The tense relationship between occupation-specific and cross occupational competences

Discourses in vocational education and training and unresolved issues

Agnes Dietzen

Cross occupational competences have long been seen as an opportunity to structure vocational education and training on a broader basis and in a more future-looking way. A plea for a core skills concept which would act as a starting point for educational debate and in which the main focus would be placed on the conflicting relationship between occupation-specific and cross occupational competences was published by Mertens in 1974 and still holds general sway. The article uses the following questions to shed light on this conflicting relationship. How can cross occupational competences be delineated from occupation-specific competences? Can occupation-specific competences be transferred beyond their direct action context, and how can they be imparted in initial and continuing training or be acquired at the company? The article states a number of key points relating to the debates and concludes by indicating the necessity of promoting cross occupational competences at the various VET learning venues.

Object area and systematisation proposals for cross occupational competences

In light of the upheavals in work and employment that were taking place in the 1970s, DIETER MERTENS addressed the issue of the rapid obsolescence of specialised professional qualifications and their low level of applicability to companies and workers. He argued in favour of fostering problem-solving abilities rather than imparting specialised skills (cf. MERTENS 1974, pp. 39 ff.). The core skills concept received a broad response in research and in educational policy from the very outset. Providing a coherent justification and derivation of core competences1 and delineating them from specialist competences formed a main focus of debate at an early stage. MERTENS understood core competences as being overarching educational objectives and elements, which act as a “common third party” with the aim of facilitating rapid and smooth acquisition of changing specialist knowledge (cf. MERTENS 1974, p. 36). The subsequent educational debate bemoaned the intended utilisation that lay behind the concept of non-specialist qualifications because it was aligned to the labour market in a strongly unilateral manner. There was also criticism of the educational intentions, which were considered too low. The abstract nature of the core competences and their lack of relatedness to more complex work tasks and processes were also thought to be a fundamental problem in terms of the proposed way in which they would be imparted.

“Autonomy is not necessarily always autonomy, and problem solving skills can mean many things. Cooperation may be interpreted in various ways. Abstract thought can be learned at different levels and in relation to a wide range of contents. In which respects are young persons actually supposed to become autonomous, socially competent or flexible? What are their goals in thinking abstractly or in recognising reciprocal effects and correlations?” (LAUR-ERNST 1983, p. 188).

The view was, therefore, that these cross occupational competences needed to be defined more precisely in order to be able to serve as education and training objectives and to guide the actions of teaching staff and trainers (cf. ibid.). Two particular systematisation proposals or approaches to be adopted towards the determination of cross occupational competences were discussed more broadly in the 1980s and 1990s. They are accorded special emphasis here because they inform, to a certain degree, the approaches being taken in today’s competence research.

The suggestion made by LAUR-ERNST (1983) emerged from pilot projects on the introduction of new CNC technology in the metalworking industry. She proposed that cross occupational competences should be derived from practical references to occupational actions rather than from superordinate principles in order to facilitate their furtherance in training. The “art” of imparting such competences was to “teach competences which had been specified via typical situations, problems and objects within the respective field of work in a way which enables learners to recognise their overriding significance and to make use of them for occupational planning and actions” (ibid. p. 188). This would mean that the imparting of cross occupational competences would not cause vocational education and training to lose its practical reference. Indeed, training which related to occupational tasks would need to be linked with a more comprehensive formation of reflexive skills and capabilities to act (cf. ibid. p. 188).

As a consequence, the significance of specialist knowledge in vocational training should still be viewed as being very high, particularly where complex and abstract skills were concerned. The transfer areas in this regard only needed to be expanded in circumstances where sufficient specific practical knowledge was in place, thus allowing recourse to such knowledge in new situations (ibid. pp. 187 ff.). The pragmatic approach put forward by LAUR-ERNST, which uses an analysis of the requirements, activities and general conditions relating to the respective occupational tasks and demands to arrive at a modelling of the necessary competences, also serves as a basis for the approach towards development of occupation-related competence models in current occupational competence research. LOTHAR REETZ (1989 a and b, 1999) proposed a core skills concept based on the education and personality theory propounded by HEINRICH ROTH. He drew distinctions between the following.

  • Basic abilities which have their roots in personality and character in the sense of attitudes, normal proclivities, stances and character traits such as stamina, activity, initiative and willingness to learn
  • Abilities aligned to performance, activities and tasks, such as problem solving, decision making and development of concepts
  • Social abilities including cooperativeness, conflict resolution, negotiating skills etc. (cf. REETZ 1989 a, p. 10).

