Consumer interest in alternative credentials is on the rise
. And a growing number of employers are offering their own credentials or talking about looking beyond college degrees with skills-based hiring
Yet research and data on this potential “parallel higher education system
” is woefully inadequate, according to Sean Gallagher
and Holly Zanville
, two experts on the space.
“Understanding where this trend is headed is especially important for gauging the potential impacts on worker mobility, equity and the market for degrees and other types of valuable credentials
,” they wrote in a recent essay
Last week I shared an informal poll
to get a temperature check on these emerging pathways to jobs. The clear consensus was that non-degree and alternative credentials will see substantially accelerated growth in coming years. The outlook for skills-based hiring by employers was more modest, with most respondents saying the shift would be on pace with pre-pandemic levels.
Yet the crisis has accelerated profound movement in the workforce, which seems likely to prod changes in education and job training.
“We are at a massive point of transformation
,” Michael Stull
, senior vice president of Manpower, North America, said during a recent virtual event. “This is analogous to the move from an agrarian-based employment model to a manufacturing, industrial-based employment model.”
A recurring theme during interviews about this topic is the DEI imperative
. And the pressure for companies to do better on diversity, equity, and inclusion in their hiring is only going to intensify. For example, Black people are 12 percent of the national workforce, but just 8 percent of the employees at energy efficiency, wind energy, and solar photovoltaic companies
, Vice reported last week
, citing federal data. IT and other high-demand industries also have failed
to make much of a dent in workforce diversity.
The key question for this newsletter is whether alternative hiring models will open doors to well-paying and satisfying careers
. Also, can workers get college credits for new forms of credentials? Or will this shift be more about credentialism
and the tracking
of Black, Latino, and lower-income learners into unstable, low-wage jobs?
For more on separating fads from enduring changes in this fast-moving field, here are comments from a few well-placed observers:
Kristen Titus, executive director of the Cognizant U.S. Foundation
Alternative credentials and skills-based hiring are appealing for many reasons, not least of which is the promise to level the playing field and create clear, accessible pathways into jobs. In practice, though, this has proven challenging. The tech industry, for instance, sees jobs, job requirements and the tools necessary for jobs change nearly every quarter—making it hard for credentials and the systems that validate, update and adopt them to keep pace. This elevates the importance of solutions like work-based learning, on-the-job training and experiential learning, critical components needed to not only enter a job, but also to stay in it and to move up the ladder.
At the same time, we must avoid pushing people into “fad” programs or credentials that don’t have adequate job placement outcomes. Access and equity should be the underpinning of this work—not a move to monetize the latest education to employment pathway.
Bachelor’s degrees will continue to be the “coin of the realm” for highly selective, knowledge economy jobs. But for roles where job demand and open positions far outpace the number of qualified applicants—such as coding, data science, and frontline management—there has been a shift to non-degree credentialing over the years. This change has accelerated as more business leaders recognize degree requirements for what they too often are: an unnecessary barrier for Black and Brown employees, which restrict access to jobs they are qualified to do.
More and more large employers are looking to pay their workers’ way through college not just because of good will—but because it’s good business. We’ve seen such major shifts in the labor market that companies aren’t able to simply hire the talent they need, and they recognize they now have to grow it within. And that approach is good for people because it lets them learn while not only earning a paycheck, but also developing meaningful workplace skills.
Cathy Morgan, director of customer acquisition at Opportunity@Work
Today, 70+ million workers
are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs
), such as community college, workforce training, bootcamps, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning, rather than through a college degree. But while STARs have always accumulated skills through various pathways, they have faced barriers to accessing higher-wage work
Major employers like Amazon, Google, and IBM are adopting skills-based hiring practices that value STARs for their skills—rather than screening them out because they don’t have degrees. We hope this is the beginning of a sea change that will inspire more employers to recognize the full potential of STARs’ talent and, in turn, create more demand for these alternative pathways.
By properly valuing STARs, employers will be able to tap into a much larger talent pool, fill open positions faster, and build a more diverse workforce right away. We have already seen great strides in these efforts, but in the near future we could see a truly rewired labor market that finally recognizes the skills you have—rather than where you got them.