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The Importance of Incremental Credentialing: An Employer’s View

A four-year degree is losing relevance among potential employers. A higher education must not just provide the skills students need, but in a format that offers flexibility and quick access to work, which is why incremental credentialing might be the way forward.

The national Credential As You Go initiative kicked off May 12th at the inaugural meeting of the new Advisory Board. Holly Zanville moderated the opening panel represented by key groups in the learn-and-work ecosystem: an employer, a state higher education system, a state policy organization, and philanthropy. Panelists addressed the same question: Why is incremental credentialing important? In a four-part series at The Evolllution, we’ll hear from our panelists in their own words (abridged from their presentations). The following are David Leaser’s remarks on the subject. 

There are at least eight reasons why incremental credentialing─and a “Credential As You Go” strategy─are  important and necessary from an employer’s point of view. 

1. Accelerates Entry Into a Career

Incremental credentials are accelerating entry into the marketplace─into the labor market. The pace of change in the labor market doesn’t match the degree anymore. The “macrocredentrial” (degree) doesn’t align to the liquid skills needed in the market today, and which are changing every few months─and in some areas, every few weeks. And this whole movement with technology is going to force it anyway because robotic process automation and AI are opening doors to new jobs as quickly as we can think of them. So, completion certificates or diplomas awarded after two or four years just don’t fit many jobs today. 

2. Match the Demand for Talent

The higher education system cannot keep up with the demand for talent with two- and four-year degrees. A year or two ago, there were only 50,000 graduates in the U.S. in data science but 500,000 open jobs postings. This is the same for cybersecurity. The college degree program doesn’t provide a large enough talent pool for our labor marketplace.

3. Signal Discreet Skills Aligned to Job Needs

Companies like IBM need a signal of achievement, of quality. At IBM, about 50% of our jobs no longer require a college degree. That’s up from 30% just a couple of years ago. But we still need something that shows that somebody has these skills. With incremental credentialing, you can align a credential to a single thread of requirements in job postings. When I think about my own university graduate degree, I took a class and worked with a professor who was at the time the most cited communications professor in history, and he wrote the book on the diffusion of innovation. I learned so much about early adopters, late adopters, and the growing knowledge of innovation, but none of that shows up on my Master’s degree. If I were entering the job market at IBM today, the fact that I have a deep understanding of innovation would show up as a microcredential. I think that’s a big part of incremental credentialing─those signals that employers will need. 

4. Improve Inclusivity

Speaking of signals, the bachelor’s degree was designed as a signal of exclusivity. But this is a time in which we’re trying to make the labor market more inclusive. While some are talking about how to limit the number of credentials that are out there, I take the opposite view: I think too many people are being left behind because we’re demanding this degree requirement. More and more companies are starting to look at that and saying, “Let’s no longer look at the diploma as the singular signal of achievement for these jobs.” Many being left behind are brilliant people, and they can’t get into the labor market because they don’t have this “golden pedigree.” We have an opportunity to change that. Many people cannot complete a four-year degree. There are a lot of older students now─and only more with the labor market changing, people getting laid off, new jobs coming out, and people being displaced─they can’t get to a four-year degree. But what they can do is get into a certificate program, get into a job, and continue their education at nights or whenever it happens to be. 

5. Align with the Way People Actually Learn—Non-Linear

In reality, people don’t necessarily follow in our company paths for training or skills. They just don’t. When we created the digital badge program at IBM, we had beautifully laid-out paths for data science and for cloud─to go from course #1 to course #2—but it didn’t happen that way. We looked at the data: People are going to course #1, then going out and taking a seminar someplace, then going to a hackathon. It looks like an airline map. Incremental credentialing provides a lot more flexibility. And it’s going to provide a lot of insight into the way people really do learn because you will be able to break the learning down. 

6. Fill Gaps and Save Both Time and Limited Resources

Incremental credentialing offers real financial value by providing a discreet understanding of skills, capabilities, and achievements. It is easier─and faster and cheaper─to fill gaps rather than starting from scratch. I’ve been in meetings with military groups where they say, “We’re sending people back for an associate degree,” and I’m thinking, they don’t need to go back. What we need to do is find and fill the gaps. These veterans already have this lived experience that could be credentialed. We just need to badge their skills, fill in the gaps, and get them into a job within two months instead of two years. Imagine the weight that would be lifted off our overburdened systems. This is how you reskill a nation at scale.

7. Create Progression, Motivation and Engagement

I just spoke with an IBMer who joined us in January. She has already earned nine badges in specific skill areas. Badges and incremental credentials create unbelievable motivation to progress because now you have generated a personal digital transcript, a digital resume. That’s meaningful─and it promotes lifelong learning as well. 

8. Save the College System

Ultimately, incremental credentialing could save colleges from becoming obsolete. If we don’t start thinking about how to break this thing down─how to introduce continuing education programs for alumni, weekend certificates for re-skillers and up-skillers─the college system may continue to lose its relevance.

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