Published on 2019/09/26

How Credential Transparency Can Drive Lifelong Learning Access and Impact

The EvoLLLution | How Credential Transparency Can Drive Lifelong Learning Access and Impact
Non-credit credentials are becoming increasingly common currency in the labor market, so it’s essential to create registries that provides statewide and national transparency into what skills and competencies these credentials signal.

With technology rapidly advancing, resulting in occupations enhancing quickly, employees won’t be able to keep pace with the changing requirements of their jobs if they don’t update their skills. Non-degree programming and their associated credentials—including certificates, certifications, badges and more— have emerged as an essential component to communicating the outcomes of these lifelong learning engagements and helping individuals and businesses address skill gaps. However, this shift creates a challenging situation for postsecondary institutions, which have a new role to play in supporting employability and the health of the labor market.

In this interview, Eleni Papadakis and Marina Parr discuss their early work in creating this transparency through Career Bridge—Washington’s one-stop source for career planning—and explain how the shift to Credential Engine will build upon this work. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are sub-degree credentials—like certificates, certifications and CEUs—so important in the modern workforce?

Eleni Papadakis and Marina Parr (EP/MP): These types of credentials have always been important, usually as a reasonable means to get or keep a particular job, or to advance along a career path. Since such credential programs are usually short-term, they are generally much less costly than traditional postsecondary programs and may be offered partially or fully online, making programs much more accessible.

It’s become clear that the need for skills-based, shorter-term training is only going to increase as technology accelerates and occupations change. Often more swiftly than our labor market research can catalog and quantify. This doesn’t mean we’re advocating that we do away with degrees or longer-term professional pathways. We need to rethink what we mean by education pathways, so that our systems don’t inadvertently hamper progress towards career goals and economic security.  Non-degree credentials can serve as a bridge to a critical next step on the path to a career.

Workers will be expected to acquire new skills as they are needed, in the same way that business has adopted a “just in time” model for delivering products. For businesses that support the upskilling of their workers, they are looking for expediency from training providers—with little to no detriment to business operations or productivity. When workers are responsible for their own upskilling, they want training to fit into their work and home schedules, at an affordable cost.  Our education providers are becoming better at delivering targeted education and training online on evenings and weekends, at the work site, and at other convenient venues.  An increasing number of employers are partnering with education providers to offer this learning in the workplace, sometimes during work hours, often through work-based approaches to keep employees up to date and ready for what’s next.

We also need to rethink our credential pathways so that each learning step adds momentum to an individual’s career and economic progress.  We should no longer be defining credentials as degree or non-degree, but instead start mapping pathways by skills, competencies and experiences.  Both students and employers will then be better able to navigate the credential marketplace and build on the established set of skills and competencies whenever job disruptions occur.

So shorter, more skills-focused credentials are going to be needed by all workers—whether they have a foundation that includes a “traditional” bachelor’s degree, a career-focused associate’s degree, or have worked their way up through an alternative pathway or completed an apprenticeship. Credentials are proliferating as we speak, with 330,000 unique credentials in the U.S. alone. That number is only going to grow as our workforce and employers seek out training solutions that align with ever-changing, ever-evolving occupations, and those that haven’t been created yet.

What isn’t as clear is where to find these credentials, how we can understand their actual value, and make comparisons with similar credentials to see which one leads to higher pay and career advancement. Our latest project at Washington’s Workforce Board is to better translate these skills, competencies and experiences through a project that links our site with Credential Engine, which is creating a national registry of credentials. A first step of this project is publishing thousands of Career Bridge’s education programs (credentials) to this national platform. But a bigger, more ambitious goal is to better describe what goes into each of these education credentials so consumers and employers know what skills are gained and how they apply to the marketplace. With this “apples to apples” comparison, potential students and our current workforce can make informed decisions about what credentials to acquire and whether they are likely to pay off.

Evo: Why did Washington’s Workforce Board launch the Career Bridge platform?

EP/MP: Ten years ago, our state’s economy was at a low point as Washingtonians—and citizens across the U.S.—grappled with the Great Recession. Washington’s Workforce Board had embarked on designing a public-facing career and education website at least a year before the late-2007 recession hit. Suddenly, there was increased urgency to launch this new website, as unemployment surged and the state plunged into economic uncertainty.

In 2009, Washington Career Bridge made its debut. It was the right tool at the right time, even if it wasn’t as user-friendly or as comprehensive as it would become. From the start, Career Bridge featured a wide range of shorter-term education and training programs—from career-focused certificates that took a few weeks (or days) to complete to two-year associate’s degrees from the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.

Workforce Board staff worked quickly to put that information online so unemployed Washington residents could better understand their education options in one central place. Because Career Bridge was also designed as the home of the state’s Eligible Training Provider List, it was a natural go-to resource at the state’s WorkSource employment centers. This federally required list shows which education programs meet employment and earnings thresholds and are eligible to receive federal training dollars. WorkSource customers, many hoping to leverage these federal funds, looked to Career Bridge to determine which programs they could enroll in using these resources.

However, from the very beginning, Career Bridge was designed to offer a broader menu of education options than a list of federally eligible training programs. The site was designed to feature the full education spectrum—from registered apprenticeships to one-year certificates to bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Currently, about half of the 6,500 education programs featured on Career Bridge are on the list of federally eligible training programs. The rest are education programs that potential students can choose to enroll in using other funding sources.

Last year Career Bridge recorded over 7 million page views and we expect usage to continue to grow as a much awaited digital portfolio feature is put in place this fall or early winter. It’s a feature that’s especially important to high school students, and their teachers and counselors. The digital portfolio helps track student progress in exploring careers, building resumes and cover letters, comparing education programs, and seeking out work experience. All Washington students are required to complete a High School and Beyond Plan to graduate. Career Bridge’s new features will help fulfill this requirement. Unlike for-profit career exploration platforms that cost school districts thousands of dollars and restrict usage to those with established log-in credentials, Career Bridge is a free tool that can be used anytime, anywhere.

Evo: How does Career Bridge provide potential students with options across the education spectrum along with their expected return on investment?

EP/MP: Since launching, Career Bridge has grown to 6,500 education programs that run the gamut from several days of concentrated training through bachelor’s and master’s degrees. We’ve partnered with the state’s Department of Labor and Industries to include hundreds of registered apprenticeships.

It’s a “multiple pathways” approach that provides Washington residents with the full range of options to align with their personal career and education goals. New education programs are added as they are developed and old ones are removed. Even so, there are still pockets of education programs that need to be added—particularly among Washington’s private liberal arts colleges. We are in the process of renewing outreach efforts to these colleges and universities so they better understand the benefit of placing their programs on a public platform that’s increasingly used by high school and middle school students, along with adults seeking additional education to advance their careers.

Not only does Career Bridge feature thousands of education options, the site provides a “consumer report card” on their performance. Each year, Workforce Board research staff members evaluate programs for employment and earnings outcomes—that is, how many recent graduates landed jobs, what industries did they go to work in and how much they earned, among other factors.  Staff are able to do this independent, rigorous evaluation of the state’s education system using student-level records and matching them with wage files. The Workforce Board has access to these records in all 50 states because the agency is tasked with maintaining the state’s federally required Eligible Training Provider List.

The U.S. Department of Labor requires each state to maintain a list of education programs that meet certain performance thresholds. Those programs are deemed “eligible” to receive federal training dollars. In Washington, this list is maintained by the Workforce Board with performance results pushed out onto Career Bridge. About 3,800 of the 6,500 programs on Career Bridge are on this list.

Evo: How will colleges, students and employers benefit from Career Bridge’s new connection to Credential Engine?

EP/MP: Helping Washingtonians understand the value of additional education is central to the Workforce Board’s mission to help more residents achieve and sustain family-wage careers. Recent efforts to expand career-connected learning options have accelerated the state’s interests in new credential pathways. Thanks to Career Bridge, Washington is ahead of many states in collecting credential information.

Building on that momentum, the Workforce Board was awarded a $50,000 grant to publish as many as 3,800 Washington credentials over the next year from Career Bridge to Credential Engine, helping populate a national credential registry. Building long-term buy-in among schools means this number is likely to grow in the coming years. For now, Washington will be among the first states to populate a growing registry of degrees, certificates, licenses, apprenticeships and other credentials, helping demystify the credential marketplace.

The Credential Registry on Credential Engine is bridging a critical data gap in Washington between the state’s existing Career Bridge tool and credential data. While Career Bridge has, since 2009, served as a one-stop source for students and jobseekers to explore and evaluate education and training options—currently housing information about 6,500 education and training programs—the tool does not sync with systems outside the state. By utilizing the Registry and a more robust credential transcription language, Washington will be better able to better communicate its educational offerings to people both in—and outside—of the state.

By leveraging this national platform, Washington schools can expose their credentials (and their brand) to a wider audience. This can be an especially valuable marketing tool for smaller, niche programs. Once schools standardize their credential descriptions to the new transcription language (CTDL), this tool will convert CTDL changes into Career Bridge. So when schools make changes to programs on their own sites, these changes will automatically be captured by CTDL, further reducing the effort needed by the schools to update their programs on multiple platforms while still reaching the widest audience for their training opportunities.

Once information about Washington’s diplomas, degrees, licenses, apprenticeships, certificates, and other credentials are mapped and published to the Registry, students and jobseekers will be better able to navigate their options, improve education persistence and obtain better employment outcomes. At the same time, employers will be able to make better hiring decisions based on actual skills and competencies.


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