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June 2020
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Go Micro
TD Magazine

Go Micro

Microcredentials show employers you have the skills they seek.

You found the perfect job—it is the company you've always wanted to work for and is work that ignites your passion. The opportunity for career and personal growth are tremendous. And then you see it, the potential deal breaker: an important required skill that you don't have, one that you have never had to use in previous jobs, a skill for which you have no training. What can you do? How can you show this potential employer that you are the perfect candidate?

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Microcredentials.

During the past decade, the term micro has disrupted a variety of fields; you may have heard such terms as microfinancing, microapartments, and microinsurance. In the job market, there are now microjobs and microassignments; in entrepreneurship, there's microconsignment.

It's now education's turn. You are undoubtedly familiar with microlearning—relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities offered electronically, on demand, and as needed on the job. Many schools, companies, and associations are now offering microcredentials.

Microcredentials are the answer to how you show prospective employers you have skills they're looking for. In fact, microcredentials are increasing in popularity among employees and HR departments. The Online School Center reports that "In a recent survey of human resource managers across different industries, 95% were interested in the micro-credentials of potential hires."

But don't wait until you find the perfect job that you don't qualify for to start building new skills.

What are they?

Microcredentials are a competency-based and skill-focused form of credential that demonstrates skills, knowledge, and experience in a given subject area or capability. Microcredentials are sometimes referred to as digital badges, web badges, open badges, nano degrees, mini degrees, or microcertifications. However, microcredentials and digital badges are not necessarily synonymous.

Microcredentials verify a person's knowledge or skills based on their successful completion of a course, activity, assignment, project, portfolio, or practical assessments. Meanwhile, digital badges are electronically displayed icons that contain metadata that provides information about the earned microcredential. You can have a microcredential without a digital badge.

If you have earned a degree or two, you know the value they can bring—but you also know the expense and the amount of time it takes to earn a degree. I'm sure you have heard of, and perhaps have, a professional certification, which is a credentialing process whereby a third party with authoritative power establishes qualifications that assess a professional's ability to meet predetermined and standardized criteria. Professional certifications cover an extensive body of knowledge and a related series of associated competencies. Microcredentials are more focused on specific skills than professional certifications and usually are faster to complete.

Consider, for example, Deb Hansford. For more than 20 years, she has been facilitating technical courses to manufacturing and supply chain employees for several large, well-known companies, teaching extensively both face-to-face and online. Over the years, she became adept at determining a company's needs and selecting or designing the courses that will meet them.

A few years ago, Hansford took a short certificate course on gamification and immediately realized how she could start using those principles in her training. She began putting them into effect in both her face-to-face and online classes and discovered that participation and engagement in her online classes more than doubled, her students in both types of courses loved coming to her classes, and companies were thrilled with the results. Hansford's enthusiasm was evident when she told me, "It was this microcredential course that gave me a tool I've used so successfully to take my training to a new level."

As professionals, we are becoming increasingly responsible for our own development; microcredentials offer a more personalized, self-directed learning experience, with the ability to tailor clusters of microcredentials to fit our own career goals and responsibilities. When coupled with digital badging, they are a quicker, easier way to show to our employers or potential employers what we know.

Some organizations and universities are creating microcredentials that can be stacked—that is grouping or aggregating multiple microcredentials that can be built into a larger, more recognizable award. Think of stacked microcredentials as LEGO bricks. You can stack microcredentials in such a way that one skill builds on another, or you could earn credentials in related fields that, taken together, prepare you for a specific kind of job. In addition, you could add a microcredential within an area of expertise to an existing two- or four-year degree. That is becoming common for K–12 teachers and for some medical professionals.

Several of the popular massive open online course (MOOC) providers are working with universities to create microcredentials that could be accepted in place of an admissions requirement like the GRE or can count as partial credit toward a degree at the institution. For example, I have a friend who completed the MITx Supply Chain Management MicroMasters program. The stackable online MITx microcredential courses gave him the opportunity to apply to one of 22 universities in 10 different countries, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology itself, which will accept the MicroMasters credential as partial credit toward a full master's degree. My friend decided to complete his master's degree in supply chain management through MIT. The ability to start a flexible program at a lower cost, incrementally over time, gave him the incentive he needed to get started and pursue and complete the degree program.

WIIFM for talent development professionals

What skills do you want to highlight in your personal skills profile as a talent development professional? Are there skills you need that a microcredential would highlight for you in your personnel record or on your resume? Relevant skills for talent development professionals may include data analytics, change management, needs assessment, e-learning instructional design, knowledge management, or a specific technology such as Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline.

