Can micro-credentials enhance your career?

Dr. Victor R. Prybutok
Dr. Victor R. Prybutok

Dr. Victor R. Prybutok is Associate Dean and Regents Professor of Decision Sciences in the Information Technology and Decision Sciences Department of the Toulouse Graduate School at the University of North Texas. He holds a Ph.D. in in Environmental Analysis and Applied Statistics from Drexel University.

Can micro-credentials enhance your career?

    Micro-credentials are a time- and cost-effective way to reskill, upskill, or train for a new career.

    Colleges are offering micro-credentials in response to the demand for short-form, skills-focused credentials.

    The main benefits of micro-credentials are their accessibility, affordability, and the opportunity to validate professional learning achieved outside traditional degree programs.

    The popularity and ubiquity of micro-credentials reflects a global trend towards skill- and competency-based learning. Micro-credentials are largely geared towards industry needs, and employers are taking note. A number of companies, mostly in the tech industry, are eliminating degree requirements and focusing on skill and experience in efforts to address talent shortages. Micro-credentials are a way to verifiably demonstrate such skills to employers.

    For employees, micro-credentials can also be a time- and cost-effective way to reskill, upskill, or train for a new career. A 2021 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 68% of U.S. workers felt their alternative credential had helped them progress in their career. The same study found that the number of unique credentials available in the U.S. tripled between 2018 and 2020 – from just over 330,000 to 967,734.

    For employers, micro-credentials present an effective solution to skill gaps by providing access to a more diverse talent pool. For example, in April 2021, 50% of IBM’s U.S. job openings did not require a 4-year degree. Companies are also introducing internal micro-credential programs for employee onboarding, training, and upskilling.

    Micro-credentials are by no means replacing traditional college degrees, but they can be an excellent complementary or parallel path to gaining industry-specific skills. And, with more colleges and universities getting on board, opportunities to stack credentials towards a certificate or degree are expanding.

    What are micro-credentials?

    Micro-credentials are short-form educational programs focused on specific skills or competencies. Many have a training component, but some do not and are instead a means to verify a skill you already have. Micro-credentials are usually stored in digital badges that contain metadata about your accomplishments. Micro-credentials and badges are not the same thing – a single micro-credential may entail several digital badges.

    While there are no official classification criteria, the Open Badges standard has aimed to ensure all micro-credentials are verifiable and portable.

    Most micro-credentials are:

    • skill- and competency-based
    • flexible and short
    • performance-based
    • personalized
    • modular and stackable
    • aligned with industry needs
    • usually (but not always) earned online
    Are micro-credentials worth it

    The skills learned or verified through micro-credentials can be connected to a single aspect of a job – for instance, food processing sanitation or grant writing. They can also address more generalized professional skills like leadership, information literacy, and innovation. Others are tied to a specific occupation – for instance, UX design or project management – or even a certification program – for example, becoming a registered phlebotomy technician (RPT). At the University of Maine, you can even earn a micro-credential in micro-credential development!

    Who offers micro-credentials?

    The largest share of micro-credentials are earned through massive online open courses (MOOCs) accessed through platforms like edX, Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and LinkedIn Learning. Approximately three quarters of MOOC-based micro-credentials are in business and technology subjects, reflecting industry demand. Other key providers are higher ed institutions and corporations, but the most common scenario is a partnership between MOOC platforms and corporations or educational institutions (or, in some cases, all 3).

    Colleges and universities offering micro-credentials

    A growing number of colleges and universities are offering micro-credentials in efforts to expand recruitment pathways and respond to the demand for short-form, skills-focused credentials.

    College-based micro-credentials can usually be “stacked” with other micro-credentials and learning experiences towards a certificate or degree. They are also portable, meaning they appear on your transcript or in a digital badge, so your accomplishments can travel with you.

    Some universities have partnered with online learning platforms like Coursera to offer micro-credentials to learners not registered at the university, meaning it’s possible to earn a micro-credential from an outstanding university for a fraction of the normal attendance cost.

    Below are just a few examples of American universities offering micro-credentials:

    • The State University of New York (SUNY) offers over 500 different micro-credentials across 60 disciplines. One example is SUNY-Binghamton’s 4-week self-paced online course teaching Python, a computer programming language.
    • SUNY Albany divides their micro-credentials into 3 categories: Skills Badges, Career Pathways, and Professional Development. Their Skills Badges, requiring 12-15 hours of work, are offered free of charge to undergrad and grad students enrolled at least half-time, and for an affordable fee to unregistered students. Their Professional Development micro-credentials are offered in partnership with various employers and are primarily for non-registered students that are already employed.
    • UC Irvine offers “Alternative Digital Credentials” (ADCs) that stack to online certificates in diverse subjects including paralegal studies, optics, instructional design, contract management, and AI development. Note that only specific components of these programs are available as micro-credentials. The credentials are shared through “badges” that allow employers to digitally verify your acquired skills.
    • The City University of New York (CUNY) recently expanded their upskilling programs to feature courses in business, IT and development, and healthcare administration. The programs provide learners with in-demand skills that New York employers are looking for and even offer scholarship opportunities to qualifying students.
    • MIT’s MicroMasters programs are currently available in supply chain management, finance, data and development policy, manufacturing, and statistics and data science. Some individual courses can be taken free of charge, but earning a MicroMasters costs around $1,000-$1,500. Each program comprises 5 online courses drawn from on-campus curriculums but accessed through the edX platform. You can complete up to 50% of a master’s degree using MicroMasters credits and use them to fast-track a degree at MIT or another institution, potentially saving thousands of dollars in tuition fees.

