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September/ October 2013 A Matter of Degrees

In the future world of “credentialing,” do you still need college?

By Anne Kim

Under the new system, each industry-endorsed credential indicates a defined set of skills and is issued only by accredited providers. To earn a credential, workers must pass both a standardized written test and a practical skills assessment (for example, building a part). Like the euro, which replaced the lira, franc, drachma, and so on, the new credentials are intended to be the industry’s common currency.

As a result, Weil says, the new credentials provide both portability and precision about a worker’s or job applicant’s skills. The result is a market value “above and beyond college.” In fact, he says, “in some cases, employers prefer certification over a two-year degree.”

Moreover, these credentials can be earned through multiple pathways, not just by going to school. Current workers, for example, can apply for certifications based on skills they’ve learned or are learning on the job (and thus have a portable credential they can take elsewhere, which they didn’t have before).

Workers can also pick up skills in apprenticeship programs organized by the Department of Labor, company training courses, and industry-sponsored workshops, and, of course, in school. The industry-endorsed National Institute for Metalworking Skills, for example, accredits dozens of institutions across the country that are teaching the skills necessary to get an industry credential, including career and technical schools, military bases, job corps centers, and traditional colleges. Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, for example, is one of roughly forty schools nationwide that now specialize in teaching to industry standards in fields like laboratory engineering and “computer numerical controlled” technology, a form of high-tech machining.

The potential for anyone to earn credentials through a variety of means could especially benefit older, displaced, or disadvantaged workers for whom traditional education is not an option. This is a major reason why the White House and several foundations have championed the manufacturers’ efforts.

At the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, for example, prospective workers can take part in a twenty-four-week accelerated credentialing program as part of the Manufacturing Institute’s Right Skills Now Initiative, geared toward unemployed, displaced, and low-skilled workers. Participants in this program spend eighteen weeks in the classroom learning computer numerical controlled technology followed by a six-week paid internship. At the end of the program, students earn a certificate from Dunwoody, one semester of credit toward an associate’s degree in machine tool technology, and, if they pass the tests, four professional certifications from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.

The manufacturers’ new system of credentialing has turned out to be the tip of the spear in a broader industry push around alternative credentials and the recognition of skills. In the last couple of years, the energy, construction, and transportation sectors have begun following the manufacturers’ lead; all are currently working to develop and offer their own industry-specific credentials with the help of such standards-setting bodies as the American National Standards Institute.

Other industries, such as retail and fast food, have taken a different tack. Instead of coming up with their own credentialing system, they are working to persuade colleges to convert the skills their workers acquire on the job into traditional academic units that they can accumulate to earn a traditional college degree. In this case, the “badge” is college credit.

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Credit where it’s due: Students at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Career and Technical Institute receive both college credit and a professional certification in metalworking for learning to use high-tech computer-controlled machining equipment such as this precision lathe.

Walmart, for example, announced a new work-for-credits partnership with the online American Public University (APU) in 2010 that provides its employees with college credit for work experience. Roughly 100 different positions qualify for the program, including cashiers, store managers, photo technicians, and inventory supervisors. To get the credit, full-time workers have to be on the job for at least one year, get good performance reviews, and take part in in-house trainings. Karan Powell, APU’s provost, says approximately 5,000 Walmart employees nationwide are now enrolled in the program.

Walmart employee Henry Jordan used this program to earn his bachelor’s degree in management online from APU this past summer. Jordan started out in Walmart’s pet department and rose through the ranks to senior management. His years at Walmart translated into thirty credits at APU, which shaved the equivalent of one full-time year off his course work.

He says this work-for-credit program is the only way he could have gone back to school. “There are lots of people like me who are taking care of families, raising kids, and who have to work,” he said, adding that in his experience many retail workers are learning many of the same skills they would otherwise be learning in college. As a store manager, for example, Jordan said he was essentially running a multimillion-dollar business, with responsibility for personnel, marketing, managing inventory, and environmental and legal compliance, as well as keeping an eye on the books.

APU’s Powell said that figuring out which jobs and skills deserved college credit was a painstaking and complex process that involved mapping the skills learned in a particular job against the objectives of a particular class. “We knew it would get a lot of scrutiny, so we went above and beyond,” Powell said.

This idea of finding new pathways toward higher education isn’t entirely novel. In fact, the National Career Readiness Certificate at the foundation of the manufacturers’ credentialing system is part of the WorkKeys skills assessment system first developed by ACT in 1992. The nontraditional work-for-credit programs, like Walmart’s partnership with APU, were preceded by the nonprofit online Western Governors University, which since 1999 has pioneered the concepts of providing college credit for work skills and focusing on competency versus class time. This involves carefully testing students to see what knowledge and skills they have already picked up in school or at work and then teaching them only the extra information and capacities they’ll need to perform certain professional jobs that Western Governors confers degrees in—human resource management, say, or network administration.

Traditionally, employers have often been reluctant to invest a great deal in training their employees for fear that the investment will be lost if a newly up-skilled employee goes to work for the company’s competitor. But the explosion of industry interest in these nontraditional avenues of training is evidence that to an extent the calculation is changing.

Yes, some employees will seek greener pastures, but offering ways to earn credentials and degrees also turns out to be a great tool for recruiting and retaining the best people, say representatives from both the manufacturing and retail sectors. Industry-approved credentialing programs save companies money by allowing them to cherry-pick people with exactly the skills they need, rather than spending money on recruiting and training people who may not work out. It also helps improve their respective industries’ images if they are perceived as dirty and dangerous, or simply low-skilled.

Anne Kim is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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