Technology changes faster than anyone could have imagined in the not-too-distant past. Global trends, corporate changes, and other shifting sands mean that, for many workers and in many industries, the shelf life of employee skills is shrinking rapidly; a 2014 Deloitte survey put it at 2.5 – 5 years for technical skills.
The demand for rapid adoption of new skills poses challenges: Individual workers fear that their skills are becoming obsolete and worry about upskilling. According to a Pew Research Center study, 54 percent of adults in the American workforce “say that it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace.” An additional 33 percent said that such training would be important but not essential. Training isn’t the only area where employees are in a predicament; as they acquire new skills, they need a verifiable means to showcase those skills.
“The shelf life of skills is changing rapidly, yet the tools that we normally or traditionally provided to learners to record their skills have been rather blunt instruments. They’ve tended to be left behind when people move jobs, or move companies, or change from an educational environment to the workforce,” said Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Credly, a company that provides tools for creating, issuing, and managing digital credentials.
Managers and executives also face new challenges. They must constantly assess their employees’ skills, anticipate what skills will be needed, and ensure that employees and candidates have those skills or get training. Instructional designers need to anticipate demand for skills and create training before the lack of skills becomes a drag on a company’s business.
Historically, academic degrees and professional certifications have been used to assess or verify employees’ skill sets. These measures are still valid in many fields but can be cumbersome in some fast-changing industries. They also may fail to capture skills that employees acquire on the job.
One solution is the growing range of digital credentials. These badges and credentials offer alternative paths to assessing, validating, and describing skills. Credly’s recently announced partnership with DigitalMe, a UK-based digital credentials company, will expand the use of these credentials throughout Europe.
“Not only are we seeing the development of more agile and flexible ways for people to learn and upskill, but also assessments that produce artifacts that people can showcase and use in real time and that are portable even as their context changes,” Finkelstein said. “We’re really helping organizations contribute to or mint a form of currency that helps the labor market operate.”
Pros and cons
Digital credentials offer many advantages. Such credentials are:
- Flexible—Digital credentials can be issued within a company or by a school, a training provider, or a professional association.
- Adaptable—Credentials can be created or updated as new needs and areas of expertise emerge, and they can be used in any field or for any topic. Assessment might be based on eLearning, online or written assessment, observed performance, or other criteria defined by the issuing organization.
- Portable—Individuals who earn a credential can display the badge anywhere and take it with them to their next job. “Individuals wind up with a denomination of a credential or currency that actually speaks the language of employers who are trying to hire based on skills,” Finkelstein said.
- Efficient—“There’s no gatekeeper; once you’ve earned it, it’s verified. It’s traceable and verifiable back against the source or the issuer, so there’s no need for any kind of intervening authority,” Finkelstein said. “The credential can be validated against the issuing authority without going through the registrar’s office or asking your former employer to release your training records.” Verification is at the discretion of the organization that issued the credential, Finkelstein said, but most are willing to provide verification.
They’re not a perfect solution, of course. Digital credentials have their limitations, including:
- A badge or other credential is only as good as the organization—and standards—behind it. Meaningless “participation” badges already proliferate on some sites; a badge proclaiming that someone has “attended” or “participated in” a seminar or conference, or even “presented” there, does not actually establish that individual’s knowledge of a topic or ability to do anything. Other credentials reflect rigorous training and assessment or are issued only when a person meets specific performance criteria. At first glance, it might not be easy to differentiate these.
- Links can disappear. A brief examination of the badges displayed on the profile pages of two Credly executives, for example, revealed several broken links to “supporting evidence.” Roadblocks to verifying a job applicant’s digital credentials could seriously undermine the ability of those credentials to vouch for an applicant’s skills.
- In-house credentials lack standardization. Accrediting bodies exist, in theory at least, to ensure that an academic degree meets common criteria—number of hours of instruction, rigor, etc. When corporations define the terms of their badges, the rigor and depth will vary greatly. For internal job needs, promotions, or compensation, managers looking at credentialed employees are comparing like to like. But when badge-holders are competing for their next jobs, there will be no way to compare the skill sets of candidates whose badges were awarded by different internal processes at different companies.
These drawbacks are not insurmountable. For example, Credly is helping organizations ensure that the badges they issue conform with industry-aligned or national or international standards, Finkelstein said.
He cited the example of the Colorado Community College System. “They issue credentials that are aligned to the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, or NIMS, or to the American Welding Society (AWS). So when an employer is looking for people with a specific set of individual or discrete skills, and they want to make sure that they have been assessed against national or internationally accepted standards, the credentials bear that information.”
Credentials can also carry work samples, Finkelstein said, such as a writing sample or video that shows the badge-holder performing assessed skills. This gives them additional weight as a marker of the bearer’s ability.
What’s clear is that digital credentials are continuing to evolve to fill a need—a need for assessing fast-changing skills—to the benefit of both employers and employees.
Brown, Anna. “Key findings about the American workforce and the changing job market.” Pew Research Center. 6 October 2016.
Deloitte Consulting AG. “Human Capital Trends Switzerland 2014.”
Mullock, Katharine. “A New Initiative: Adapting to Changing Skills Needs.” OECD Skills and Work blog. 30 March 2016.