In an ideal world, there would always be a perfect match between the training available to those who need jobs and the needs of employers. Participants would emerge from training with in-demand skills, and employers would trust that their new hires can consistently demonstrate those skills. As a way of signaling that mastery, training and educational institutions use credentials, certificates, and degrees to indicate that their participant has mastered material, passed an exam, or been exposed to specific content or ways of thinking.

These signaling devices may vary in their accessibility to participants and their relevance to employers. While training programs with longer durations (and that encompass more skills and knowledge) may be the most traditional, shorter term trainings may have significant advantages for Strengthening Working Families Initiative (SWFI) participants, including the unemployed and underemployed, and jobseekers who face barriers. Taking less time off from the labor market, needing less time to navigate changes to child care arrangements, and spending less money on training will likely appeal to participants and grantees, but this method of demonstrating mastery may also be structured to benefit employers.

Depending on the training organization, the timeframe, and the format of delivery, mastery of shorter-term trainings or smaller groups of skills might be known as microcredentials. Microcredentials are typically delivered online and not on a fixed schedule.

Even if a similar amount of overall time is needed to reach a significant milestone in a participant’s mastery of in-demand skills, breaking one certificate or credential into several blocks could help participants persist and master the skills needed to progress along a career pathway towards middle- and high-skilled employment. Semester- or year-long training can be challenging to schedule when employment and family needs take precedence. Shorter-term trainings allow for shorter planning horizons and more frequent positive feedback, and may help SWFI grantees more closely monitor the progress of participants. Identifying training partners that certify soft skills or workforce preparedness may also be useful to consider to help SWFI participants designate mastery of important workplace skills.

As SWFI grantees think about how best to move their participants and graduates along career pathways into higher-paying, higher-skilled work, microcredentials and certificates may play a significant role. Can participants gain new training in a technology or subspecialty that will set them apart from their peers? These can be extremely specific: for example, a new microcredential allows maintenance personnel to demonstrate their ability to manage and improve energy performance in the apartment buildings they maintain. This microcredential is part of a stackable credentialing framework that can help maintenance personnel progress along a career pathway.

While the energy sector and other technology-focused industries may be at the forefront of these nontraditional mastery designations, all industries value confirmation that their potential employees have completed relevant work or learned valuable skills. SWFI grantee Alachua Bradford Regional Workforce Board offers participants in their IT training program who need to build technical skills in-person, week-long trainings on specific Microsoft software products, like Word and Excel. Participants can spend up to four weeks getting credentials for four products, and the credentials are offered in a month-long cycle. This helps participants quickly strengthen their resume and engage in other services Alachua offers, like a job club and soft skills trainings. Many participants from the Microsoft training series then participate in a longer entrepreneurial training called “Own Your Future,” in which they gain additional work skills that can be used to enter and advance in H-1B industries.

A key step is to ensure that the designation—whether a credential, micro-credential, or certificate—is of high quality, and is understood and valued by potential employers in the participant’s geographic area and industry. Longer-duration credentials or more traditional degrees may be more widely understood or perceived as translatable from one field or another, so it is crucial that participants are equipped with the ability to explain why a microcredential is valuable, both on a resume and during an interview. In addition, SWFI grantees whose training providers issue certificates and microcredentials should be in active communication with local employers to ensure that these achievements are relevant and valuable in filling employers’ needs, and that they mesh with work experience prerequisites employers have for hiring. Importantly, it is crucial that SWFI grantees do their due diligence to confirm that designations will serve their participants well. A recent analysis of the Adult Training and Education Survey indicates that while women and men are equally likely to attain non-degree credentials, men tend to pay less for their credentials, men with credentials were more likely to be employed than women with credentials, and women receive less pay than men who hold equal credentials.

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