Spotlight: Identifying Promising Credentials in Hawai’i

Thursday, April 1, 2021
Emily Passias

We know that postsecondary credentials matter more today than ever before. While bachelor’s degrees remain important, there are over 30 million good jobs nationwide that are held by those with an associate degree, long-term postsecondary certificate, journeyman’s license, or industry-recognized credential. Recognizing this shift, more than 40 states have set postsecondary credential attainment goals, and many are wrestling with the ways in which to include non-degree credentials in that work. In addition, over half of states incorporate industry-recognized credentials in their K-12 accountability systems and many have selected high-value credentials as their quality program indicator within Perkins V, sending a clear signal to schools, districts, and higher education institutions to prioritize credential attainment as a first step on a longer-term education and career pathway.

Yet both postsecondary and K-12 leaders—along with their workforce development peers—often struggle to identify which of those non-degree credentials actually put learners—especially those who are underrepresented in family-sustaining wage jobs in our economy—on a path toward economic and career success. The work of identifying credentials of value is nuanced and challenging, requiring input from stakeholders across the education and employment spectrum. Leaders must examine data on demand, wages, access, and much more in order to decisively identify credentials of value and send clear signals to learners about these options. 

In 2020, ESG partnered with the Promising Credentials project, an initiative of Hawai’i P–20 Partnerships for Education, Chamber of Commerce Hawai’i, Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, and Kamehameha Schools that aims to identify high-value certificates and credentials using Hawai’i labor market data and local employer insights. Promising Credentials in Hawai’i, a first-of-its-kind analysis for the state, looks at whether the credentials students can earn are valuable to local employers. The project identified 137 Promising Credentials that are associated with 274 in-demand, living-wage occupations throughout Hawai’i. Following the analysis and identification of these credentials, in-state partners are working together to identify strategies to ensure that students pursue opportunities that will offer them real-world opportunity. 

We had an opportunity to discuss the work further with Alex Harris, Vice President of The Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, to learn more about the importance of identifying and promoting high-quality credentials as well as the role philanthropy can play in these efforts. 

Can you give us an overview of The Castle Foundation’s education priorities and the specific focuses of your work? 

We are the largest family foundation in the state of Hawai’i, with a stated goal of closing achievement and preparation gaps in public education. We do this by funding a four-part strategy: 

  1. Industry-led partnerships that define entry level skills for jobs that can sustain families; 
  2. Academically rigorous pathways that accelerate learning and emphasize career options;
  3. Student supports like stronger counseling; and 
  4. Work based learning experiences that lend insight into the world of work. 

We think two factors have outsized influence in the lives of first generation and low-income students — earning college credit while still in high school and having a powerful career experience that helps fuel a vision for what they want to accomplish in life.

In your view, why is the work of the Promising Credentials in Hawai’i initiative important for the future of the state? 

Students in high school and college are increasingly sitting for and earning industry certificates. This is largely positive. But far too many certificates lack real value to employers. Promising Credentials (PC) is a partnership between the Chamber of Commerce, Hawaii P20 (our statewide intermediary) and funding partners. 

Our goal was to curate a list of credentials that have both labor market value and are industry validated. Fully 274 occupations met the wage and demand thresholds that we set, with 137 “Promising Credentials” that feed into these occupations. You can learn more about this undertaking here

What are some lessons learned from the Promising Credentials in Hawai’i work that could be applied in other states or contexts? 

This work is both art and science. The science comes from mining labor market data while the art is in engaging employers through conversations and surveys to help with the sense-making. Regions should feel comfortable making value judgments based on available information. 

Having a list like this has guided programmatic decisions. Our state office of career technical education has used Promising Credentials in their redesign of programs of study. The University of Hawai’i Community College system has placed Promising Credentials front and center as they prioritize limited resources. And most recently we’ve applied millions in federal CARES Act funds to support thousands of residents in earning short-term credentials guided by this list.

Who should “own” the work of identifying and communicating about credentials of value? Who needs to be at the table for these efforts to be successful? 

We formed a cross-agency stakeholder advisory that was staffed by the Chamber and P20. We had leaders from business, K-12 and higher education, and philanthropy in the room to guide us and offer cover for difficult decisions that we had to make. Technical assistance was provided by the team at Education Strategy Group and a local firm offered communications support. Each Promising Credential is accompanied by a 1-page information sheet that offers more context. 

What role should philanthropy play in ensuring students have a clear understanding of the credentials that hold real value in the marketplace? 

Beyond staging a participatory decision-making process like we did, philanthropy has several roles to play. First, we can support communications so that the work is accepted and shared broadly — especially amongst employers. Next, we can resource partner organizations like the community colleges to make Promising Credentials a central part of their design planning. And lastly, we can remove barriers to earning a credential such as cost for low-income students. 

What’s next for the Promising Credentials in Hawai’i work? How do we ensure sustainability and maintain the momentum of this work?  

The Hawaii State Legislature has a bill that asks the state office of Career Technical Education to replicate this process and update the list every few years. So that looks to be the long-term locus of responsibility. In the meantime, programs can petition to be included if they determine the wage and demand thresholds are met. 

Equally important is to incentivize behavior. Business, philanthropy, and government can come together to underwrite the cost of priority certifications. Say health care jobs are in high need given the pandemic; lifting up the health care offerings within Promising Credentials offers a targeted investment strategy that can drive more young people toward this profession.

Finally, the short-term credentials are part of a broader workforce strategy for the state. We received a competitive Reimagining Workforce Partnership grant which lets us move thousands of students from credentials to apprenticeships and into degree pathways in fields like technology, clean energy, and health care. As an isolated island state we desperately need to grow our own if we are to survive in the modern economy. And Promising Credentials offers us a foothold into this objective.