How Credentials Can Help Students Prepare for Future Success: Linda Noonan Discusses MBAE’s New Initiative
In the 21st century, the world of work is constantly changing. This podcast series, Reimagining Career Pathways, will explore the needs of the future workforce, rethinking traditional education pathways to connect students today with the in-demand jobs and skills of the future.
Across the nation, companies are struggling to find qualified workers to fill in-demand jobs. According to Linda Noonan, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, the skills gap in Massachusetts is due in part to a lack of exposure to career options.
“We know that the demand for middle-skill workers—and middle-skill jobs are those that require some post-secondary training, but not necessarily a four year degree—are very hard to fill,” says Linda.
“As a matter of fact, by next year it’s expected that the demand will exceed the supply by 150,000 positions. And this shortage of skilled workers is threatening not only employers’ ability to expand and grow—75 percent of them tell us that filling jobs is their number one concern. But at the same time it leaves students ill-equipped to take advantage of those opportunities.”
MBAE launched the Credentials for Success initiative to try to help close this skills gap. The goal is to expand opportunities for students to earn industry-recognized credentials in high school, so they can enhance their employability early on. Linda says credentials should be offered at schools as an option, not an end-all be-all requirement.
“This is basically another tool that schools can access, should they choose, to serve their kids, and to help get their kids future ready—regardless of what that future will hold. Whether it’s college or not,” says Linda.
In Florida, where schools receive a financial incentive for each student that earns an industry-recognized credential that is tied to labor market demand, “Students who enrolled in the program have demonstrated higher GPAs, higher graduation rates, higher post-secondary enrollment rates, and students had higher placement rates in employment following high school graduation. And with industry certifications, they surpassed their peers in overall average earnings by the third year they were in the workforce.”
Read our full interview with Linda Noonan and EdTech Times guest host Kevin Fudge of ASA, to learn more about how credentials can help better prepare students for the workforce.
Kevin Fudge: Hi, this is Kevin Fudge. I’m the Director of Consumer Advocacy and Ombudsman for American Student Assistance. I’ll be your host for this EdTech Times series: Reimagining Career Pathways.
Today we are speaking with Linda Noonan, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Hi Linda, how are you today?
Linda Noonan: I’m great, Kevin. It’s great to be here too to have this important discussion.
Kevin Fudge: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do?
Linda Noonan: Sure. For 30 years MBAE has effectively advanced state education policies that have significantly improved our public schools. Our focus is on closing opportunity, achievement and skills gaps, which have forced and created leaks in our workforce pipeline. And this makes it difficult for our employers to thrive and grow. And it leaves far too many students on the economic sidelines. And so what we work to do is create the conditions where educators have the autonomy and flexibility to innovate, to meet the needs of their students and to help them succeed.
Kevin Fudge: Earlier this year at a conference you and your colleagues discussed the importance of implementing strategies to help high school students gain industry-recognized credentials in relation to your own initiative, which you call Credentials for Success. Can you take a minute and describe that for us?
Linda Noonan: Yes. So what Credentials for Success proposes is that students have the opportunity to take the coursework they’re pursuing in high school and go a step further to earning industry-recognized credentials that are in high demand and pay high wages to not only help them enter the workforce but also to acquire workforce readiness skills.
Kevin Fudge: How does that work with the College for All movement, that everyone should be prepared to go to college? I mean are these competing goals? Or is this like something that can work in conjunction?
Linda Noonan: Our idea is—I would make two points about it. First of all, is it’s not a competition with college. Our feeling is that anything that helps students get exposure to career options, to understand things that they can do, especially students who may not have an understanding of some of the career opportunities that are out there. And I’m talking about the whole range of students who don’t know what’s going on in biotech. Who don’t know the changes in manufacturing. Anything that helps them start to think about it early. There’s a lot of research that’s proven how valuable that is in terms of helping students pursue a more rigorous education when they see the relevance of what they’re studying.
Linda Noonan: The second thing is that we know that in a student’s life, they’re going to have to adapt a great deal. And if they don’t go to college immediately, they may have to do college level study eventually. And so what we want to do is make sure that kids start developing both workforce skill habits, the habits for success—the ability to communicate, to collaborate, to think creatively—no matter what path they’re going to take after high school. But also that they acquire the skills to be lifelong learners and to adapt. And pursuing an industry-recognized credential can help.
Linda Noonan: In many cases, particularly in IT or finance, students are acquiring the knowledge through their coursework that they need to get the credential. But nobody’s telling them, “If you sit for this test or if you do this extra project or you take on this other piece of work you can qualify for the credential.” And our goal with credentials for success is to make that information more accessible.
Kevin Fudge: So in theory, could this work in reverse, then? So to sort of arrest the degree-less in debt phenomena that we have in certain parts of the country, where you start educational program in postsecondary, you don’t complete—but now you have no degree and you have debt. Or is it more about helping them in the launch process, earlier middle school and high school as a transition to postsecondary?
