Microcredentials — high-quality, verifiable, bite-sized, low-cost, online non-degree offerings targeted at specific industries — have boomed in recent years in response to demands from employers and potential employees for additional options that better serve learners to prepare for the world of work. However, according to a recent report from Northeastern University, it turns out that employers’ own hiring platforms and external recruiters often act as barriers to putting the right talent in the right positions.
Most employers today require job applicants to apply online. Some applicants enter information about their skills, work experience, and educational achievements into an organization’s recruitment platform, including information about traditional college degrees and alternative non-degree credentials. Others, active on professional networking sites like LinkedIn or job boards like Indeed, apply with a click that sends information from the recruiter’s website to the prospective employer.
In a perfect world, technology would streamline the communication process. However, some recruitment platforms prefer traditional credential information to micro credential information. Even as the software that powers recruitment platforms extracts and shares data, some of the information about alternative credentials “may get lost in translation,” according to the report.
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“Some of these candidates hide valuable educational and qualification information,” said Sean Gallagher, executive professor of education policy at Northeastern University and co-author of the study. “Why don’t these systems ask for more detailed information? Why don’t they capture the wealth that is possible?”
Employers and students value microcredentials
Many learners aspire to microcredentials — a collective term that includes badges, licenses, alternate credentials, non-degree credentials, and digital credentials — to learn and improve their marketability for potential jobs. With Open Badges alone — a leading format for verifiable, wearable digital credentials — learners can choose from more than 500,000 verifiable, shareable digital credentials, according to a report by 1EdTech and Credential Engine. In 2021, vendors on this platform issued more than 74 million badges, a significant increase (73 percent) from the 2020 report.
According to a February 2023 Coursera report, most college students and graduates (90 percent) believe earning a career entry certificate will help them differentiate themselves from employers and secure jobs when they graduate. Also, most (86 percent) believe a microcredential will help them get a job. (The report surveyed nearly 5,000 students and employers in 11 countries.)
Employers are equally enthusiastic. Most employers surveyed (72 percent) said they are more likely to hire an applicant who has earned a micro-id, according to the Coursera report. Even more (88 percent) believe a professional certificate strengthens a candidate’s application.
Some hiring technicians prefer traditional credentials
For example, in a resume, a job applicant might include information about an associate degree earned from a community college and an information technology certificate earned from the edX learning platform. However, some employers’ talent acquisition systems may not capture the richness of that candidate’s profile. For example, some systems do not have a field to enter information about certificates.
“The system mirrors … the business process on the hiring side,” Gallagher said of the missed opportunity for additional information. Some “of these systems weren’t told to look for or process additional details beyond the basics, like school, years of experience.”
According to the Northeastern report, about half of employer talent acquisition systems have areas where candidates can identify skills. Of those that do, none offer recruiters the ability to review skills. This is the case, although one of the value propositions of digital no-degree credentials is that employers can verify achievements.
“People work damn hard to get that college degree, to get that ID, to leave it to chance that someone can make a copy of it or claim that they have a degree or certificate from some place, when they don’t,” said Jim Chilton, Cengage Group’s technical director.
Most systems allow attachments, according to the Northeastern report, but a recruiter must view and evaluate the document manually.
“We know that recruiters only look at resumes for an average of seven seconds,” said Rya Conrad-Bradshaw, vice president of corporate markets at Cengage Group. “What can you use to meaningfully change this type of behavior and offer a different type of attitude? … The technology just isn’t there yet.”
According to the Northeastern report, most human resources technology companies say their customers have not prioritized digital credential support. Employers who want their job applicants to be able to highlight these achievements would first have to invest in customizing the platform.
“Lost in Translation”
A long time ago, job applicants sent paper resumes to prospective employers. They later faxed the documents. Then they emailed resumes. But whether those resumes were paper, faxes, or PDFs, none were easily machine-readable, meaning a human had to review the submitted documents.
Then came recruitment platforms where candidates could upload digital resumes. Also, third-party sites — think LinkedIn or Indeed — now allow candidates to apply with one click based on the information in their profile. According to the Northeastern report, both applicants and recruiters see value in the rise of recruiters who streamline the hiring process. Once the recruitment platform software extracts and shares the data, it can filter and categorize it.
“LinkedIn, Indeed, ZipRecruiter and similar services are playing a bigger role in the recruitment market,” Gallagher said. “If you’re a Fortune 500 company, your system probably needs to talk to those systems because you want people to apply with one click,” Gallagher said.
However, this process can lead to inconsistencies. Part of the problem is that resume formats vary. Also, applicants use different language or methods to provide information on resumes and networking sites. During data transfer, some information about digital credentials and skills “may be lost in translation,” according to the Northeastern report. As a result, recruiters can overlook talented candidates.
But the news isn’t all bad
Some see signs of progress as talent acquisition platform providers, employers, digital credential providers and higher education institutions begin to collaborate in the technology-enabled hiring ecosystem.
Chilton reports that some large employers — think Walmart — are driving a trend in which companies are collaborating with software partners to improve technology. These big employers also encourage education providers to adhere to open standards for digital credentials.
“When everyone has their own variant of ID, the whole thing falls apart almost immediately,” Chilton said.
Companies that offer talent acquisition systems — like Workday and Salesforce — have also developed skills in this area because it’s in their best interest, Chilton said.
“It gives them an opportunity to sell more of their software,” Chilton said.
Others see synergistic opportunities. That said, in the past, some college professors have viewed industry-recognized third-party undergraduate qualifications as competition. However, according to the Coursera study, most students (76 percent) are more likely to enroll in a program that offers industry-specific micro-credentials.
“It’s not an or, it’s an and,” says Marni Baker Stein, Chief Content Officer at Coursera. “This allows them to study what they love and gain important skills for recruitment. You can study French literature and start working on this project management certificate.”
Employers have increasingly adopted skills-based hiring practices since 2017, according to a study by Harvard Business Review. In this practice, candidates are evaluated based on their ability, often instead of traditional metrics such as college degrees. But before employers can evaluate candidates, they need comprehensive information about their skills.
“We’ve identified some gaps that need to be filled, but almost every single talent acquisition tech company we spoke to is aware of this and working on it [the problem]’ Gallagher said. “It will only take a few years.”