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The Era of Shift Disturbers: Why A Modern Credentialing Framework Needs to Happen Now

The EvoLLLution | The Era of Shift Disturbers: Why A Modern Credentialing Framework Needs to Happen Now
Education and the workforce are drifting further apart. A unified national skills strategy, and an ecosystem designed to clearly communicate the value of credentials, would be a big step toward a clearer future.

Adapting to the Future of Work demands an evolved labor and postsecondary ecosystem, built on responsiveness and student centricity. At present, employers are trying to address significant skills gaps. But students are unable to effectively communicate the value of their qualifications to employers, leading to under-employment, unemployment and significant lacking productivity. This is what’s becoming known as the Quiet Crisis, and colleges and universities need to act now to create an evolved postsecondary system that’s more tightly integrated with the Future of Work.

In this interview, Tracey Taylor O’Reilly discusses the Quiet Crisis, shares her thoughts on what it means for the Future of Work and reflects on what it’s going to take to launch an evolved postsecondary ecosystem, built around more flexible credentialing and designed to serve the evolving needs of employers and lifelong learners. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why does the Future of Work necessitate a change in our credentialing ecosystem?

Tracey Taylor O’Reilly (TTOR): Disruptive technologies are creating and eliminating jobs in a manner not before seen. The number of job activities threatened by automation depends on the data source that you look at, but it ranges from 35%-42% in Canada and is around 47% in the United States. To be clear, this isn’t about loss of jobs as much as it represents the percentage of occupations that have significant automatable activities. So, while employees might remain in their existing job, the job itself may actually change significantly. In Canada, the data suggests about 60% of occupations have at least 30% of activities that are automatable. That means a third of the job will change significantly in the next decade. It also means skills that are uniquely human are becoming more valuable.

There are three groups that will need more from our credentialing ecosystem in this new world. First, recent degree graduates need credentials (or multiple credentials) that provide a broader array of skills and allow them to clearly and verifiably communicate their skills in a way that meets employer needs. Second, employees will need to cycle through continuing education more frequently, and obtain a greater number and type of credentials just to remain competitive in their current roles. Employees will be working for longer, and in more varied roles, as lifespans continue to extend. Third, some people will have to move to adjacent roles within their field, or to an adjacent field, when their roles disappear. According to McKinsey Global data, about 10% to 12% of Canadians could actually face job loss unless they acquire new formal qualifications. In the United States, McKinsey analysts predicted that approximately 15-30% of the workforce could be unemployed as a result of automation. They will need support in identifying alternative career paths, and then finding education options to provide skills and credentials to make those transitions.

Evo: What does this mean for the future of the workforce and institutions?

TTOR: It means we have to work together intersectorally toward cooperative solutions, and work with governments on national policy solutions.

Many countries are ahead of Canada and the United States in terms of creating a national ecosystem that supports employees and employers through these challenges. This includes countries that have a national skills strategy.

Within universities, it means we need to build an ecosystem that can allow for more permeability and more pathways for people who align with career outcomes.

In terms of permeability, this may mean breaking down some of the traditional barriers between credit programs and non-credit programming or work experience. This may mean allowing more advanced standing so people can move more seamlessly from one credential to the next. A simple example is a non-credit certificate that is granted advanced standing into an undergraduate degree or a professional Master’s degree. A more complex example is a competency-based approach and being more flexible in how we evaluate people’s work and alternative educational experiences.

Evo: How would this shift affect individuals progressing through their career?

TTOR: In terms of pathways, people will increasingly struggle with understanding how to navigate from one job or career that may be shrinking into another. These adjacent career options will become unintuitive and we will require the assistance of AI-driven models and tools to help people identify emerging adjacent jobs and figure out how to transition.

The fact is that it is already happening. Near Toronto, there was recently a massive layoff of workers at a GM plant while at the same time Netflix was scaling up hundreds of jobs. It isn’t intuitive, but according to one of these models, it turns out that many laid off GM workers were only a couple of skills away from the profile of an ideal Netflix employee. Similarly, as retail sales roles  decrease, will workers understand which two skill sets they need to acquire to move into a role as a biotech or pharmaceutical salesperson?

We need a supporting infrastructure and tools that help these employees find these adjacent career path options, help employers plan to reskill their workforce, and help us in postsecondary institutions understand how to develop programming focused on skill acquisition with these types of career pathways in mind.

Evo: What are the fundamental characteristics of this evolved credentialing ecosystem?

TTOR: Let’s start with the needs of recent graduates. One of the big challenges for them is identifying and conveying their competencies to employers. An evolution in our credentialing ecosystem would allow those graduates to obtain more of those skills and communicate them clearly and in a verified manner to future employers.

We can accomplish that through a few means.

First, within the body of—or endogenous to—the degree, we can create more opportunities for the development of technical, digital and human skills. This could be done through the inclusion of endogenous alternative digital credentials (like digital badges) or more traditional credentials (like undergraduate level certificates). A 2016 study of 190 U.S. four-year institutions found that 94 of them were already doing this. Digital badging, for example, could be used to verify those human skills—communication, teamwork and critical thinking—that employers are desperate for today.

Second, another form of alternative digital credential is a digital transcript. Traditional transcripts aren’t useful in conveying the competencies employers seek. A list of course codes has limited utility today.

Whether digital badges or digital transcripts, all alternative digital credentials have the benefit of being clear, detailed and verifiable. The traditional resume isn’t verifiable—a study conducted in 2018 found that over 80% of resumes had false information or discrepancies!

Moving onto the needs of adult learners, for credentials offered outside of a degree—or exogenous credentials—we need to be thinking about pathways between credentials that align with the evolving career landscape. Continuing education is no longer just about helping people with the first job, the promotion, or the career change. It is about developing an ecosystem of programming that will support much more complex, dynamic and fast-changing career options over much longer student/career lifecycle.

This implies the need to shift from thinking about developing programs to developing systems of professional credentials aligned with different career outcomes over the career lifecycle. For example, a career in the evolving field of Cyber Security might involve several certificate programs, a professional Master’s, followed by additional specialized certificates or badges as both employee and field mature. It also implies the need to improve the portability of credentials between institutions to create these pathways.

This work needs to be housed within a larger policy framework. We can’t act fast enough on this, and it’s an intersectoral crisis in terms of our ability to pull together. Universities, colleges, employers and governments have to collaborate to build this structure.

Evo: What happens if there is no movement around creating a more modern credentialing framework?

TTOR: The world isn’t going to slow down and wait for this. We have some policy happening in Canada, but the changes haven’t been designed as part of a strategy. We’ve got a piecemeal approach already emerging that doesn’t translate into solving the skills gap for employers. As a result, we’re seeing alternative providers that are not waiting for universities and colleges to step in. Private providers are stepping in to provide these types of in-demand credentials. Employers are also stepping in and creating their own “universities” that go beyond re-skilling their own employees and offering skills development programs to the broader market.

We must step up to this challenge or others will step in.

Evo: What’s the difference between endogenous and exogenous credentials?

TTOR: Endogenous and exogenous credentials are terminology I’ve adapted from the health field to help describe the ecosystem. Endogenous means “within the body” and exogenous means “outside the body.” When we talk about credentials, I use these terms to refer to credentials as they relate to the body of the degree.

In this new ecosystem, we will be focusing on providing multiple credentials endogenously, as well as exogenously over the lifespan. Endogenous credentials allow not only the recent graduate to better translate their skills to the employer, but also create an employable graduate with a very diverse skill set. One could imagine a liberal arts graduate who gets the broad personal and professional benefits of a liberal arts degree, but also has the opportunity to pick up a certificate program within a professional area, plus some digital badges related to technical or human skills. Upon graduation they can demonstrate their competencies in digital, technical and human skills. That person right out of the gate is going to fill a skill gap that we have today in our market and will be an ideal employee in a future that relies increasingly on complex cognitive and social skills.

If we evolve our ecosystem to allow students to choose this kind of endogenous multi-credential experience, then they may have to decide early in their undergraduate career in order to earn these credentials in four years. In my experience, they often decide on career interests later and don’t have the time to gain all the credentials they require endogenously. That’s where the exogenous credentials come in through continuing education.

Exogenous credentials are designed to serve two markets. First, there’s the immediate post-grad who wants to earn additional credentials after earning their degree. These post-graduate or post-baccalaureate credentials can be built with specific pathways for students coming out of specific degree programs, and provide an additional year of professional training that builds on their undergraduate experiences.

Second, once an individual is in the labor market, their development doesn’t stop. There’s going to more frequent cycling through shorter credentials while people are working for a longer career span. And that’s the second market for exogenous credentials: working professionals looking to upskill and reskill.

