Building Pathways to Success with Stackable Credentials: Nate Anderson of Jobs for the Future Explains Why Alternative Credentials Are on the Rise
In a study conducted by Pearson, UPCEA, and Penn State University, it was found that 94% of colleges and universities surveyed provided at least one type of non-traditional offering for their students.
According to Nate Anderson of Jobs for the Future, alternative credentials have been rising in popularity, and producing some positive results. As evidence, he cites a recent CompTIA study of community college graduates with and without alternative credentials:
“What they found was that, roughly speaking, that people who earned the certification — they were hired at the same rate as people who didn’t. So the door was open to them in ethe same way. But the people who had the certification, they were promoted and their wages went up much faster than the people who’d only gone through the community college program.”
Listen in to our interview with Nate Anderson to learn more about the present and future of alternative credentials — and what industries need them most.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with Edtech Times, and today we’re speaking with Nate Anderson of Jobs for the Future. Our topic is alternative credentials and digital badging. So Nate, can you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your organization?
Nate Anderson: My name’s Nate Anderson and I’m a senior director at Jobs for the Future — we refer to it as J.F.F. And our organization works with low-income populations to offer opportunities — educational opportunities, workforce opportunities — for individuals to enter into career pathways and allow them to earn a family-supporting wage. So primarily, my role in that world, that ecosystem, is focused on postsecondary providers. Particularly community colleges, bootcamp programs, sometimes with workforce system, to help design creative opportunities that are not just about jobs, but about careers. And entering into longer-term perspectives to get past entry-level wages.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great. So how would you define alternative credentials?
Nate Anderson: It’s a…both common and very complicated term that we hear a lot in the field now. So for us, we think of alternative credentials, the word “alternative” is a counter to the traditional educational pathway. So typically what a student does is — sort of historically in the U.S. — is they do the sort of lockstep high school diploma to community college degree or to a four-year degree. And the expectation is, you complete those in a full chunk of time, so you’re not stopping out or moving into other occupations or doing short-term training, you’re really supposed to go that traditional educational pathway.
Nate Anderson: When we talk about alternative credentials, we mean alternatives to that system. And the main reason they’re alternative is because when you look at the pathways that low-income populations follow in this country, or the barriers that they face, the number one barrier is being able to stay in school for an extended period of time. They just run into a number of challenges — whether they’re sort of life challenges like you know, a car breaking down or losing their their home or illness or anything like that, that can happen. Or simply not having enough income to be able to stay in school and forego that income that they need to be able to feed their families and so on. So when we talk alternative credentials, we mean often shorter credentials that allow for individuals to both stop in and out of the labor market and school, but also to, to align those with jobs so that they can be sure that when they do stop out that they’re able to maximize what they’ve learned in college to be able to be successful out in work.
Nate Anderson: And so there’s a couple different kinds of credentials. So now, I should say, another sort of categorization that’s important is the idea of stackability. So these aren’t, you’re not doing a one-off training where you receive a credential and then you go into the labor market, but then that’s it. That’s — it’s a dead end. We don’t want that. What we want are credentials that lead to other credentials and then ultimately lead to other jobs.
Nate Anderson: So we talk about a few different kinds, when we talk about alternative credentials. There’s certificates which is the, which are awarded by educational institutions. In our case — in my case — it’s often community colleges. But they can be awarded by technical high schools, or they can be awarded by non-accredited institutions. Things like I.T. bootcamps or credentials or certificates. And they are designed by academia and awarded by academia is a way to think about it. So sometimes its things like, you might go through a welding program at a college. And at the end of that year, you’re awarded a welding certificate. And often they can vary in length — they can be anywhere from just a few weeks of time, to anywhere being full, sort of, two-year kind of program that you go through. Some of our pathways, you know, where you look at things like trades. There’s sort of different, sort of technical skills. I mentioned welding earlier, that’s a really classic one, where you learn sort of basic welding skills that have certificates assigned to them. And then you might move into more advanced say CNC operator which is a little bit longer a little more little bit more technical. And the idea is that all those eventually lead up to an associate’s degree — an AAS degree. They’re very common certificates. They can be less aligned with employer needs because they are built by academia. So that’s an area that we really focus trying to get that employer perspective to make sure it’s represented in the certificates that are offered.
Nate Anderson: The second group is called certifications. Industry certifications, they are often, most often, created by an organization representing employer interests. So it can be a large company like Microsoft, for example, or it can be an industry association. So it represents all of I.T., for example or all of manufacturing. And they’ll create these certifications with the idea being that they are more representative of what employers want than what your traditional certificates award. Because the complaint you hear all the time from employers is that people coming out of these programs are not ready to work. They don’t have the skills that they want and so these certifications were a solution to that. They’re national often, so they’re supposed to be portable across the entire country. They have standards built into them, so these industry standards that the industry, in theory, has decided upon sort of representing the breadth of that set of skills. They are often competency-based, so they’re built just a little bit differently than certificates and then those are awarded through a system where individuals take assessments. And the assessments are a third party. They’re not given by the college — even though that program, that person may be in a college studying that. They have to take an external certification and a there’s an assessment test, and that’s when they they receive it.
