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Competency Overview

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Competencies – An Overview

NPS Career Academy

What is the definition of a competency?

The NPS describes a competency as a "combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities in a particular career field, which, when acquired, allow employees of the NPS to perform a task or function at a specifically defined level of proficiency (The Learning Place: Competencies,, accessed 7/25/05).

Competencies correlate with job performance, can be measured against well-accepted performance standards, and can be improved through training and development opportunities.

Another way of looking at competencies: “Observable Behavior that is based on specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes that relate to performance” or “The ability of an individual to do a job properly. A competency is a set of defined behaviors that provide a structured guide enabling the identification, evaluation and development of the behaviors in individual employees.” (ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals, 2008).

Competencies often describe the work: what are the tasks, results, and outputs required?

Task Approach: Fights fire.

Results Approach: Define results such as rescued climbers, arrested violators. Add “ability to” and it becomes ability to recue climbers, ability to arrest violators.

Output Approach: Something a person or team produces. Adding ability to makes it a competency “ability to produce brochures”.

A competent athlete is one who uses skills/abilities to accomplish something desirable; passing accurately, defending the goal, leading to a winning season.

Competencies in the NPS can be divided into the following different types:

  • General Competency: A competency that is common to many jobs, such as reading or writing.  These usually come from OPM.
  • Essential Competency: This competency is also referred to as a Technical Competency.  This type of competency forms part of the vital knowledge, skills, and abilities for an individual career field; an essential competency is critical for an employee to perform effectively at his or her level in a career field
  • Shared Competency: An essential competency inherent to one career field that crosses over into another career field.
  • Common Competency: An essential competency that describes the knowledge, skills, and abilities found within a family of related jobs.

  • Universal Competency: A general competency that is required for all NPS employees, regardless of career field or level of work. The Universal Competencies as defined by the NPS (and that serve as the basis for the NPS Fundamentals Training Program) and are found under The Learning Place: .


What is a competency model?

A competency model is a group of competencies believed to be relevant to successful work performance.


Why develop competency models?

  • Selection criteria
  • Performance-related applications
  • Development applications: Competency models provide basis for the individual and organizational needs assessments, individual development plans, organization training plans, and a variety of organization assessment and development activities.
  • Reward applications


Competency-Based Training


Competency-based human resource systems represent the industry and government standard and outline the knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors that are required for employees to perform duties at a defined level of proficiency. Competency based training provides employees with outcome-based, learner-driven tools that help to improve their overall job performance as determined by competencies. The competencies are designed to provide clear performance measurements and stimulate professional growth by encouraging individuals to take charge of developing their own skills and abilities. Through basing training and development courses on well-defined, established competencies, employees are provided with a clear vision of which specific skills and abilities they need to develop in order to successfully fulfill their roles and responsibilities. In addition, competencies increase accountability by providing a standard of measurement against which the learner and worker can be evaluated.


How detailed are competency definitions?

You will frequently need to break identified tasks into subtasks, and to define the range of situations in which they may need to be performed.

            Example –     Task: Respond to Emergency Medical Incidents

                                    Sub-task: Maintain certification as an EMT

                                    Sub-task: Develop park EMS protocols

                                    Sub-task: Maintain all EMS equipment in proper working order

            Example –  Competency: Ability to Respond to Emergency Medical Incidents

Range of situations: Independently while alone in the park backcountry; in conjunction with outside service providers; or under the supervision of incident command system.

Knowledge Levels (relate to individual competencies within a Career Field):

Basic Knowledge--Has a rudimentary/elementary understanding of the concepts/tasks entailed in the competency; can do the work with assistance/guidance/close supervision of more experienced colleagues/leader.

Working knowledge-- Has a thorough understanding of the concepts/tasks entailed in the competency; can do the work on his/her own with minimal assistance/guidance/supervision.

Advanced Knowledge -- Is very accomplished/a recognized information source in that competency; can teach/guide/lead others in the competency.

What are the Different Performance Levels that we use?


For every career field and every individual NPS employee, different performance levels apply. Supervisors and employees must recognize what an individual’s performance level is and focus on developing skills that eventually will raise that performance level.

The performance levels that have been agreed to for the VRP Career Academy and approved under the Project Plan are as follows:
  • Entry
  • Intermediate
  • Journey
  • Advanced

Entry Level: Competencies for employees meeting basic qualifications.

Intermediate Level: Competencies for employees with limited hands-on experience in one or more areas within their career field; such employees can handle some issues/situations/competencies on their own in one or more areas within their career field.

Journey Level: Competencies for employees having considerable hands-on experience, generally in one or more areas within their career field; such employees can generally handle most issues/situations/competencies on their own in more than one area within their career field.  This level is also commonly referred to as Full Performance Level.

Advanced Level: Competencies for employees who are recognized as leaders, experts, authorities in one or more areas within their career field; such employees are frequently called upon to shape policy and procedures for their field, and advise, train of participate in the development of employees within their career field.

What is the competency analysis process?
  • Do a work analysis (watch people work).
  • Do a critical interview with current performers. What situations have you been in and what challenges did you face? (This is essentially what we are doing with the SME meeting and subsequent needs assessment.)

How do we ensure validity?
  • Have job experts pool their expertise to define the work and competencies.


Ability: Physical or mental power to perform.

Behavior: To act, react, or function in a particular manner.

Benchmark: A description or example of competency proficiency at defined levels.

Career Field: A category that groups similar or like jobs together.

Catalog Item: A course (classroom or self-paced) or other distinct unit of training (such as a work detail) that has or might be offered to employees of the National Park Service and is listed in My Learning Manager.

Course of Study: A series of NPS Servicewide Training & Development opportunities in which participants learn desired competencies. Occupational courses of study refer to opportunities within an occupational grouping. Thematic courses of study refer to opportunities that follow a similar concept. They can be offered within and across occupations and across career fields.

Crosswalk: A comparison study between two or more sources of competencies (i.e., OPM and NPS competencies) with the objective of adopting validated competencies whenever possible. 

Curriculum: An occupational or thematic course of study in which participants learn desired competencies.

Event: An instance of a learning opportunity or catalog item (i.e., course) that occurs at a particular time and place.

Job Task: A group of duties or functions that are performed in the job.

Knowledge: Understanding acquired through education and/or experience.

Learning Activity: An experience designed to develop learning toward a specific session objective.

Learning Category: An NPS Career Field (i.e., Administration) or other NPS Servicewide Training & Development Program (i.e., NPS Intake Program).

Learning Opportunity: A learning activity, unit, module, or session which addresses desired competencies (examples: e-learning, class, workshop, seminar, mentoring, self-directed learning).

Module: A learning activity which “stands alone.” Modules can form parts of learning opportunities or they can be learning opportunities themselves.

Program: A collection of competency-based curricula in which participants learn desired competencies through the NPS Servicewide Training and Development Program.

Session: One activity within a learning opportunity which addresses a particular concept. A session can also denote a timeframe.

Skill: Expertise, an art, a trade, or a technique.

Task: A set of actions performed to accomplish a specific duty of an employee holding a particular position and which has a direct effect on an organization’s ability to achieve its goals.

Training Unit: An NPS Servicewide Training & Development measurement equaling one person who participates in one hour of training or development.

Validation: A scientific determination that job competencies actually describe what an employee does and can be defended in a court of law if challenged.

Additional References not sited previously:

Excerpts from ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals, 2008, The Facility Management Competencies report by Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands of Indiana University:  , April 2010, and the Natural Resource Stewardship website:


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