Remarks Delivered by Rodney Petersen, Director of NICE, National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce
The inaugural xFoundry Xplore Summit at the Hotel University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland on February 9, 2024.
I go by the titles of Husband, Dad, and Volunteer at home and in the community. But in the workplace, I’ve held the titles of Vice President, Director, Manager, and Supervisor. But those are just job titles. How did I get there? My career pathway has been paved with a series of learning experiences and steppingstones of professional credentials.
But what are credentials?
A credential is defined as a documented achievement awarded by a responsible and authorized body that attests that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes or attained a defined level of knowledge or skill relative to a given standard. Credential, in this context, is an umbrella term that includes degrees, diplomas, licenses, certificates, badges, and industry-recognized certifications. (Source: https://connectingcredentials.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Glossary-of-Credentialing-Terms.pdf)
Credentials have become the currency for employment – and advancement in one’s career – much as cash and credit cards are the currency for financial transactions.
However, when someone exchanges a dollar bill with you, you trust its currency because it is issued by the Federal government with a long history of credibility, reliability, and known value.
When someone submits their resume for employment, it may contain a listing of degrees, certifications, or other achievements, but how do employers – and even learners – evaluate the quality of those credentials?
According to the Credential Engine, there are almost 1.1 million unique educational credentials in the United States today which represents a significant growth since 2018. However, with a sprawling web of credentials – as well as organizations that offer them – have come questions about quality, demands for transparency, and general confusion for employers and learners who struggle to make sense of such a complex marketplace.
Compounding the problem, is the varied means by which knowledge and skills are validated or verified by credential providers. In some cases, true or false or multiple-choice exams are administered to test one’s knowledge or skill. However, some would argue that performance-based assessments are a better way to evaluate skill and that standardized tests only verify someone’s ability to recall facts from memory.
The mantra in today’s workplace is to “hire based on skills”. That statement is often qualified by the words “don’t require academic degrees, especially 4-year bachelors degrees”. Why have academic degrees fallen out of favor? Is it possible for someone to be successful in the workplace with an associate degree – or no college background whatsoever? Why have industry-recognized certifications become the credential of choice for so many employers, especially in high-skill occupations including technology roles?
In a capitalist society, it is not surprising that there is competition among credential providers. Additionally, it is increasingly common that companies establish their own training and credentialing program – bypassing both educational institutions and training and certification providers. Is it a matter of economic efficiency, urgency, or a signal of distrust with the value of third-party credentials?
If you are a learner – which I define as a student, jobseeker, or existing employee – the myriad of credential options is mind-boggling and confusing – not to mention expensive to acquire. How do learners evaluate the quality and value of a credential in the marketplace?
And with all the credentials that are available, how does an employer make sense of the maze?
The program that I direct at the National Institute of Standards and Technology provides a grant to CompTIA, an IT training company and certification provider, and Lightcast, a leader in labor market analytics, to produce a website called CyberSeek.org. According to the website, there are 572,000 open jobs in cybersecurity – over 73,000 located in the DC-metropolitan area. One of the most in-demand jobs profiled on that website is Cybersecurity Analyst – with almost 23,000 jobs available and yet 87% of job announcements require a bachelor’s degree or above and identify 5 desired certifications. One of the certifications requires 5 years of work experience to obtain, and there are currently more job announcements requiring that specific certification than there are individuals who hold that credential. But the real question is: on what basis do employers ascertain that a bachelor’s degree or cybersecurity certification is an indicator of how successful a job candidate will be in performing that role?
In 2020, the President of the United States issued an Executive Order on Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates. The order directed merit-based reforms that replaces degree-based hiring with skills to ensure that the individual most capable of performing the roles and responsibilities required of a specific position are those hired for that position. More importantly, the order called for improvements in the use of assessments in the federal hiring process.
The move towards strengthening the use of assessments as part of the hiring process begs the questions of what the purpose of credentials are if job candidates are only going to be assessed again for their qualifications and capabilities? Isn’t it the purpose of degrees, certifications, and other credentials to verify and validate one’s qualifications?
In my estimation, the present challenge boils down to one of TRUST between employers and credential providers. Too many employers report that job seekers are not job-ready, skilled, or capable of performing the job duties without further training or development. The credentials, while seemingly impressive on paper, do not assure that job candidates will meet the skill needs of employers.
With so many credentials in the marketplace, why has the process of acquiring credentials to validate one’s skills and capabilities broken down – and what does that mean for the Future of Work?
We live in what some have described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – characterized by increasing automation and the employment of smart machines and smart factories, where informed data helps to produce goods more efficiently and productively across the value chain.
The same industrial revolution holds the promise to Transform Credentials by applying technology, including artificial intelligence, in a way that increases the value of credentials and more efficiently communicates the qualification of workers between employers and job seekers. One such innovation is Learning and Employment Records, essentially digital resumes with verified records of people’s skills, educational experiences, and work histories. However, Learning and Employment Records are far from ubiquitous and will require increased adoption.
The Future of Work is dependent on a knowledgeable and skilled workforce. While the competencies and capabilities of learners may be best verified by trusted credential providers, the labor market is rapidly evolving. With the promise of using data and technology to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and reliability, I am optimistic that credentials will play an even greater role in the Future of Work. And, I am hopeful that some of you will become the entrepreneurs who bring the innovation that is necessary to shape our successful future.