Nate Anderson: And then the the third group that we look at a lot is, it is sort of a catch all of the others, which tend to be less established. Some of them are developing really rapidly and are quite popular, but they’re not as well understood for what they represent.
Nate Anderson: So that’s everything — from sort of your microcredentials and badges. And then it’s things like apprenticeship credentials — which apprenticeship is really rapidly growing in popularity now. Employers love it. Both the Obama and the Trump administration have gotten behind it. And so there there’s a whole set of credentials awarded there as well, that typically don’t align well with traditional academic pathways. So that’s another area where they’re really promising, but we still don’t know kind of what the outcomes mean in terms of longer career goals there.
Nate Anderson: So in the whole area I was talking about, there is almost exclusively less than two year. So we really look at shorter credentials as being priority, and really strongly aligned with employer interests and demands is really important for us too.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So from your perspective, what is the gap that these alternative credentials are filling? I mean, what is it that you can’t get along that, I mean you mentioned a couple of things. So there’s that sort of a traditional pathway where you have high school and then you have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s. You mentioned that there are low-income students in general that might stop out of that pathway. So is that, is that sort of the gap that they’re filling or is there more than that?
Nate Anderson: There’s also the flexibility element. Micro-credentials are highly flexible. You can change the content of them quite easily, because they tend to be very discrete levels of information, very discrete pieces of information that are in smaller chunks.
Nate Anderson: So like an associate’s degree is going to be really hard to change, because that’s the full credential. Then the four-year degree is going even harder to change because there’s even more information embedded there. But as you get to smaller and smaller credentials, and you get away from the accreditation systems, then you have more flexibility.
Nate Anderson: So, take fields like I.T. where it’s very rapidly developing, things like cyber security where the, where the competencies are changing. Having a shorter, more targeted, industry-based certification credential, you know, whatever it is, is going to allow for a more responsive system to those needs.
Nate Anderson: So that’s another one. They’re cheaper, which is important, because they’re shorter. For the most part they’re cheap, but there are sometimes other cost barriers, like fees from industry from certifications where students can’t pay for that using federal financial aid, in some cases. So there are some things that pop up but in general they’re cheaper which is important.
Nate Anderson: There is variation but in certain industry sectors there’s a clear labor market return to the short term credentials relative to a high school degree only. So we see a lot of potential in them.
Nate Anderson: The other thing I should say as well is the stackability piece is really important. Because what you can do is you can take a longer program of study, so take an associate’s degree program, and then break it into pieces. And if you really use your labor market information that you have thoughtfully, you can break those pieces into what’s aligned with jobs.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So you’ve mentioned as you’ve been talking a number of different types of providers. From the research that you’ve done so far, who are the leading providers of the alternative credentials?
Nate Anderson: So when I think about institutions that are really thoughtful with their LMI data as sort of a way to design certificates. It’s things like the CUNY system or LaGuardia in particular in New York — City University of New York is the acronym. So they went backwards five years in time looked at every graduate from the CUNY system in a number of different areas, healthcare, home health aide, medical assistant, retail. And they said let’s actually test whether our graduates are going into the occupations we’re training them for…If they’re advancing. And then let’s tie that to wage data to see what they’re actually earning once they get out.
Nate Anderson: And so they discovered that in some cases it worked like they expected, that the pathway worked in the way the academic side had designed it. In other cases, it didn’t at all. Like home healthcare aide, for example, was really a dead end. Students were going into that. They expected that they would come back trained for further occupations down the road that would pay more, and were more advanced. None of them did. So they stayed in these nine, 10, 11 dollar an hour jobs for five years. And they would move between home health care jobs but they wouldn’t advance.
Nate Anderson: When an institution is really committed to challenging itself on testing whether what it says it’s going to offer its students is in fact true, is going to be a critical piece of whether or not I personally would see that as a quality quality program, and an institution that really is doing a good job.
Nate Anderson: There are states that have really committed to this more than than others. I think to Kentucky, Virginia. Kansas tried to tie it to labor market information. Florida. I mean, there are places where there’s really, really good work being done.
Nate Anderson: There are certain institutions that are very demand driven. I mentioned earlier that Per Scholas is an organization we work with — and they they have built in a system of ensuring that they follow up with virtually every single one of their graduates. And if they can’t find the graduates they actually hire a firm, sort of like a detective firm, to go out and find them and find their employers and ask the questions that they want to know. So they get a sort of response rate of 80 percentage plus of what’s happening with their graduates — which is just unheard of.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s amazing.
Nate Anderson: Yeah. And so, and they have they have certifications that they offer their students in that case that are third party, very well established, like, net plus kind of those those types of certifications. And they’re just making sure that their students are fully hireable with those and that’s what their employers want.
Nate Anderson: On the certification side — so like I said they’re not institutions that are awarding those — they’re a third party. But again, I love where organizations, industry, associations put their money where their mouth is. So, my favorite example of this is CompTIA. Which they do like Cisco and other certifications along those lines.
