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Issue 06: Competency Ontology

Issue 06: Competency Ontology
Alabama Governors Office Education/Workforce, C-BEN, EBSCOed
Article Date
September 12, 2023

The movement to create digital wallets and records of credentials
is significant. However, only the Alabama Talent Triad has created a competency system designed to both describe the competencies gained by individual learners and verified by education providers to enable “recommendations” that link jobseekers with open roles based on their verified skills.

The Alabama Talent Triad Competency Ontology covers 365 in-demand occupations and provides a strong foundation that powers a robust, constantly evolving occupational vocabulary powered by EBSCOed that enables the Talent Triad to understand not only competency details, but relationships between competencies, in order to connect workforce, education, and employers.

Key Takeaways

Competency is defined as the capability to apply or use a set of knowledge, skills, and intellectual behaviors to thrive in a defined field or career setting. Competencies describe what a worker or learner knows, what they can do, and the context in which they can do it.

While skills are frequently noted in conversations about education and workforce alignment, and in practical application for the masses, skills are technically a component of competencies. A full competency statement will include:

  • Knowledge: What do I know? Knowledge can be general but, in the context of competency, tends to be specific to a person’s field. All accountants in the United States, for example, need some foundational knowledge about both the field of accounting and the applicable laws in this country.
  • Skills: What am I able to do? Skills include both technical skills and human, or durable, skills. Technical skills, such as coding in Python or knowing how to operate machinery, tend to be specific to a person’s field of study, job, or industry. Human, or durable, skills—as the name implies—apply across a wide range of fields. These include things like communication, problem-solving, and creativity.
  • Behavior: What dispositions do I display? Intellectual behaviors include things like integrity, drive, perseverance, empathy, and confidence in reason. Such behaviors are a critical component of how skills and knowledge ultimately get applied in a person’s career. A doctor, for example, may have tremendous skill and knowledge, but without empathy will fall short in patient care.
  • Applied Context: In which environments am I working? Contexts include both the materials with which one might be required to work, the conditions of the work itself, and the environment in which the work takes place. For example, welders will take specific steps to successfully work in a submerged rather than open-air environment.

After beginning work to identify and organize competencies in a taxonomy system, Alabama shifted in 2023 to an ontology with a robust set of tools to evolve the ontology over time and based on the contributions of its users. This shift has enhanced flexibility and opportunity for analysis and application.

Factor Taxonomy



Defines hierarchical, one-dimensional relationships

Defines multi-dimensional relationships



Defines categories within a domain

Represents relationships across different domains


Static, changes only when inputs shift

Dynamic, changes frequently based on inputs, connections, machine learning, etc.


Relies on strictly enforced rules, grammar, spelling, etc

Inclusive language, adapting to spelling, grammar differences


Describes information organization and hierarchical relationship

Describes intent, holistic relationships


Limited utility for complex learning and em- ployment record systems

Highly complex, requiring significant time and resources to develop

The Alabama Competency Ontology underpins the Talent Triad. The Ontology uses competencies extracted from an analysis of 365 high-demand statewide and regional occupation job descriptions. Competencies form the “occupational DNA” for each occupation and career pathway in the state, describing the knowledge, skills, and behaviors required for each job, as well as the applied context of the competencies.

In 2023, Alabama shifted from its original approach, a taxonomy that formalized and prescribed hierarchical competency relationships, that described:

  • Foundational competencies—personal, academic and workplace competencies that enable job performance.

  • Industry-related competencies—industry sector and industry-wide technical competencies that support effective performance in a given industry.

  • Occupation-related competencies—role-specific competencies that relate to the knowledge, technical ability, and role conditions needed to perform in a particular role, and well as management competencies.

While the taxonomy was an important first step, it was too rigid for the purposes of the Talent Triad. Talent Triad leaders found that the hierarchical system, where competency statements had to be classified in one unified way, did not lend itself to the desired approach, which would continually build and update based on inputs, edits, and feedback from users. Further, the taxonomy system did not support the many different uses and applications of competency data that the Talent Triad pursued.

The Alabama Competency Ontology both resolves some challenges encountered in implementing a taxonomy and enables much more adaptive and flexible approaches to aligning workforce, education, and employers. Under the taxonomy approach, the state found it difficult to map relationships between competencies, and to account for vast array of language and keywords used to describe competencies in Alabama job descriptions. Further, because of these challenges, the state needed additional data and technology support.

The Ontology is a much less static system that enables additions, corrections, and alterations suggested by employers and educators. The Ontology also eliminates much of the hierarchical approach under the Taxonomy and instead provides a flexible menu of terms to describe knowledge, skills, behaviors, and applied contexts, as well as the relationships between them. The Ontology is dynamic and layered, just like competencies are in real life, and is a valuable, usable means of organizing competencies that are relevant in the state’s economy.

Over time, the Alabama Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation (GOEWT) and agency partners shepherded a process that has resulted in the most comprehensive statewide organization of competencies in the nation, working across institutions of higher education and workforce providers, as well as business and industry.

The Competency Ontology is constantly updated through interactions with educators, employers, and users. It intersects with other systems within the Talent Triad in a variety of ways.

  • The Alabama Credential Registry is the state’s central store for all credentialed learning and the Alabama Compendium of Valuable Credentials, of which each meet tests for alignment with in- demand occupations. Using the Ontology, education providers identify the competencies required
    for mastery within each credential, as well as the competencies gained through courses and other experiences. This important work by education providers enables an individualized verified account of credentials and the competencies that those credentials signify.

  • The Skills-Based Job Description Generator enables employers to easily design and post skills-based job descriptions, identifying needed and desired competencies and work experiences. Leveraging the controlled vocabulary of the Competency Ontology, skills-based job descriptions generated through the platform align with competency outcomes identified by education providers, enabling “recommendations” between individuals with verified competencies and jobs for which they are qualified.

  • Alabama’s Digital Wallet may then be populated by workers, learners, and job seekers in the state. The Learning and Employment Record enables syncing of verified credentials and skills from education and training providers and employers, supporting the self-sovereign sharing of tailored resumes with employers. Job seekers can also receive job recommendations and recommendations for further learning.

The Alabama Talent Triad team invites you to learn with us. The work on the Competency Ontology is continually advancing, and our experiences and insights can help your state avoid problems and hasten progress in building a comprehensive ontology of competencies.

Specifically, we are eager to partner with states that are interested in sharing competency infrastructure, enabling learners and job seekers to move across state lines and effectively compete in regional labor markets that often span borders.

We encourage states to undertake the effort to shift toward competency-based education, enabling learners to proceed at the speed of mastery, and enabling employers to understand both the credentials and the competencies that learners possess.

We will release multiple chapters through the Alabama State Playbook, designed specifically to share lessons learned and emerging best practices. The Playbook is specifically designed to support state policy and implementation teams as they address talent in their own states. Papers will be posted periodically at,as well as through social media and other venues.

Building a Talent Marketplace—A Playbook for States

Alabama’s Talent Triad is a unique system, bringing together often disparate efforts to create value and impact for the state’s workforce and economy. Driven by Alabama’s government and its goals of adding 500,000 additional credentialed workers to the state’s economy and surpassing the national labor force participation rate by 2025, the Talent Triad represents a comprehensive skills-based talent marketplace that connects job-seekers, employers and education providers.

There have been several states taking the first step to transform their economy to a currency of skills by implementing skills-based hiring approaches for state employees. This is a positive step toward alleviating government hiring and recruiting challenges. But we know this is not enough to result in economic mobility and prosperity across the state, and more action will be needed to create skills-based talent marketplaces that connect all workers, career opportunities, and learning experiences to power economic growth and the mobility of its citizens.

Alabama state leaders understood this problem deeply and used evidence to drive towards the creation of the Alabama Talent Triad, which is the first skills-based talent marketplace facilitated by a state in the US. To share about this important effort, partners have created The Alabama Talent Playbook, which provides details for how the state is building a skills-based economy and allows other state leaders to learn how Alabama’s Talent Triad has emerged as the most promising transformational talent marketplace in the country.

Alabama’s Talent Marketplace: Technology and Data Tools for the People of Alabama

The Talent Triad is a public-private partnership, sponsored by Governor Ivey’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation and AlabamaWorks! to easily provide access to information about jobs, credentials, and job seekers in an online talent marketplace. Unlike many other efforts where states are deploying technology to gather and connect workforce and education data for state-level research and reporting, the Talent Triad was not built to serve the state.

The Talent Triad was designed to serve citizen stakeholders and facilitate the success of:

  • Job-seekers and working learners who wish to apply their skills in a new or advancing role

  • Employers who seek to find talented Alabamians to fill in-demand jobs

  • Education providers working to train and build Alabama’s talented workforce

While the state will benefit from the insights gained from stakeholders using the Talent Triad and from the impacts on labor force participation and employment, the state is not the primary beneficiary. Instead, Alabama is making a big bet, leveraging public data and infrastructure, philanthropic support, subject-matter expertise, and private sector know-how to create a truly unique talent marketplace to serve its people.

The Alabama Talent Triad engages 19 state agencies in a common vision and collective work to build an ecosystem where technology and data can support the growth of skills-based hiring and competency- based education in order to increase credential completion and labor force participation.

The Talent Triad is composed of three segments, each of which creates value:

  • The Alabama Credential Registry is an online resource that enables Alabama education and training providers to register the credentials they issue, including certificates, licenses, degrees and non-degree credentials, creating a real-time outlook for the full array of credentials available to learners in the state. Unlike other credential registries, Alabama’s goes a step further to describe the competencies that learners gain in completing these credentials. That work is organized through the state’s Competency Ontology, and results in what the state calls the “DNA” for in-demand jobs--the skills and knowledge that drive in-demand jobs.

  • The Alabama Skills-Based Job Description Generator and Employer Portal allows employers to create customized job descriptions based on the skills “DNA” of the jobs in their firms. Employers can use the Skills-Based Job Description Generator to more easily transition their existing descriptions into skills- based job descriptions, and to post jobs so they can be matched with potential employees.

  • The Alabama College and Career Exploration Tool, or ACCET, is Alabama’s version of the Learning and Employment Record (LER) and allows students and job seekers to own, collect, and manage their records of verified skills, credentials, and experiences in a digital wallet to easily share and link directly to skills-based job descriptions generated by employers. Job-seekers can tailor their LER to specific roles and fields, and are in full control of their own credential and competency data.

Because all aspects of the Talent Triad use the same competency-based “DNA”, job seekers and employers can be “matched” based on the alignment of skills. The LER is valued by employers because it eliminates cumbersome background checks to verify credentials and offers discrete information about what a job candidate actually knows and is able to do on the job. Both saving time and money for on-boarding new employees, and providing Alabamians a more direct path to careers. If the job seeker is not qualified for a job, they will receive learning recommendations to an Alabama education or training provider to support their skill and credential development to qualify.

Call To Action

The Alabama Talent Triad team will continue to scale while also exploring new integrations and ways for the data to be interoperable to the ways job seekers and employers seek to create economic growth and individual mobility.

We invite you to learn with us. We will release multiple chapters through the Alabama State Playbook, designed specifically to share lessons learned and emerging best practices. The Playbook is specifically designed to support state policy and implementation teams as they address talent in their own states. Papers will be posted periodically at, as well as through social media and other venues.

We invite you to connect with the Alabama Talent Triad team to learn and to explore how this work can support transformation in other states.

Research and Resources

For an overview on the differences between taxonomies and ontologies, as well as a visual representation of those differences, visit Copyright Clearance Center’s “What is the Difference Between a Taxonomy and an Ontology?”

For support in identifying competencies and shifting toward competency-based education approaches, the Competency-Based Education Network provides institutions, employers, and other organizations with the technical assistance and resources they need.

Credentials to Employment: The Last Mile from the Digital Credentials Consortium underscores the desire by employers for LER platform developers to include more data on skills and competencies in learning
and employment records. “All panelists in this study highlight the value of detailed information about an individual’s specific accomplishments and experiences in informing better decisions around hiring and career progression. To this end, credentials need to be enhanced with additional data about individual courses/modules a person has studied, together with the learning outcomes (skills/knowledge) obtained...”

Deloitte’s comprehensive “The Skills-Based Organization” highlights the growing shifts in organizational design and job functions that are driving the need for improved competency verification