Firstly, as a self-contained model, this construct integrated all relevant personality aspects relating to wishing, feeling, thinking, learning and acting. Secondly, it clarified both the correlation between the emotional and motivational prerequisites for cognitive performance and the “cognitive conditionality of human feeling, volition and action” (REETZ 1989 a, p. 10). The essential understanding of competence in German vocational education and training has its foundation in this concept of core skills.


From core skills to competences

As a result of the systematisation proposal made by REETZ (1989), the competence debate in Germany was more or less directly informed by the discourse surrounding core skills. REETZ arrived at the same conclusion drawn by LAUR-ERNST (1983) and later also by BUNK (1994), namely that the concept of core skills would in future lend expression to a general and higher form of occupational competence to act which would situatively facilitate competent action, including in new occupational settings.

“The key point is that practical knowledge can be in place alongside factual knowledge, so that situative transfer of general competence to specific occupational settings is possible.” (REETZ 1989 b, p. 28).

REETZ conceived core skills as a system of competences. One of the intentions in doing this was to make such skills verifiable. He defines competences as dispositions “which underlie situationally appropriate action and make this possible in the first place” (REETZ 1999, p. 38). Particular emphasis is placed on overcoming situations and tasks in a flexible manner. Such a view perceives competences as dispositions founded in knowledge-based, meta-cognitive and reflexive elements which are essential to the development of practical knowledge and problem-solving behaviour. Since the 1990s, this understanding of competence has become an overarching educational goal within the concept of employability skills/occupational competence and has been incorporated into school-based skeleton curricula and company training regulations. Such a development is associated with the objective of structuring training in a broadly based way and of organising it in line with work and business processes. On the company side of dual training, this is revealed in the alignment of training methods used and was also later reflected in regulatory instruments in the form of “comprehensive activities” which contain the central activities of a certain work and business process. On the vocational school side, the introduction of the learning field concept in 1996 meant that preference was given to learning on the basis of occupational tasks and problems rather than to a conventional subject-oriented system founded on various technical theories.

There has been an increase in the proportions of knowledge-based training contained in training profiles. Training pursues the objective of imparting professional knowledge, theoretical knowledge, practical competences, problem-solving abilities and cross occupational competences in an integrated way with the idea of rendering these transferable beyond the immediate requirements area. Further empirical clarification is still required in order to ascertain the extent to which this goal of using training as a vehicle for the establishment of broad and transferable occupational competences has already been realised.

Delineation between occupation-specific and cross occupational competences in competence diagnostics

Occupational competence diagnostics deploys suitable measurement instruments and potentially offers an opportunity to empirically record competences acquired during training. Statements can also be made regarding the limitations on the use of competences beyond the respective occupation-specific actions. Such assertions therefore relate to transferability. Competence diagnostics pursues an approach which has already been set out in the study by LAUR-ERNST and in REETZ’S conceptual proposal cited above. This involves using typical situations, problems and objects in the respective field of work to determine the object area of the competence. The competence models thus derived are able to map the necessary knowledge, abilities and skills as dispositions of occupational competences based on sectors and are deployed as reference points for the development of measurement instruments. Measurements related to the competence models make it possible to distinguish the object areas of various competences empirically and therefore allow the limits of their use to be ascertained.

Occupational competence diagnostics is only capable of producing valid measurements at a sector-specific level. Attempts to measure cross occupational competences constitute a particular challenge, because the object area of these competences is inherently harder to define. The dearth of measurement studies relating to cross occupational competences which have been conducted thus far may well be an indicator of the especial difficulties faced. At the present time, cross occupational competences are predominately deemed to be general problem-solving skills and social competences such as the ability to work as part of a team (cf. BAETHGE/SEEBER 2016).

The measurability of problem-solving skills presents fundamental problems in particular. These problems are already contained within the definition of what can be considered to be a problem-solving situation. A problem may be described in terms of a requirements situation and from an individual perspective within the context of overcoming a personal barrier. From a diagnostic point of view, however, a sector-specific problem can only be empirically determined in a way which relates to individual persons or groups of persons. In other words, it is defined by according consideration to the individual prerequisites for a solution and not solely by the requirement itself (cf. NICKOLAUS/SEEBER 2013, p. 172). Studies which aim to record cross occupational social competences such as team competency are also rare. The initial approaches taken towards the recording of social competences are exclusively occupationally specific in their alignment and also suggest that existing ways of measuring general social competences are not meaningful with regard to occupation-specific application areas (cf. DIETZEN et al. 2016).

