Skills Credentials Proliferate, Causing Headaches for HR


By Steve Bates July 16, 2015

New credentials designed to demonstrate mastery of job-related skills are growing rapidly, prompting confusion among recruiters and students.

Spurred in part by the explosion of low-cost and free online learning opportunities, the trend represents the democratization of credentialing. The new skills designations are helping people around the world who lack the educational background, money or time to gain more traditional academic degrees or professional credentials. Yet the sheer numbers of credentials are making it difficult for HR professionals to determine which are legitimate and relevant to the jobs they are trying to fill.

Some credentials can be earned in as little as a weekend, such as an internal corporate credential or one that demonstrates mastery of a single computer program. Other credentials require substantial educational attainment and/or professional experience, such as those that demonstrate competency in the HR field.

Some of the new credential programs are designed to help close the skills gap by offering training linked to available jobs. Other programs benefit professionals who already have jobs but want to improve their skill sets. Some workforce experts say that skills credentials might already number in the thousands and should continue to grow. “It is the future,” said Nate Anderson, a director at Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future.

Still, the unfamiliar groups of capital letters representing credentials on resumes can be bewildering. “Employers are like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” said Mary V.L. Wright, senior director for demand side engagement and analytics at Jobs for the Future. “I can understand why they want to throw their hands up in the air” when trying to decipher certain credentials.

Most industries set no standards for credentials, and experts say that some organizations offering credentials could be the equivalent of diploma mills. “It’s a completely out-of-control system,” Anderson said. “Everybody’s trying to get into the credentialing game.” Even legitimate organizations offering credentials online can have a tough time ensuring that a student isn’t paying someone else to take his or her test. In addition, some online educators don’t provide much support to participants, and the dropout rate is high.

Jamie Hopkins, an associate professor of taxation at The American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pa., which offers some online credentials, urges employers to investigate all credentials listed by prospective hires. “Employers do need to be proactive about this,” he said. “Don’t pay a premium for something you are not getting.” Calling the confusion over credentials “a challenge for individuals and for employers,” he added: “You can always hope that the market will sort this out over time.”

However, he said, the benefits of some of the new credential programs are clear. “We’re getting closer to just-in-time education.” Hopkins said many educational programs leading to credentials have academic rigor and a firm timeframe for students to complete their studies.

Many of the new credentials recognize attainment of skills that are narrow in nature. “In a lot of cases, we’re not trying to get you a new job but to help you do better at what you do now,” Hopkins said.

“These alternate credentials are a more precise description of skills to employers” as well as a supplement to traditional academic degrees, said Minh Tran, Hong Kong-based director of research and academic partnerships for EF Education First. “I have a psychology degree from Yale, but that doesn’t tell you much about my skills.” Tran and his team launched the EF Standard English Test (EFSET), a free online exam designed for non-native English speakers and worked with LinkedIn on a credential that allows people around the world to demonstrate proficiency in English.

He acknowledged that the new breed of credentials will be disruptive to some traditional credentials. “It remains to be seen how they will coexist,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we will ever get rid of traditional credentials.” Tran said that once technology advances enough to prove the identity of test takers and verify the accuracy of their scores, “The sky’s the limit for online credentials.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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