From the 1973 oil crisis to the Great Recession, economic uncertainty has historically driven demand for education as workers look to gain a leg up in turbulent job markets. We’re seeing a similar trend play out today.
Americans are once again reassessing educational opportunities as the pandemic continues to transform the work environment and cause record numbers of workers to quit their jobs or search for new ones, leaving their employers to fill in the gaps.
In this variable market, employees and employers are finding value in upskilling rather than the traditional route of a four-year degree or a master’s program — and many are turning to microcredential programs that can provide in-demand skills in a short period of time.
Non-academic courses, trainings or certifications are the most popular options for adults considering additional education, according to the Strada Education Network — 36 percent of adults plan to enroll in such programs within the next five years.
The demand for microcredentials presents a golden opportunity for higher education, but institutions need to catch up with changing skill sets or risk losing out on this growing market segment. By aligning courses that match the needs of the remote workforce, institutions can transform their microcredential programs from a single touchpoint into a starting point for lifelong learning.
The perfect storm for upskilling
The past two years have been a massive catalyst for microcredential programs.
As business shifted from the office to remote work and now, to predominantly hybrid models, many organizations struggled in this new digital environment. And many remote teams lacked the talent and skills to keep pace with the influx of technology embedded in every aspect of work.
The skills gap, as it’s commonly known, has only widened in recent years: A McKinsey survey found nearly nine out of 10 organizations face a skill gap or expect to in the coming years. But according to Gartner only 19 percent are prepared to bridge the gap
Historically, employers have relied on talent recruitment and acquisition to fill in talent gaps; when a skill set was missing, a new hire could fill that need. But with the hiring process increasingly competitive, time-consuming, and costly, it’s often more efficient to invest in current employees than to onboard new ones. According to McKinsey research, half of North American companies say they are prioritizing skill-building to fill the talent gap.
That’s where microcredentials come in.
Microcredentials–short, targeted units of learning designed to enhance skills and knowledge in a specific subject area–allow companies to upskill or reskill their workforce in a shorter period of time and at a fraction of the cost of a master’s degree. It’s an opportunity for employers and employees alike to fill in skills gaps.
Pursuing the microcredential opportunity
The Great Resignation (or what many experts call the Great Reshuffle) hasn’t resulted in most employees leaving the workforce altogether, but rather quitting jobs in search of better opportunities or different career paths. Pew Research found that 53 percent of U.S. adults who quit their job last year changed their occupation or field of work.
While organizations are focused on replacing vacant jobs and the skills that go with them, employees are interested in gaining skills that will give them an advantage as they consider career changes and the open job market. Microcredentials allow employees who are looking for greener pastures to broaden their functional skill set at a fast pace and affordable cost, providing the best ROI compared to other education options.
Seventy-five percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree say their credential program made them a more attractive job candidate. And employees with non-degree credentials are far more likely than those without to say their programs were worth the cost and helped them achieve their goals.
It’s not only employees keen on a career change who are interested in building their skills. Even employees settled in their jobs recognize the need for upskilling: 58 percent of the employees say they will need new skill sets to do their jobs successfully, according to Gartner. And if higher education institutions aren’t willing to meet that need, someone else will — whether it’s outside trainers or companies themselves.
A growing number of companies, including Google and IBM, have already started their own credential programs. In fact, one out of 10 non-degree credential holders received their credentials from a private company or business, while 15 percent received theirs from a professional organization.
Aligning your microcredential programs with market demand
Higher education leaders have long discussed building a bridge with corporate America, but that bridge has been under construction for quite some time.
With more companies backing microcredentials and upskilling programs, there are better opportunities to create partnerships and bring in new learners–but many higher education institutions have been caught flat-footed and are out of step with the remote workforce’s needs.
Seven out of 10 higher education leaders say credentials can help their institutions achieve revenue and enrollment goals, but only half have embraced new credentialing initiatives.
As you look to build or bolster a robust microcredential program, consider three major trends helping institutions bridge the skills gap. Here’s how you can better align your courses with the remote workforce:
- Offer flexibility for learners. Higher education has traditionally relied on in-person, on-campus instruction — students going to classes weekdays from 9 to 5. That seems ridiculous today given the expansion of education technology, especially for working professionals who are likely balancing a full-time job and family obligations on top of school.
Flexibility starts by offering robust digital programs. After more than two years of remote work and school, learners expect online courses that prioritize user experience and ease of use; both should be staples of your programs.
Don’t forget to consider the timing of courses. In this case, the focus should be on the micro aspect of microcredentials. Shorter programs–courses that span 8-10 weeks–actually outperform ones that take six months to a year.
- Adapt as the market changes. The number of credentials offered in the U.S. is fast approaching 100,000, but it’s vital for institutions to design courses and outcomes that meet current workforce needs and adapt as the market changes.
The remote work environment and the rapid adoption of technology have meant that entirely new skill sets–such as managing remote teams, understanding data analytics or using low-code digital tools–are now in high demand. As you consider your catalog of microcredentials, take stock of evolving workforce needs and identify emerging skill sets–and reposition courses or develop new ones to fill the gaps.
- Bring new students into lifelong learning: Professional development and noncredit programs shouldn’t be tailored exclusively to the C-suite and other senior executives. Microcredentials allow you to bring in a broader demographic of learners–junior employees, workers with an associate’s degree or adults with no degree at all.
Your microcredential programs can serve as a steppingstone for future educational opportunities. As employees change roles and advance in their careers, their needs change and so too does their education. They may start with courses on digital marketing or project management, then move on to training on leading cross-functional teams or mentorship. Eventually, these learning opportunities could turn into enrollment in a master’s program or another degree. But whatever shape it takes, your institution should be there every step of the way.
Attract and retain new learners by designing microcredentials that are stackable and portable, allowing students to build individual courses into a larger qualification or a degree. When done correctly, microcredentials enable learners to quickly fill in gaps in their skill set–providing immediate, tangible value while laying the groundwork for future education and development that align with long-term career aspirations.
As employers and employees navigate career changes and shifts in today’s work environment, they look to academic institutions to do what they do best: provide access to an education that opens up new opportunities and possibilities. Higher education institutions that can adapt to the remote environment and meet increased needs for upskilling can bring more learners into their network–and share in their career journey wherever it takes them.
- The most important thing you’ll do for your career this holiday season - December 8, 2023
- Generative AI can enhance equity of access and attainment - December 7, 2023
- The academic implications of AI in student writing - December 5, 2023