Microcredentials: Closing the Skills Gap and Adding Value to PassionRichard Katz | President, Richard N. Katz and Associates, Inc.
Confession time: I am “semi-retired.” The half-life of the knowledge that fueled my career success is becoming short. However, the blunting of my professional edge is leavened by the rise of a new kind of worldliness. I am becoming a deeper reader of newspapers. I host relatives and guests. I binge watch TV shows aimed at other demographics. I listen and converse and take the time to reflect on what I read, see and hear. This new worldliness may not be wisdom, but it is valuable.
For instance, while poolside, I learned that my affluent neighbors—to a person—view higher education as bloated and over-priced. The words “irrelevant” and “dinosaur” found their way into the conversation. These highly educated neighbors viewed some mix of distance or personalized learning as the raw material of a new, more relevant and more cost-effective higher education.
Another example: My wife and I hosted the extended visit of a niece and her boyfriend in support of their initial job searches after college. The boyfriend has degrees from Wesleyan and St. Andrews (Scotland) and appears to have studied Japanese, Taiko drumming, sake and the environmental practices of Scotch whiskey distillers. My niece completed a B.A. in dance and photography. They reminded me of an old cartoon in which the HR director tells the Birkenstock-clad candidate, “When we need a philosopher, we will be sure to give you a call.”
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the liberal arts. I also believe in STEM. My college majors were biology and history. I ascribe any career success to my historian’s brain—trained to distinguish fact from fiction, to interrogate source material critically, to read deeply and to argue persuasively orally and in writing. That said, I cannot deny the power that training in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology had in shaping my world view, my language, problem-solving apparatus and intellectual tenacity.
Today’s workforce demands STEM rigor. We live in a technological age. We are moving into a second machine age of Big Data and artificial intelligence. Poetics may help us humanize the machines, but not to understand them. But let’s be clear, the future favors the creative class. While that future may nod to the liberal artist, it will do so only to the extent that creative innovators understand the technologies that underpin marketplace competition.
This brings me to the subject of microcredentials. While my soggy neighbors did not talk about MOOCs or badges or microcredentials, I am certain that most would agree that if these innovations produce costs savings, time savings and jobs, they belong in the education mix. And my recent houseguests? They have moved the job search across the country and into his grandparents’ home. They gave up on Boulder’s booming economy.
If my young guests had been in the mood for advice, I’d have counseled them to get credentialed in something relevant, job-worthy, and complementary to their macro-credentials. Perhaps a certificate in data science would add gravitas to the assessment of water purity in the whiskey industry. And maybe a credential in web design would leverage my niece’s passion for photography and movement. Just thinkin’ out loud, here …
Others need to think as well. Today, despite efforts to encourage students to study STEM, high school student interest levels as measured by the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM index fell between 2009 and 2013 and are now just slightly below where they were in 2000. At the bachelor’s degree level, STEM enrollments among women are losing ground. Between 2004 and 2014, the share of STEM-related bachelor’s degrees earned by women decreased in all seven discipline areas.
Reconciling the fact that contemporary jobs demand both the traditional critical thinking skills of the humanities AND the empirical, logical, inferential and computer skills of STEM disciplines with the opposing fact that only a minority of undergraduate degrees today (40 percent male; 29 percent female) are in STEM disciplines is a critical challenge. Failure to address this challenge means that too many U.S. college grads are leaving the academy bound for debt-laden periods of under- or unemployment.
Challenges like this are rocket fuel for entrepreneurs. Enter the microcredential. In 2015, an estimated 16,056 students graduated from coding boot camps. This compares with 48,700 computer science graduates nationally in 2014. Ten of the 20 top-enrolled MOOC courses are computer or data science courses. Many of these courses are nested within multi-course credentials. And while our literature focuses on low MOOC completion rates, little is made of the fact that more than 1.1 million people have enrolled in Stanford’s machine learning course, or that 950,000 people have studied the R statistical programming language via Johns Hopkins’ MOOC. Ten percent of a million students is a staggering number of completers.
While tentative, the evidence suggests that microcredentialed people are getting relevant and upwardly mobile entry-level jobs. There is also evidence that in little time, these people have wage parity with those having similar years of experience. Microcredentials open the door. Skill and grit close the gap.
The value proposition for microcredentials is strong: The average coding boot camp participant spends 10 weeks and $11,000 to earn their credential. Johns Hopkins offers the prospective data scientist a nine-course + capstone curriculum that demands less than 10 hours of effort per week over three-to-six months for $470. For my niece who is considering bartending jobs, a microcredential dazzles. And more than dazzling, microcredentials fill a critical and empty market niche. Until and unless our two-year and four-year institutions professionalize their career guidance and counseling capacities, too many students will emerge eager but unprepared for the labor market they enter.
Microcredentials are here to stay because they fill a critical void. Moreover, they are likely to grow significantly. Like the for-profits, they will likely suffer their share of scandals and disappointments, but the real threat is that they will succeed so well that parents will be tempted to steer their college-age children to them and away from our traditional institutions. Embracing microcredentialing might be a clever competitive strategy for some of our traditional providers. Imagine a parent’s glee on reading that all graduates will leave alma mater with at least one market-focused microcredential.
So, we can clearly see that coding bootcamps recognize the value of their own programming for higher education students. It’s time that more colleges and universities recognized the same.
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 National Student Clearinghouse, “Snapshot Report – Degree Attainment,” at https://nscresearchcenter.org/snapshotreport-degreeattainment15/
 John Lauerman, “Coding Bootcamp Enrollment Soars as Students Seek Tech Jobs,” in Bloomberg at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-08/coding-boot-camp-enrollment-soars-as-students-seek-tech-jobs
 Online Course Report, “The 50 Most Popular MOOCs of All Time,” at http://www.onlinecoursereport.com/the-50-most-popular-moocs-of-all-time/
 Class Central – Data Science Specialization, at https://www.class-central.com/certificate/jhudatascience-specialization
Author Perspective: Analyst