The significance of cross occupational competences for company-based vocational training that is fit for the future

Cross-cutting competences are once again attracting a high degree of interest in light of the development of a world of work characterised by increasing digitalisation and by a change in the objectives of task fulfilment. This interest is reflected in current evaluations of skilled worker development (cf. by way of example BAETHGE/WOLTER 2015). The primary focus is on the question of whether and the extent to which company-based VET can provide a vehicle for the competence development of skilled workers whose competence profile is increasingly founded on general competences which, within the German education system, have been primarily imparted in higher education contexts up until now.

This assessment joins the ranks of socio-scientific diagnoses of the sustainability of vocational education and training which have been ongoing since the 1980s and which predicted an erosion of the concept of the regulated occupation at the time. BAETHGE in particular embraced the thesis that the implementation of process-oriented company and work principles would fundamentally alter skills requirements and would bring increased competence demands and dissolutions to the boundaries of occupational actions in its wake. According to BAETHGE, these content dissolutions mainly comprise requirements relating to types of knowledge and skills which are not necessarily generally associated with skilled worker training – social sensitivity when dealing with people from other company and work cultures, an understanding of business management correlations and reflectiveness with regard to the personal questioning of cognitive and behavioural patterns. These expanded competences (regardless of the respective specialist qualification) pool to form a series of new core skills at a very high level. These comprise the capacity for abstract, systemic and processual thought, openness and intellectual flexibility, individual knowledge management, a high degree of communicative competences and comprehensive competences relating to self-organisation and the self-direction of learning processes (cf. BAETHGE 2001, p. 100).

The results of current empirical research into digitalisation and its consequences for skills seem to be moving in this direction, at least as far as the competences demanded are concerned, and may be summarised in the following terms. The work requirements made of skilled workers are becoming increasingly complex. Decentralisation and flat hierarchies mean that individual employees are receiving greater responsibility and autonomy. No loss of significance of occupational skills profiles is discernible, although the shift in the weighting of some competences is continuing. Increased requirements in respect of process optimisation are necessitating competences such as new technology-based knowledge, IT competences, extended analytical abilities in the area of problem solving and competences relating to cooperation with skilled workers from various professional access points (cf. ZINKE 2019; CONEIN/SCHAD-DANKWART 2019).

The imparting of cross occupational competences – challenges for the learning venues

The strongly overarching profile of these competences repeatedly poses the questions of how and where they will be taught and of the nature of the role that will be assumed by vocational education and training. All the indications are that company-based vocational learning will continue to be accorded a high degree of significance as long as everyday working life and company practice can be structured in a way that is conducive to the acquisition of cross occupational competences. Company recruitment behaviour appears to display ambivalence in this regard. On the one hand, the assumption may be made that companies will make use of the higher supply of skilled workers who have completed academic training for reasons such as this increase in the need for cross occupational competences. On the other hand, their experiences demonstrate that some of the necessary cross occupational competences are also obtained via practice-oriented learning. This underlines the value of vocational training and the subsequent competence development it produces.

Vocational education and training will therefore continue to be associated with expanded objectives in terms of achieving experience-based vocational learning that takes place in the company. This is because cross occupational competences cannot solely be established via certain company practice which is determined by everyday work actions. The fact is that training needs to be framed in a way which facilitates systematic practising of autonomous problem-solving action. Learners must learn to reflect on the limitation of their own practice. This requires them to have sufficient opportunities to build up new experiences by deploying their own theoretical and practical knowledge in new contexts. One urgent question within this context is what vocational education and training needs to achieve at its various learning venues in order to support learners in being able to implement their knowledge and abilities in different settings. This is important for the formation of a theoretical and reflective understanding of what they are doing, and it will allow them to seek out and develop their own solutions to new types of requirements.

  • 1

    In the German Vocational Education and Training context, the term competence addresses a set of knowledge, skills, abilities which substantiate the concept of a occupational/professional competence to acting. As such it is a much broader concept than the Anglo-Saxon term of competencies.


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[All websites accessed 16 March 2021]

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Translation from the German original (published in BWP 1/2021): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin