Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Micro-credentials: The Next Frontier

Charter Oak State College prepares working adults to advance their careers by completing their degrees.  We have spent the past 37 years helping over 10,500 such adults finish their Associate or Bachelor’s degrees, and that need is increasing.  But I think there is a shift coming in the way that working adults approach credentials.  My prediction is that many of you will become interested in partial credentials—certificates—that I call micro-credentialing.

By micro-credentials I mean a cluster of courses around a core expertise.  In addition to finishing a whole degree, I predict that working adults are going to be demanding that higher education help them add specific skills to their resume.  Imagine a recently promoted worker who needs to better understand HR or Finance or Exporting or Tax Law.  What they need is 6-12 credits of coursework that quickly and specifically advance their functionality in these areas.  And I believe these demands will be coming primarily from adults who already have degrees.  Let me explain.

The first driver for this change is the nature of our current underemployment problem.  Not only is the current recession reducing jobs in fields that often suffer from periodic unemployment (e.g.  retail or home improvement or real estate to name three areas that are slow right now), but we have a variety of industries that have shed jobs that will never come back in their previous form.  The best example of that is the auto industry.  As the car manufacturers retool their product lines, they have closed plants, laid off a variety of workers, and they have no plans to re-hire most of these workers if their sales pick up.

The second driver, which will emerge over the next several years, is the baby boomer retirements.  When the stock market collapsed, my 401K retirement plan shrank to a 201K plan.  That same shrinkage occurred to millions of retirement age workers, who were forced to delay their retirement until their funds recovered.  Well the market is slowly recovering (it’s back over 11,000).  That growth has put my funds back to where they were when the collapse occurred, and as that recovery begins to work for workers in their mid-sixties, we will see large numbers of baby boomers retiring.  But we will not just lose the cohort that turns 66; we will also lose the cohorts that turned 66 over the past several years and who have been waiting.  These are very big cohorts—that why they are called boomers.  There aren’t enough trained workers prepared to replace all these boomers, particularly those working in positions of responsibility.

These retirements will be a real opportunity for many of our alums. You finished your degree by making a commitment to lifelong learning.  You will be fully prepared for the rapid approach to gaining missing credentials that I am predicting.  The workforce left behind will need to fill gaps in its experience as quickly as possible (probably at the same time as they take on new responsibilities abandoned by retirees) and higher education will need to be ready to provide these micro-credentials.

I find this encouraging because the only way to integrate this rapid learning with on-going and increasing work responsibilities is to provide that learning to the students where they work…in other words, online. I also believe that much of the micro-credentialing will occur at the graduate level, and Charter Oak is preparing to be an online provider at this level.  So if I am right, the adult workforce will be even more interested in credentialing than they are now, but they may view that education through the prism of skills rather than degrees.


  1. An often unrecognized nicro-credentialing need occurs when an individual is moved from being responsible for just their own work to being responsible for others. These can be small jumps or big jumps. Many times top technicians are moved to management and are ill-prepared for this change. Mistakes can be made with major consequences given the rules in place in today's workplace. So, going back and taking courses in management, organization behavior and human resource management is a good thing to do to achieve this gag and aviod some potentially career ending mistakes.

  2. Another possibility is that the end result of boomer retirements from middle management will simply mean a permanent reduction in positions at that level. Either way, flexibility will be increasingly important for those seeking employment and contracting, and I agree that shorter academic certificates can help fill that need.

    Ideally, Charter Oak can offer enough of these at the graduate level that those who come back often enough for certificates made up of two or three course can then roll them into a Master's degree in Professional Studies.

  3. Definitely a good idea, but please do not give up on the idea of Charter Oak offering a Masters Degree either!