    Micro-credentials for employee reskilling and upskilling

    A ground-breaking development in micro-credentialing has involved corporations like IBM, Google, and even Netflix partnering with online learning platforms and academic institutions to offer affordable, and in some cases free micro-credentials.

    • IBM’s MicroBachelor’s, available through edX, offers a micro-credential in full stack cloud application development aimed at people with no prior tech knowledge. Students complete 7 courses over 11 months an can earn up to 3 college credits from Thomas Edison State University. The entire program costs just under $700
    • The University of North Carolina at Charlotte recently announced a partnership with Coursera to offer students free access to career certificate programs through Grow with Google. Certificates will be available in data analytics, project management, UX design, and more.
    • Netflix’s Pathway Bootcamps, offered through 2U, give students at several leading HBCUs and HSIs the opportunity to learn data science, java engineering, and UX/UI, free of charge.

    What are stackable credentials?

    Each micro-credential can stand alone as an individual achievement, but when stacked with other complementary credentials, can add up to a more substantial qualification and help you achieve a professional goal, improve your hiring profile, or enhance your portfolio. Certificates can be stacked vertically, horizontally, or a combination of both (hybrid).

    Vertical stacking

    Micro-credentials are most often stacked vertically when the goal is to reach an advanced level of proficiency in a single topic. For example, the educational publishing company McGraw-Hill offers 4 vertically stackable credentials in Microsoft Excel – Level 1, 2, 3, and 4. Finishing Level 4 leads to an Excel “black belt”. Vertical stacking follows the more traditional hierarchical model of learning, with each new level only accessible once the previous one has been mastered.

    Horizontal stacking

    Horizontal stacking focuses on breadth rather than proficiency and is more customizable than vertical stacking. For example, the American Medical Technologists agency offers horizontal credential stacking in a series of related allied health certifications. You can become a Registered Medical Assistant and then add on, for instance, ECG and immunization certificates to enhance your skillset.

    Hybrid stacking

    Hybrid stacking combines the vertical and horizontal approaches – so you may achieve a series of competencies through vertical stacking that you combine horizontally into a solid grasp of a certain field.

    Benefits of credential stacking and micro-credentials

    The primary advantages of micro-credentials stem from their accessibility and affordability. Their short timeframes and flexibility mean you can quickly and easily acquire new job skills to help you get hired, transition into a new career, or advance in your current job. Their affordability minimizes financial barriers to learning. Finally, micro-credentials offer a way to validate professional learning achieved outside traditional degree programs. The following are some tangible ways micro-credentials can benefit you.

    Earn better wages

    College graduates who enter the workforce with stacked credentials earn up to 7% more than their counterparts without credentials. Research by the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development found that business and health services are 2 of the most popular fields in which stacked certificates are pursued. In each field of those fields, credential stackers saw an average wage return of 9%.

    Recent research by the government-backed nonprofit Digital Promise suggest micro-credentials may be driving social mobility in rural postsecondary communities, according to case studies c2onducted at community colleges in Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee and the University of Maine. However, a marked need for more quantitative data was also identified.

    Micro-credentials may also boost post-graduation economic outcomes for college students. In 2022, the University of Texas system began a pilot project to embed micro-credentials into low-wage majors – those with average earnings of $30,000 or less on year our out of college.

    Acquire skills for employability and advancement

    Micro-credentials may be an efficient and affordable way to close the “skills gap” – the mismatch between job role demands and applicants’ skills. In a 2021 report, the management consulting firm McKinsey reported that 87% of companies worldwide are experiencing or expect to soon experience skills gaps and nearly all respondents said closing that gap was an organizational priority. This suggests employees who with alternative credentials focused on workplace skills may be in high demand.

    Learn at your own pace

    Micro-credentials offer personalized, on-demand learning experiences. They are also competency rather than time-based, meaning the focus is on whether or not you have acquired certain skills rather than on number of hours spent in a classroom. This flexibility makes micro-credentials more compatible with busy working and family schedules than traditional “macro” credential paths.

    Their modular structure also makes them highly portable and transferrable. You can earn a collection of micro-credentials from many different sources and display them on your resume or public profile – the same can’t be said for taking a bunch of random college classes at different schools. (In fact, the latter may be perceived as a weakness by employers who would wonder why you haven’t stayed at a single institution.)

    Final thoughts

    Sometimes, reaching your professional goals requires outside-the-box thinking. Micro-credentials are not a replacement for a college degree, but they can help you gain industry-aligned skills that distinguish you in a crowded job market.

    Micro-credentials are yet to be fully integrated into the employment and higher education ecosystems. One of the pressing issues is a lack of recognition for further study or employment in some contexts.

    It appears micro-credentials are most valuable when earned in addition to or as part of a traditional degree, and their quality most assured when they are offered through recognized postsecondary institutions. However, most micro-credential programs at such institutions are still in the pilot phase – so, a lot remains to be seen about their long-term potential.

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