We need to be thinking about learning as being lifelong and life-wide, meaning that the learning we provide in the formal education environment is complemented by other environments (like work and home) and informal and non-formal learning. Continuing education has a critical role to play. Our credentials will continue to be important, as they represent verifiable skills. We must be agile and responsive to provide credentials that meet the emerging skills gaps. It’s getting very intense in terms of the frequency in which new fields, roles and skills gaps are emerging.  So, our role is going to become a much bigger part of what we do in universities in North America.

Evo: From an institutional perspective, how do we create an infrastructure that has everyone pulling in the same direction?

TTOR: Dave McKay, the CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) has aptly termed our current situation a “quiet crisis.” RBC’s research on the future of work found recent graduates who are overqualified for the jobs they’re in, unemployed youth who weren’t trained for the jobs that are out there and employees everywhere who feel they aren’t ready for the Future of Work and the rapid changes that are coming.

This quiet crisis is one of the grand challenges of our society today, which has to drive a shift in the way we structure micro-credentials within the university. To make that kind of shift, the role of continuing education leaders is crucial in order to pull partners together, facilitate a common understanding of language, options and outcomes, and develop a framework. For some, this needs to be done formally  by making it a focus of a university academic or strategic plan, and others might have a more agile emergent strategy. At York University, partners across campus are coming together to identify how to address these needs in systematic way, and I hope this will be a priority in our next university academic plan.

I do worry that we will create a disjointed system if we all do our own thing. Within a university, early adopters often innovate before the institution catches up, resulting in inconsistency within an institution. Similarly, if institutions all do their own thing, how will employees and employers understand our credentials? We could end up with 1,000 different “teamwork” digital badges, for example, making them almost unintelligible to our stakeholders. We want to avoid inadvertently decreasing clarity and portability of credentials by not working together, with industry and with government under a consistent framework.

Federal governments (or some type of national body) could help universities and colleges move down this path together. It makes it easier to bring those parties together if you have some sort of national strategy and framework.

Evo: How could a national skill strategy help avert the Quiet Crisis?

TTOR: To start, we need to be advocates for a national skill strategy. This is true in Canada and in the United States. Within that national skill strategy we might see a skills taxonomy, a credential framework, and other things that would support growth of CE enrolment. There are so many countries that are ahead of us: France, South Africa, U.K., Ireland, Singapore and Australia.

A national skills strategy can include things like funding for universities to support the high cost of the development of these kinds of programs. The development of certificates in high-demand areas like machine learning, blockchain and cyber security are incredibly expensive to launch and maintain. A national strategy could provide incentives and supports to institutions to innovate in these high-growth, high-risk fields.

National skills strategies also generally provide financial support for individuals to pursue quality lifelong learning. This funding could incent people to choose accredited institutions as opposed to the private providers that may offer programming without the same quality control.

National skills strategies can also incorporate training metrics and benchmarking. We know in Canada our employers fund employee learning at lower levels than elsewhere in the world. But we also know in Canada and the United States that funding for training has actually decreased in recent years at a time when it has never been more needed. So, some countries are benchmarking employer spending on training. They create marketing campaigns to the employers, workers or gig workers, about the need to invest in lifelong learning.

I think career guidance and the identification of emergent career pathways is going to be a critical need. A skills taxonomy tied to employment outcomes is critical for understanding these career pathway options. For example, they do this well in Singapore with a program called The Workforce Skills Qualifications. They list foundational competencies, industry competencies and then occupational competencies, and they map these by job so that postsecondary institutions can map programs to specific outcomes. An AI-driven system that aligns people’s existing education, skills and employment experience with real-time employment market requirements could support self-directed career development and also counselling done through universities, employment insurance offices, and support workforce planning within organizations. These systems exist in an early stage of maturity today, and the technology will advance rapidly. We have to be ready to leverage it.

Last, I’ve spoken about the potential for the proliferation of new micro-credentials and the confusion that could result. Neither Canada nor the United States have a credentialing framework that incorporates and describes the full range of credentials on the market as many other countries—like Singapore and Australia—have built. As a result, we tend to undervalue non-degree credentials. In Singapore there are six levels of non-degree credentials that can only be offered by accredited institutions. And in Australia there are seven non-degree classifications.

As we face this quiet crisis, I think it is incumbent on us as CE leaders not to be quiet! We need to evolve to become “shift disturbers” – to drive change within our own institutions, our governments and our economy. Whether we do it through our professional associations or as individual leaders, we must be active, vocal and visible to drive the dialogue to create a system that supports lifelong learning and university continuing education in support of one of the greatest social and economic challenges of our lifetime.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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