Monica Guzman, a journalist specializing in technology for the Seattle Times, wrote, "If resumes are a bunch of claims, badges are a bunch of evidence." Badge metadata makes the evidence underpinning your claims visible to everyone.

Understanding your employer's needs is always the place to start when considering additional job training. Conduct your own personal skills gap analysis. What skills does your employer need for an excellent employee in your position? What skills do you currently have? Is there a gap?

That is the place to focus your time and effort, pursuing the skills that can improve your performance or help your company strategically. Employers care more about competency than knowledge, so focus your learning where it is needed most.

Getting support from your HR department

When making the argument to your employer about pursuing microcredentials, consider these factors:

  • The microcredential can help fill specialized skills gaps that traditional credentials may not address, especially in the timeframe or in the depth that you and your employer need.
  • Typically, microcredential education is relatively inexpensive and takes less time to earn when compared to most certification and degree programs.
  • Supporting this kind of credential can help your employer leverage its existing workforce more effectively by ensuring employees' skills are up to date.
  • Offering the benefit can make your organization a more attractive employer to other job seekers and enable it to attract talent.

Will your company pay for training that will lead to a microcredential? Start by investigating your company's policy regarding support for continuing education. What is the process for requesting additional training? What will it reimburse? As talent development professionals know well, when communicating your request, the training must show value to the company. Employers aren't looking for a particular microcredential; their focus will be on the skills and competencies you will learn.

Many organizations offer microcredentialing, but they are not all equal. Universities, colleges, and associations have the best reputations. MOOCs that have agreements with universities offer well-respected microcredentials. In addition, some technology companies—such as IBM, Microsoft, and HP—offer microcredentials or badges for their training on how to use their technology.

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Making moves

If you are considering a job change, what skills or knowledge will you need for the position you want? Microcredentials show competency in skills that may not have been part of your previous jobs. Companies are looking for experience, and some will accept a microcredential in lieu of on-the-job experience.

Microcredentials can be a better way for recruiters to identify candidates who clearly demonstrate specific competencies, so target microcredentials for skills that are important to prospective employers. Jobs are made up of skills. That's why companies don't hire for a job; they hire for skills.

Be aware

Even though microcredentials have become quite popular, there are some potential shortcomings. The first is the lack of consistency between the various microcredential programs. The minimum amount of time required to complete a microcredential, the level of effort it will take, and the proof of competency can vary considerably among providers—and even within different programs from a single provider.

Microcredentials are not accredited, recognized, or evaluated by third-party organizations, except those that are part of a university degree program. Such variability and lack of standardization make it difficult for consumers to compare the various microcredentials. While all employers understand that a master's degree signifies a higher level of preparation than a bachelor's degree, it is impossible to say whether a Coursera specialization prepares a person more or better than an edX professional certificate or an Udacity nanodegree.

The second potential shortcoming is pursuing a microcredential when a certification or degree program would better meet your career goals. It never pays to substitute the better with the good. Give careful thought to the type of education or training you need for your career goals. Don't settle for the least expensive or the quickest option if it won't really take you where you want to go.

Even with those caveats, if you need specific competencies and skills and want to demonstrate mastery of them, microcredentials can be the opportunity you are looking for.

Self-promote your achievement

After earning a microcredential, don't hide your light under a basket. These are new skills for you, so share information about them with the people who matter at your company—including your manager and the HR department. More importantly, find ways to use those new skills. If you can put new skills that you've learned into practice on the job, your supervisor is more likely to give you the opportunity to get more continuing education.

Also, share your accomplishments and digital badges on social media, display them on online resumes and job networks, post them to your LinkedIn account, add them to your email signature, and list them on your website. Digital badges contain data about the credential, who issued it, and what you had to do to earn it; those details help an employer see the value of the underlying microcredential. Finally, add your microcredentials to the Certifications or Continuing Education section of your resume.

Don't get left behind

Increasing globalization, rapidly evolving technologies, and digital disruptions of major industries and professions are affecting everyone. If professionals do not engage in lifelong learning, they will soon be left behind. Employees need to continually keep their skills sharp and up to date to have an edge in their careers. Microcredentials can provide the personalized, self-directed, on-demand, job-skill-focused training that you need to thrive in the evolving workplace.

An associate of mine is fond of asking: "When is the best time to plant a tree?" His answer: "Twenty years ago or today." So, let me ask you: When is the best time for you to upgrade and demonstrate your skills?

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About the Author

Bob Collins, CPLP, CPIM-F, CIRM, CSCP, CAE, is the senior director of global learning for the Association for Supply Chain Management. For the past 10 years, Collins has been responsible for certification and noncertification courseware as well as the association’s Instructor Development Program with more than 800 instructors worldwide. He is also an experienced instructor and public speaker.

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