Linda Noonan: I think that it’s more about helping them in the launch process. But our hope is that it will also help with affordability for higher ed. Because if a student has a credential that helps them get a higher wage summer job, or a better paying job while they’re going to college, if they need to work while they’re studying, then that can only be helpful to them and make it more likely that they’ll have the time they need to pursue that degree.
Kevin Fudge: So how’s MBAE working advocate for these such programs in Massachusetts?
Linda Noonan: So what we have done is come up with a proposal for legislation modeled on projects in other states, that have been very successful in providing high schools with financial incentives to help students earn a credential. And what we’re proposing is that there would be a pool of money set aside that would be distributed to high schools based on the students who earn those credentials. So it’s outcome-based. It’s not a lot of money. And we think that the model would work here.
Kevin Fudge: So you mentioned some states have already done that. What states are sort of at the forefront of developing these type of strategies for students to obtain industry-recognized credentials before high school graduation?
Linda Noonan: There are something like seven states so far. The ones that we’ve found most relevant are Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They’ve adopted strategies to increase opportunities for students to earn industry-recognized credentials, and to address the same converging economic and educational trends that I mentioned earlier, which are similar to Massachusetts. Hard to fill jobs, yet some kids having none of the skills that those jobs require.
Kevin Fudge: So what type of tools and strategies are they using? Are they are these states creating like databases? Do they collaborate with each other. Is there umbrella organization under which states can get information and data book you advocate for policy on the federal level to increase funding?
Linda Noonan: Somewhat. All of the above. The states all have their separate programs. There’s no umbrella organization. They’re all called different things. Some involve financial incentives and some don’t.
Linda Noonan: But the model is pretty similar, in terms of focusing on industry-recognized credentials. And interestingly enough, all of the states that we’ve spoken with all have a weakness, including Massachusetts, in terms of data about what exactly is a high-demand job? What is a high-wage job? So all of them, including us, are working towards getting a better grasp on that issue. In Delaware, they started in 2014 with 27 students. And today, there are 14 pathways serving over 9,000 students. So the growth in every state has been quite significant. There is demand for this. Credentials can be what’s called stackable. And so, in other words, you start with one, and you can pursue multiple additional ones that require that first one and the subsequent ones. And so, there are many employers who will look for somebody who has that entry level credential. And the employers will help them earn subsequent credentials and add to their skill level.
Kevin Fudge: So you mentioned before that the credentials aren’t in competition with anything else. I’m curious to know what states are doing to encourage schools to offer industry-certified courses, when there’s already requirements placed on students for what they need to know for graduation. And how do you implement and how do you encourage schools to bring something new in when they already have a certain set of requirements that students already have.
Linda Noonan: I don’t think that we would want to see this seen as a requirement. This is basically another tool that schools can access should they choose to serve their kids. And to help get their kids future ready, regardless of what that future will hold. Whether it’s college or not. And what Florida—which is the oldest program, which began in 2007—has found is that students who enrolled in the program have demonstrated higher GPAs, higher graduation rates, higher postsecondary enrollment rates, and students had higher placement rates in employment following high school graduation. And with industry certifications, they surpassed their peers in overall average earnings by the third year they were in the workforce. So, this is not something that is a replacement or an addition. It’s basically really a vehicle for achieving the goals that any high school should have, which is to prepare their students for success, whatever pathway they take after they graduate.
Kevin Fudge: Ok. So in that way, we can kind of look at it like dual enrollment for high school, where a student might take courses in community college and then start college with credits earned through community college while they’re in high school. But what we’re talking about is stackable credits that people can get are industry-certified that will help them in their career.
Linda Noonan: And actually, in some cases you can acquire college credits while earning the credentials.
Kevin Fudge: Wow. OK. You mentioned earlier about stackable credentials and how they can play in the development of a career. Can you elaborate a bit on that? Is that something that exists right now within industries?
Linda Noonan: Credentials are something that a student demonstrates competencies. They show that they have met requirements or expectations to be able to do something. Certifications are basically validation by an outside party. So what we’re talking about is that the student actually demonstrates that they can do what the credential represents. That’s really important to employers. Because they don’t want a worthless piece of paper that somebody awarded to somebody. They want to know that the student had to meet something that was industry-recognized. So by accumulating credentials either while they’re an undergraduate or in high school, or by doing that on a path, they know that the student has the qualifications to succeed in the job. Just even think about a high school student. It’s not the most confident time of most adolescents’ lives. And so the whole way that they can change their mindset about their abilities and their success could really influence their success after they graduate.
Kevin Fudge: So you mentioned pathways. And we also have talked about industry. And I think sometimes maybe the reticence—whether it’s a parent, a student or a policymaker—might be that, when you think of industry you think of like factories and you know manufacturing, hard manual labor. But can you talk a little bit about what we mean right now by industry, how broad that definition is—and then the pathways that some of these states have created?
