwhelming. The Foundation started working on new tools that were practical and easier to use for the counsellors.

Working with government, employment and migration partners, the Foundation created Competence Cards. The cards identified transversal or “21st Century skills”, and provided employment counsellors with an easy-to-use visual tool to determine their clients’ skills. From social to technical/methodological skills, the cards gave employment counsellors a starting point with their clients. Clients could easily assess and indicate whether or not they had those skills, regardless of their formal education and training.


The Competence Cards were immediately popular. Counsellors found the tool effective, quick and easy to use with clients. Bertelsmann originally anticipated giving out 800 sets to migration counsellors across Germany. To date, they have distributed over 10,000 to a wide variety of employment, migration, education, social service and other organizations that support migrants.

The Foundation saw an opportunity to do more. They consulted their employment counselling partner organizations and began creating profession and occupation-specific cards. Instead of animated drawings, like those on the Competence Cards, the Career Cards use real pictures, illustrating specific job tasks to show a newcomer what the profession looks like in Germany. They created 48 cards outlining professional fields, and 30 occupation-specific cards, outlining jobs with high demand in Germany, where refugees could find employment opportunities. Dr. Martin Noack, a Senior Expert at the Foundation in the Learning for Life Program, says that each career card was created in consultation with assessors, educators and certification providers, employers and trade masters. Six to ten people per profession worked together to identify competencies that are required on the job.

For example, a career card for a Specialist in the hotel and restaurant industry would have an image of a front desk clerk, depicting the skills important to be successful in the role. Competency cards associated with the Specialist role would be on-hand to demonstrate the attributes of an ideal candidate. If a refugee could identify skills they already have, it would be easier to connect them to a suitable job right away.

The idea, says Noack, is that a worker can identify all of their skills, whether gained through formal education, on the job, through volunteer work, or through life experience. From a quick initial assessment, they could be directed to the required upgrading and education to access a specific employment opportunity.

The Foundation realized that to make the process work, they needed more images for each occupation. In December 2017, they scaled up their analog of Competence and Career Cards, creating an online self-assessment of vocational skills. Eight occupations (with 22 more in development) are available in six languages, with 20 to 40 images per occupation, each representing a specific job task or competency. The site offers access to a competency assessment anywhere at any time.

Those who work with employment counsellors can use the assessment as a stepping stone to the more formal My Skills test, which Noack says has greater credibility with employers. The computer-aided test is run by the Federal Employment Agency (BA) and was developed in cooperation with the Foundation. Clients are referred by employment counsellors and undergo a four-hour test, which more rigorously assesses their competencies in the specific job tasks in their identified occupation. Participants answer complex questions that relate to everyday situations in one of 30 training occupations. The questions are supplemented by explanatory pictures and videos. Noack anticipates in the next year German Public Employment Service counsellors will refer over 120,000 clients to My Skills.

Employer buy-in

Noack says that big companies in Germany, such as Ernst and Young and Google, have shifted to competence tests in their initial recruitment and hiring practices. However, eighty percent of Germans work in SMEs, which don’t have the HR and personnel department capacities of these big employers. They hire on the basis of formal educational achievement, with the hope that workers have the required skills. Hiring risks are perceived to be higher in absence of formal education.

The Foundation’s competency-based approach offers a way for employers to reduce this risk. For those labour market sectors with critical shortages, employers cannot wait until they have fully qualified workers, but they can assess and hire people who are partially qualified. Once they know a worker’s competencies, they can provide the on-the-job training needed, or work with education providers to quickly get their workforce up to speed and fully qualified. Employers are starting to see the potential. Chambers of Crafts, which oversee the professional education and certification of German occupations, are slower to come on board.

Shifting the landscape of how competencies are recognized and workers are hired is a large project. As more potential workers assess their competencies, more German employers will see the value of competency-based employment assessments. These numbers can gradually provide 1 million refugees more pathways to greater economic integration, benefiting the entire country.

Making it work for you:

  • Bring simplicity to complex issues. The Foundation found a simple way to introduce competence-based assessment tools for employment counsellors, while surveying and working with employers to identify how the recruitment and hiring landscape needs to shift. With an expansive stakeholder analysis, they were able to craft a simple solution to meet a variety of needs.
  • Keep the tools simple. Because the Foundation’s Competence Cards were built with simplicity in mind, they were easily used in various newcomer and refugee settings.
  • Scale your solution. Once the Foundation found a huge demand in their paper, analog Competence and Career Card system, they scaled it up into a digital format, making it more widely accessible.
  • Find opportunities, consult and create. Bertelsmann is not a labour market focused foundation, but is focused, in part, on shaping the future and strengthening society to help individuals reach their full potential by developing the resources needed to achieve their goals. They saw an opportunity to simplify an emerging model in order to make it more accessible to all stakeholders. In particular, when it comes to employers, their system democratizes access to competency-based assessments for smaller companies that lack the internal resources to do it themselves.

Enjoyed the article? Share it with your colleagues to enjoy as well

Subscribe to our newsletter
Monthly updates.
Curated content.

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: . You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact