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Understanding Competence

Over the next few months, IMCA’s Competence and Training Committee will publish a series of articles, podcasts and wire side chats looking at various aspect of Competence. This first installment looks at what it is to be competent.

What is it to be competent?

We encounter terms related to “competence” every day in our work-related activities.  “We use a competence-based system” or “Our workforce is fully competent” are common phrases used, but do we fully understand what competence means?

Most of us know that competence involves skill, experience, knowledge or ability and that it is closely related to safety in a working environment.

These things are all true, and a competent person would certainly demonstrate these qualities. To be truly competent, an individual would need to be able to demonstrate all these qualities, consistently, while being assessed against measurable criteria.  For instance, knowing how to drive a car does not mean you can drive one safely. To become a competent car driver, you need to be able to demonstrate, to a driving examiner, that you can carry out basic manoeuvres, safely and confidently under a variety of road conditions and, also be able to answer a series of questions based on the highway code correctly. Even then you are only starting out on a journey to becoming a competent driver. You would be expected to gain more experience and skill as you drive more. You are only qualified to drive a certain class of vehicle. There are other examinations and levels of competence required to be able to drive a heavy-goods vehicle or a public service vehicle carrying passengers. So, assessment against measurable and established criteria is therefore an important part of the competence process.  

Competence is not a static process since tasks, equipment and processes can change and develop. If you are working regularly, repeating certain tasks and keeping up your knowledge of new developments then your competence is likely to remain intact and up to date, but what happens if your circumstances have changed? For example, you have worked as an offshore ROV supervisor, with all the appropriate competencies, for a 5-year period but then the industry suffers a downturn and you do not work offshore for 3 years. The industry bounces back and there are suddenly a lot of jobs around but are you still competent as a supervisor?  You may need to be reassessed to establish your competence level and this may involve dropping in grade to allow time for you to be properly assessed before being reinstated to your former grade.

A competence assessment process is provided to ensure that all the participants, in a competence scheme, are assessed against common core and task specific criteria at the appropriate level for the grade being assessed and that the same assessment conditions are applied to all candidates equally by an assessor who is senior and technically competent in the subject matter area.

It is not always possible, or practical, for the assessor to be present at the workplace during the assessment. In this case, a proxy witness also senior and technically skilled, may observe the candidates work and provide a written statement of their observations as evidence to support the candidate’s competence assessment. This process can be supported with written and/or verbal questioning, to establish the candidate’s knowledge of the subject matter.      

The final element, in any robust competence scheme, is the verification process. This is an independent check to ensure that the correct assessment procedures have been applied and adhered to correctly and fairly throughout the assessment process and that the correct recording procedures have been adopted. This represents a quality assurance check.

To briefly recap, to be considered competent in a task a candidate needs to be able to demonstrate skill, knowledge, ability and experience and do so to the satisfaction of a technically skilled and senior assessor. The whole process must then be verified to ensure the assessment process has been followed accurately and completed correctly.       

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