Linda Noonan: When you talk about industries and you talk about high demand jobs, your information is obsolete before it gets out of your mouth. The world is changing fast and it’s changing fast in Massachusetts. We’re equipping kids to be lifelong learners who can adapt to changes in throughout their lifetime. But right now, Massachusetts has identified four pathways. And that’s been done by a collaboration called the skills cabinet, which represents the secretariat of education, Labor and workforce, community development. And they’re focusing on finance, on health care, on information technology and on manufacturing or advanced manufacturing. And those are the most in-demand, fastest growing industries. If you say, now what do they have in common? All of them are knowledge-based. Advanced Manufacturing requires a great deal of analytical skill and math skills. I heard one manufacturer say that if one person at one piece of equipment has math off by a fraction of a fraction, the whole line shuts down. And it’s not your and my, you know, vision of back in the old days when a manufacturer was dirty, it was hot, there were dangerous equipment.
Linda Noonan: A lot of employees are sitting at a screen. And they’re calibrating and testing with different tools. I think that what we’re saying to kids about the credentials for success is this is good from a lot of different standpoints. It’s worked elsewhere. It’s something where students achieve something tangible that helps them regardless of what path they’re going. It gives schools a way to get their focus and to to really make sure that they are delivering some guidance about what options are.
Kevin Fudge: Anytime you talk about pathways or vocations you sometimes there can be a reference to tracking. And to say oh well, you know, what you’re only targeting those kids to do that type of career or that type of pathway. So when we’re talking about industry-certified credentials and incorporating this into education, how do we prevent students from getting siloed into careers based on socioeconomic status?
Linda Noonan: That is an extremely important question. And as someone who went to school when students, including myself, were tracked, I can tell you we do not want to go back to those days. So what I would say is that it’s critically important that students have good guidance counseling. And that they all gain exposure to career options, particularly those that are related to their talents and interests, because they’re more likely to find them engaging. So for every child to understand what the kinds of requirements are, the prerequisites, so that they don’t pass up an opportunity to take an advanced class when that’s what they’re going to need to pursue their desired path. We really need to focus on guidance counselors.
Linda Noonan: The Massachusetts Association of School Counselors—we have presented this to them and they are in great support. They brought up an initiative that MBAE supported for years in the legislature to introduce six year career plans, where medical school students would get that counseling. So, we’re hoping that as that’s rolled out, there will be an emphasis on equity. And on reaching the most vulnerable and underserved students. And that’s something that every citizen in Massachusetts has a stake in. And we all have to be vigilant that that’s how it rolls out. If this program were adopted by well-resourced districts only, we would consider it a failure. That’s why it’s important to have the financial incentive. And the states that have the financial incentive—it makes it possible for any school. We actually, ideally, would love to see the financial incentive on a sliding scale—similar to the way that our foundation budget distributes state funds to schools. So that needier schools would get a higher level incentive than schools that were well-resourced or had families who could afford to supplement the cost of earning a credential.
Linda Noonan: What we really are looking for is new ways of thinking and modernizing our schools for the world we live in. And so we’re hopeful that there will be a lot of innovative delivery models that could include that kind of partnership and especially partnerships between career technical schools and traditional high schools. So MBAE, as I said at the outset, we focus on education policy that supports high quality education. And a few years ago, we did a very detailed analysis and involved over 200 stakeholders in looking at an agenda for the future that really rests on modernizing our schools and taking innovative approaches to serving the needs of our students as they change, as the demographics change, and as the needs change.
Kevin Fudge: And what do you think we can do or…either we being you know general citizenry, and we also be the legislature. What could we be doing to further this goal, and who is who would be a good coalition? Are there industries that are more active in this advocacy than others? Is it a combination of like giving a school district, private-sector organizations, nonprofits. What’s the way forward?
Linda Noonan: Well, first of all I think it requires a coalition of all of the above. And MBAE has drafted legislation that we’ve spoken to legislators about proposing in the next session that starts in January. So we’ll be working hard between now and then to gain support in the legislature. We have a network of 28 affiliates who collectively represent over 24,000 employers. And we’ll be working with them to try to gain their support and activism and engagement in getting this passed. And we are very much reaching out to other nonprofits and to educators.
Linda Noonan: Every time that we talk to people about it we get a little bit of a new idea, new ways of describing and thinking about this. New ways of tweaking the legislation and the proposal. So I think that it’s an idea that, again, has worked so well in so many other states with all customized for their local needs, that we can customize it here in Massachusetts and make it work as well.
Kevin Fudge: Thank you for speaking with me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Linda Noonan: And it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Kevin. Thank you for the opportunity.
This podcast episode is sponsored by American Student Assistance®. ASA® is a national nonprofit committed to helping kids know themselves, know their options, and make informed choices to achieve their education and career goals. To learn more about ASA, visit asa.org.
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.