Once again, Gamez considered college. But once again, it was hard to see the point. It wasn’t just the money, although that was part of it; even more daunting was the time commitment. He’d have to continue working, so college couldn’t be full-time, extending the number of years it would take for him to get even an associate’s degree. And then what? Would the degree be worth anything? Would college help him develop skills that he could use to get a job? Gamez wasn’t sure.
That’s when he discovered the course in IT networking being offered at a local vocational training center. It required just 300 hours over six months—a little over 12 hours a week. Gamez could live at home and work part-time. The cost was $3,200—a fraction of what he’d pay at college. But most importantly, he was certain the training would lead to a job. He could even forecast his future earnings. The average annual salary for technicians with the credential he’d be working toward was $71,000. How could he be sure? Because the course was teaching to a test designed and certified by a national industry group representing just the kinds of companies at which he was hoping to work.
Welcome to the world of competency-based alternative credentials, sometimes known as occupational certifications. They’re increasingly common in many fields, including IT, advanced manufacturing, health care, the energy sector, even hospitality and retail.
A certification is comparable to a degree but different in many ways. A better analogy is a driver’s license. When you rent a car and the rental agent checks your license, he or she could care less where you learned to drive or how long it took—weeks at an expensive driving school or one day with your dad in a parking lot. All the agency needs to know is that you know how to drive, as certified by a standardized competency-based test.
So too with Daniel’s computer-networking credential. He and many students like him prepare at vocational training centers; others pursue certification in high school or community college, at for-profit learning centers, on the job, or even by themselves on the Internet. What’s important is not the course but the test, which is administered by a third-party and certified by the industry. What the test demonstrates to an employer is not where you learned or how long it took—or how much you paid a prestigious institution of higher learning—but, more importantly, that you have the skills needed to be successful on the job.
According to the Census Bureau, some 5 percent of American adults hold occupational certifications. And alternative credentialing is poised to transform American education—driving students and employers in many fields to focus on outcomes and competency, rather than seat time and institutional prestige.
Employers are drawn to alternative credentialing for the same reason students are: The old system isn’t working for them. College degrees are proving less and less effective as a predictor of job performance. Survey after survey finds employers dissatisfied with the qualifications of job applicants. According to one recent study, two in five college grads lack the basic reasoning skills required for white-collar jobs. A broad range of industries—from advanced manufacturing and construction to finance and retail—complain about "skills mismatches." And it’s no accident that even with 8.7 million Americans unemployed, roughly 5 million jobs stand empty in the U.S. today.