What it means to be an integral professional? Certainly, with the constant change in labor market, besides having the technical knowledge of a profession, there is also the need to develop a set of competencies and skills like problem solving, communication, creativity or the generation of innovative ideas. As Gary Becker suggests in his theory, the Human Capital, every person should develop these skills to compete in a globalized economy, but the development of either cognitive or socioemotional skills must not be seen just as an adaptation to satisfy the businesses needs, competences should be taught for purposes beyond competition or labor application.

Before discussing the importance of abilities in the labor market and their relation to the Human Capital Theory, let’s differentiate competencies vs skills. Skills are capacities learned, either by training or practice, it refers to the activity, for example: making an invoice, doing a research, etc. Competences, on the other hand,  are the characteristics or behaviors that enable a person to do those activities. Having said this, competencies development appears as the new answer to face economic and productive market changes, and as the meeting point between universities and businesses. However, there are two important elements that take crucial part during this process and are key factors to evaluate the perception given to competencies and question the real purpose of them: the education system and the expected returns from the investment in competencies.

First, the education system based on an economic vision, which leads to think of an education that prepares a workforce willing to satisfy the demands of the market. It could be even thought that the education system is forming individuals with characteristics specially designed for the production system. So am I picking on the competencies I want to develop or is the system deciding for me? And yet should I still call them competencies for life? I had been said a good accountant has strong math expertise, but what if I’m also interested in practicing altruistic activities and develop empathy? Just because they do not represent a significant contribution to the economic system, it doesn’t mean they are not important skills. This explains the low registration rates for majors like psychology, philosophy, or social work.

In 1990 the World Bank held a meeting along with organisations such as UNICEF and UNESCO, to address the need of providing basic education for a more flexible human capital capable of resists the changes from the market . From the outcomes of this meeting and as an example of the economic approach associated to educational programs, the World Bank has also failed in understanding competencies beyond low-skill jobs:

“The World Bank’s vision of education is one-dimensional, with no consideration for the social, economic and cultural factors which determine the motivations and attitudes of both students and teachers”. Coraggio (1994)

Secondly, the decision to foster competencies is generally given to the income returns expected from them, as it is exemplified in the following scenarios:

  • Higher incomes after a greater human capital development throughout life. However, greater number of competencies in a society not always means more real employment options, better incomes or economic progress indeed, this assumption would only apply in a perfect labor market. Far beyond form all the actions an individual would carry out to advance their human capital, other conditions related to economic development must be given to guarantee great competencies remuneration.
  • Competencies development through alternative or unconventional education such as volunteering, internships or other experiences as a means by which young people can generate more revenue in the future. Then, would we be talking about a reasonable development of marketable skills?

There is a very economist vision about competencies development, whether they are for life or simply for work, and this situation is aggravated even more because of the commodification of education, leaving aside the social approach of the art of learning. But before starting to implement new educational policies, a few questions must be answer first; What kind of education we want to convey? What types of youngsters do we want to develop for our society? What type of information will be important for them in order to address issues ranging beyond a productive or economic interest?

“People are entities to be developed in and of themselves, and not ‘inputs’ to be ‘processed’ by others”  (Coraggio, 1994)