Accelerate Recovery: Expand Access to Shorter-Term Credentials that Lead to Good Jobs

Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Kathleen Mathers

The tremendous disruption and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 to everyday lives and to the economy has pummeled our country. While over 40 million people have filed unemployment claims, the pandemic has had a concentrated impact on our most vulnerable populations. Forty percent of households earning less than $40,000 per year have experienced unemployment since February, and those who have kept jobs are disproportionately working in essential front line roles that lack the protection of a virtual environment, increasing their exposure to health care challenges. Within these communities in particular, the stakes to find a high-value career path have never been higher.

Our education and workforce leaders will need to quickly prepare for how this tremendous growth in displaced workers will impact postsecondary institutions and workforce programs. Higher unemployment is likely to lead to an increase in enrollments in community and technical colleges and create greater demand for shorter-term, non-degree credentials that lead to good jobs. Unfortunately, we also anticipate false promises—“make money quickly by completing this program”—to creep into communities whose members can least afford to turn the wrong way on their future career path.

Our education and workforce systems must be positioned to assess and respond effectively to these new economic realities and adopt a nimble posture as the situation evolves. That starts with leveraging real-time labor market and hiring data to convey clearly to stakeholders which non-degree credentials are needed by in-demand jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage; and it includes ensuring that programs are accessible and provide opportunities to earn those credentials.

Over the past year, we at Education Strategy Group have worked with K-12, postsecondary, and workforce development leaders in six states to help them identify and prioritize the non-degree credentials that offer the greatest labor market value. That work was driven by strategic recommendations in our Credential Currency report and a related toolkit that offers turnkey resources for implementation.

We are excited that through the generous support of Lumina Foundation and in partnership with the National Skills Coalition, we are expanding our efforts to help more states identify and prioritize non-degree credentialing options that will put more learners on a path to economic and career success, especially those displaced by COVID-19 who need to upskill or re-skill to become more essential workers. That includes offering “COVID-19 response webinars” in June and July to profile emerging strategies that can be adapted and used by education and workforce leaders to identify and situate high-value non-degree credentials within their economic recovery plans; and providing workshops for cross-sector leaders in late summer and the fall to identify non-degree credentials that lead to good jobs and embed them within longer-term education and career pathways that include stackable credentialing opportunities.

Though this work is evolving, we believe there are several priorities states, institutions, and communities must embrace to expand the availability of shorter-term, non-degree credentials that lead to good jobs. While some communities have begun to implement pieces of the ideas below, these priorities represent the next phase of work that should be undertaken over the extended period of economic uncertainty.

Use frequent analysis of current labor market data to drive decision-making.

As we have posited before, institutions should undertake analyses of real-time labor market data on a quarterly basis from now through economic recovery to cull out where markets are thriving, where they are stable, and where they continue to decline. Over time, a clearer picture will emerge to help determine which shorter-term credentialing opportunities should be prioritized and which should be de-emphasized.

The Economic and Workforce Development Center at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY has long used multiple data sources to better understand regional employment needs. In addition to analyzing real-time job openings, Monroe also mines data from state and local government resources, surveys with business, and engagement with sector-based advisory councils to understand emerging occupational trends. They use that refined understanding to modify current programs and stand up new programs that are aligned with labor market needs. Monroe is also beginning to undertake new analyses to respond to the pandemic.

Prioritize in-demand, high-wage opportunities.

It’s tempting to lower expectations during a down market in our urgency to find people employment, but that can inadvertently encourage learners to pursue options that are less valuable for the foreseeable future. Postsecondary leaders need to stay strong on using thresholds in labor market analyses that prioritize occupations and related non-degree credentials that continue to be valued by employers and pay a living wage.

To this end, Florida recently pulled its list of priority industry-recognized credentials (CAPE secondary list), re-examined labor market data and employer feedback to determine which should still be prioritized, and made some hard decisions about removing those that are not rewarded well by the labor market. The advent of COVID-19 might suggest that additional changes to the list could be warranted, like whether credentials associated with hard-hit fields should remain in the near-term.

Push past a “jobs first” mentality.

During an economic crisis, there can be a tendency to direct displaced workers into the shortest possible training leading to the first available job rather than being thoughtful about what their road to employment recovery should or could include. Shorter-term credentialing opportunities embedded within longer-term career and educational pathways can be a strong strategy to lead individuals to high-value, essential career roles within our economy.

Connect existing skills to labor market needs.

Postsecondary leaders should undertake “skills matrixing” to relate skills that displaced workers already have to those required by essential roles within our economy. States can then show those seeking new career opportunities how they can combine current skill sets with additional education and training to earn high-value credentials that lead to good jobs. Burning Glass’s “lifeboats” strategy and Emsi’s Skills Match, for example, are both resources that can help state and local leaders begin to think about helping learners make that leap.

The combination of these efforts will position our education and workforce systems to respond efficiently and effectively to the crises at hand while preparing many displaced workers for long-term economic and career success.