If a learner earns a microcredential but no employer hires them, did they build a skill?

It’s more than a philosophical question. The gap between opportunities to earn a microcredential and employers that accept them is evident. What’s missing is buy-in from employers. Post-secondary education can gain employer confidence by involving companies in key stages of microcredential creation. 

The good news is employers are ready. According to a report from UPCEA, 65% of employers would collaborate with post-secondary education leaders to develop workforce credentials. That’s especially uplifting since the same survey found that while the majority of employers are familiar with types of non-degree credentials, 46% are unsure of the quality.  

Critiques of Microcredentials

Post-secondary education and employers working together isn’t a new concept. However, existing collaborations are less than ideal. According to Joseph Fuller and Kerry McKittrick, authors of a new report from Harvard University’s Project on Workforce, “most colleges and employers remain at arm’s length.” Employer involvement isn’t a panacea either, even partnerships with committed employers fail

It’s also worth noting that there are other pathways for students to build career skills. Among the initiatives Fuller and McKittrick studied, they found that internships were the most prevalent and most feasible, as well as the most researched. While the report authors rated the feasibility of implementing microcredentials very low, what’s more interesting is the available research — or rather the lack of research. There simply has not been enough scientific examination of whether or not microcredentials are effective. The dearth of efficacy studies demonstrates why further investment in microcredentials — and their effectiveness — is needed.

Overall we can’t view critiques, missteps, and flops as signals to stop. Instead, they provide important learnings for ways post-secondary education and EdTech leaders can more clearly define the role employers and the job market play in improving microcredential programs. 

The Role of Market Data

Microcredentials are not smaller versions of degrees, but rather market-dependent pathways to build specific skills within an industry. If those skills aren’t in demand or understood by employers, their value is lost. 

Considering market demand when creating a new microcredential determines the program’s — and the learner’s — success. Microcredentials are most effective when they are designed for industries with a lot of job openings or industries with high turnover and positions that need to be filled quickly. Employers and market data can signal what type of credentials are needed most. Pursuing options outside of these indicators could end up wasting institutional resources and learners’ time and money. 

Some in post-secondary education are starting to turn to market data to identify in-demand skills. For example, the EdTech company and one of our Accelerator clients CareerDash analyzes available data to see which industries need more skilled workers. One pattern that has emerged recently is the need for business development representatives. The role requires expertise, like interpersonal skills, time management, and the ability to analyze market trends. Waiting for people to earn a bachelor’s in business will take too long to meet today’s needs, and a four-year degree might make some people overqualified. But an employer-informed microcredential fills the need perfectly. 

Let Employers Define the Outcomes

If post-secondary education leaders want employers to have more confidence in microcredentials, then it is incumbent on companies to determine what it means to complete a program. Letting employers take the lead on defining the specific skill or skill set that is needed, the level of mastery, and how learners demonstrate competency can provide clarity for a credential.

The approach will require institutions to apply backwards curriculum design to their programs, wherein designers start with the end in mind and then scaffold the path learners take to reach it. Taking these steps will increase transparency for employers as well as learners, who will be able to better understand how a microcredential can help them achieve their career goals. 

Specificity is essential. Employers need to be clear about what skill is needed for individual positions and how the skill can be measured. EdTech companies like our Accelerator client Unmudl are supporting these efforts by creating skills-to-jobs crosswalks, informed by employers, that match specific skills to particular roles. 

Stronger Commitments to Learners

The strongest partnerships will come from employers who are ready to act as trainers in the learn-work-learn cycle. But additionally, there is an opportunity for employers to make deeper commitments when they are involved in microcredentials. 

If employers are involved in setting the outcomes of a program, that should also signal their confidence that graduates merit consideration at their companies. Commitments to interviewing candidates from a microcredential program or even job offers could help strengthen the value of these educational options.

There’s a domino effect with employer commitments as well. Opportunistic actors in the space often make big promises about job placements without following through. Agreements with employers create more transparency so learners have a clearer path to employment. As a result, employer commitments better protect learners, especially those interested in career mobility — without the time or money required to earn a degree.

The Benefits for Employers

Employer involvement is good for employers, too. As evidenced by the UPCEA survey, microcredentials are a black box right now. It can be hard for employers to tell what has merit and what doesn’t, leading many to question the value of microcredentials or spend time conducting skills tests with candidates during the hiring process.

With a bigger role in developing microcredentials, employers can dictate which competencies are most important, ensure graduates have the skills required to be successful in a role, and deepen the talent pool from which to recruit. There is the potential to boost employee retention too. Just as traditional training programs increase retention, employer-informed microcredentials could keep employees at companies longer and create a larger benefit in the learn-work-learn cycle for employers and employees alike.