Nate Anderson: And what they did is they took data from the, from the community college system in Illinois. And then they took their own private data — so CompTIA has their own certification testing data. And they were able to do a match of people who were in the community college system who had gone to these networking programs. So they completed the program at the community college and then they basically had two groups: people who passed the certification and people who didn’t.
Nate Anderson: And then they traced them out to track them on the labor market to see what happened to them. What they found was that, you know roughly speaking, that people who earned the certification — they were hired at the same rate as people who didn’t. So the door was open to them in the same way. But the people who had the certification, they were promoted and their wages went up much faster than the people who’d only gone through the community college program.
Nate Anderson: And they did it as a public study where they put that information out there and they said, “We believe that our certification is high value to employers. We’re willing to to prove it.” That’s unusual. You don’t see that all the time. And now other industry associations that have followed their lead and are doing the same thing.
Nate Anderson: So that kind of transparency is something we talk about a lot in credentials.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So you’ve done a lot of research on this topic. And I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your new research that will be coming out very shortly.
Nate Anderson: Yeah. So we have a partnership with Burning Glass. Which is a labor market, analyst company. They release a lot of data that educational providers, employers, industry associations use use to better understand the labor market. And credentials is an area they are particularly interested in.
Nate Anderson: Lumina Foundation has offered us a grant to work with them. They have now got 78 million unique resumes of individuals in the U.S. labor market. The grant is to dive into that pool of resumes and do an analysis around individuals who started at a less than two-year degree. So people who earned those alternative credentials, certifications, and so on. And then map what happened to them in a couple of different industry sectors. And then sort of in aggregate level — So we’re looking at some 20 million resumes from within that 78 million. In areas like healthcare, the trades, business sort of administrators are entry level roles there, and I.T. And then exploring from a high level perspective what’s happening to people who go into each of those sectors.
Nate Anderson: This is ongoing. But generally what we found that’s really interesting is from a jobs perspective there’s kind of three different outcomes for people that we’ve looked at. One is dead end jobs. So there are a lot of training programs and even certifications and certificates that lead to jobs, and people never move. They don’t change, and they’re low-income, and they don’t have a lot of variation within the occupation. Then there’s jobs as careers. So some areas, particularly ones that are highly regulated like healthcare, people can enter into those jobs. And then the job itself has a lot of wage growth over time. So your title doesn’t change, but you actually can make more and more money as you move up.
Nate Anderson: Then the third one is the career pathway concept, which is where it’s occupation stacks. So occupation A leads to B leads to C. And those are the ones where certificates and certifications make a huge difference.
Nate Anderson: There is some of our data, for example, we were able to show that having certain I.T. certifications, short-term certifications, and an associate’s degree was more valuable than having a bachelor’s degree of computer science, in terms of your ability to advance. So things like that. And there’s a lot of sort of both really exciting data embedded in those, as well as very frustrating data, where things are breaking down.
Nate Anderson: Like the trades, for example. They are traditionally an area where we’d like to see people go because some of the mechatronics type jobs and auto-mechanic jobs and things like that, historically have had pretty good wages at the entry level. And so we try to get training programs for those where the labor market supports them. Our resume data shows that there’s not a lot of advancement happening. Some people are going into those jobs. They are often leaving them completely, going to a completely different industry sectors like retail. So they went through this training program, they got a welding certificate, they went and got a welding job, and then for some reason they end up in retail. Not a good sign. That tends to mean the jump was eliminated. And they’re facing all kinds of automation and outsourcing and all those kind of things that they’re dealing with in those areas.
Nate Anderson: But the bottom line is it challenges us to really think hard about the kinds of recommendations we’re making the colleges and the evidence we have about why what happens. So that data will be coming out in September.
Nate Anderson: I’m also really excited about some of the other work that’s being done in the field now. Like EMSI, for example which is another company that’s similar to Burning Glass. They have another really large pool of resume data. They’ve tied that to individual colleges. So now they have a tool where colleges can go and say “I want to find out what happened to every person in this pool of 65 million that put my college on their resume.” And so you can see the occupational pathways. And they’ll do this really nifty analysis of, like, you know, if you were an engineering student you ended up in a STEM job. If you were a philosophy student, you ended up in retail. That’s pretty much what happened here.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Very interesting.
Nate Anderson: Yeah. So there’s that kind of thing too which is really helpful. And they can do to the community college level. And so we’re able to see the opportunities there as well. We’re not partnering with them, but I’m just giving example. The field is really primed for some really exciting changes coming down the pike.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So that’s excellent. Thank you so much for your time. I wanted to give you the opportunity to tell our audience where they can find out more information about Jobs for the Future. What’s the best place for them to go?
Nate Anderson: That’s our URL, it is WWW [dot] JF [dot] org and all our reports are up there, all the LMI analysis we’ve done, the best practices around credentialing and other papers. So it’s all accessible up there. @JJFtweets as well, we’ve got Twitter as well.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Alright, Nate. Well thanks very much for your time today. It was great speaking with you.
Nate Anderson: Thanks for having me. It was fun.
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Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.