Published on 2016/09/15

The Potential of Non-Degree Credentials to Reinvent Workforce Education

—Co-written with Daniel Dillard | Interim Associate Dean of the Georgetown Campus, South Seattle College

The EvoLLLution | The Potential of Non-Degree Credentials to Reinvent Workforce Education
Alternative credentials have the opportunity to transform workforce education and preparation, but more must be done to create a common understanding of what these credentials represent.

A job-seeker takes out a three-ring binder to show an employer. Inside is a certificate of completion, an OSHA card, a certificate of achievement and a first-aid card. She holds up her phone: her LinkedIn account shows a badge in HR expertise. What does an employer make of this? And how do job seekers and students ensure that the credentials they earn are worthwhile?

For community colleges expanding our offerings in the world of credentials, serving students and employers alike, we must ensure portability, a clear pathway and industry recognition. That’s a lot to ask out of what can sometimes be a two-day class!

Non-traditional students often come to the two-year college with diverse credentials and prior-learning experience earned elsewhere: from other schools, organizations or the workplace. As students look to display skills to employers or baccalaureate and graduate programs that transcripts don’t fully reflect, many colleges have begun to explore alternative and innovative credentials. Non-degree credentials—such as badges, licenses, and short-term certificates—have the potential to help students demonstrate the applied knowledge and competencies they have achieved. In the interest of equity, we need to ensure we are setting up our career and technical education students for future success in the marketplace. At the same time, however, we must also ensure the quality and validity of these various credentials. Especially as more and more for-profit platform vendors appear on the scene, we should strive to safeguard lifelong value and suitability through a continuous and rigorous process of review and assessment.

The Georgetown campus of South Seattle College serves more than 2,700 apprentices per year, and awards hundreds of journey cards in diverse areas such as plumbing, machining and meat cutting. A journey card is considered by industry to be the ultimate credential: the portability of the skills achieved and intensiveness of requirements to earn a card provide a cachet that is unmatched by other types of industry-based certificates and degrees. However, a journey card isn’t for everyone. Not all are suited to the intensity of training. Some have neither the time nor the inclination to spend 8,000 hours on the job and another 500 hours in class. So what about shorter term credentials that are recognized by industry—those that can lead to family-supporting careers and make real differences in people’s lives?

Take machining, for one example. There are apprenticeships, two-year degrees, one-year certificates, and industry-recognized credentials like the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) and the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC). For employers without a history and connection to a college offering these credentials, it can be difficult to parse the exact skills students have learned. And for colleges, choosing amongst skill standards can be a minefield. In these cases, the symbiotic relationship between employer and college is of utmost importance. Employers must be involved in curriculum design and implementation, should share what they look for in candidates, and be clear about which credentials they see value in. For colleges, they must be ready to explain the value of credentials, show how and what they train in, and be open to industry expertise that can guide everything from course design to class hours.

Innovative national organizations have begun to take notice of the fractured credentials landscape. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) recently awarded 20 grants to community colleges across the country. Called The Right Signals Initiative, and funded by Lumina Foundation, the grants are intended to demonstrate new credentialing models that are student-centered and learning-based. As an awardee, South Seattle College’s Georgetown campus is committed to providing “the right signals” to employers and students through the development of annual apprenticeship certificates and the creation of industry-sponsored certificates in hospitality. The AACC’s work also brings together colleges to explore the Beta Credentials Framework, a set of analyses that allow colleges, students, and employers to compare the worth and appropriateness of different types of credentials. An ambitious project, and a necessary one, the Framework will be a cornerstone of the AACC and their grantees in establishing a coherent ecosystem of credentials.

There continue to be challenges and untapped opportunities in the world of credentialing. Take military credentials and transcripts: Too often veterans are unable to translate the impressive work they did and certifications they earned into the civilian world. Like the rest of the splintered credential world, there is more work to do in serving veterans. Credentials should be simple to explain, easy to prove competency in, and portable across the country. Until then, colleges can make sure they have the buy-in of industry partners, show students how credentials can stack and work towards a pathway, and be clear to all.

We will continue to follow the work done by AACC, innovative colleges and engaged employers. The momentum to clarify this work—helping students and employers—is there. The difficult task will be ensuring a common language with common reference points on a national level that helps all of us compare and evaluate the value of these various credentials.

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