It is sad that the traction micro-credentials are getting so far is not for the people who need them most. As Jeff Selingo pointed out in a NYT piece last month, nearly 9 in 10 jobs that have disappeared since 2000 have been lost due to automation. But neither the “forgotten” workers, as they were dubbed in the 2016 election cycle, nor their children can afford to take the work hiatus or time to meander through a part-time, 6-year path through the bachelor’s and master’s to grab the brass ring of the estimated (by 2020) 5 million unfilled highly skill jobs. Or they live in locations where those opportunities don’t exist. You can easily explain the Trump victory in the Rust Belt states by illustrating the opportunity shift from mid-skill to high-skill jobs and from middle America to the coasts. And this trend will be exacerbated over the next decade. The horseshoe will get deeper, which increases the urgency to reinvent college rather than tell more people to go and stick with it, even though we have 2.4 million a year who are trying. It’s not working for them or they did what they thought was a college track, but now they are underemployed.

As this graphic illustrates, the number of middle-skill jobs will drop relative to low- and high-skill jobs. Automation (and to a lesser degree, out-sourcing) will most greatly impact these middle-skill jobs, underlining the importance of providing pathways from low-skill to high-skill jobs.

As this graphic illustrates, the number of middle-skill jobs will drop relative to low- and high-skill jobs. Automation (and to a lesser degree, out-sourcing) will most greatly impact these middle-skill jobs, underlining the importance of providing pathways from low-skill to high-skill jobs.

Which is why sub-degree credentials are appealing. I had the opportunity to interview Sean Gallagher, author of The Future of University Credentials at the Parchment summit last week. Sean says the micro-credentials that are getting people hired or promoted in the new economy are, so far, certificates (e.g., IT, project management, supervisor) and micro-masters (e.g., Supply-chain management, artificial intelligence). If anyone has seen effective (i.e. market signal to employers) sub-degree credentials at the middle skill and low skill jobs beyond traditional trades, we’d like to know about them.

The good news is that we saw a lot of promising experimentation as we (the Lab) made the rounds to the credentialing and reinventing college conferences these past few weeks. We see four kinds of very interesting micro-credentials that could support equity goals for non-elite students and working adults:

 

1. Soft Skills

Levels the playing field for the 80% of high need and students of color who attend post-secondary programs that don’t attract blue chip recruiters. Can soft skill ninjas be identified through a badging process to earn an interview? We know that employers are very concerned with the soft or non-cognitive skills gap that incoming employees display, but they find them hard to hire against because they don’t necessarily correlate with GPA or elite status of the college you attended. See the Lab’s 21st century skills badging challenge for the latest on credentialing soft skills.

 

2. Entry Ticket

With increased interest in competency-based learning, we see a renewed interest in credit for prior learning, where a worker or member of the armed services can gain college credit for skills-based learning and shorten time to degree. Great examples of these are at Texas A&M – Texarkana, which evaluates incoming students for prior-learning credit, and My Next Move, which connects military veterans with pathways to credentials (and work) based on their military experiences.

 

3. Exit Ticket

Could the entry ticket work in reverse? We have some 31 million Americans who have left college in the past 20 years with no degree. Could they take competency tests on the way out to help them in the job market? Efforts like Reverse Transfer may make headway in reversing these attainment gaps.

 

4. Promotion Ticket

Too many Americans find entry into fields but have no way of moving up. Innovate+Educate is one organization working to map out these micro-credentials. In one example, they collaborated with Cedar Valley Community College and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit authority to provide pathways for entry-level employees to move into supervisory roles. Participants completed 18 credits, paid for the employer and fewer than needed for a full degree, in order to earn this “promotion ticket”.

 

You could argue that there are two design challenges for getting lower- and mid-skilled workers to the far side of the horseshoe. One is faster, integrated pathways (we have another blog on that coming), but the second is a new skills currency or verifiable language to create not only more mobility for workers but also a roadmap for development. Perhaps education technology tools, like IBM’s newly announced Project Esaki, can get us there. Esaki is an automated and cognitive advisor that recommends jobs to a candidate based on their skills, interests, and personality, a sort of digital recruiter and HR rep. Micro-credentials can also do that, with certificates and tickets like those described above showing the way.

 

– Kathleen deLaski

 

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