Conquering the Job Market Without a College Degree

Conquering the Job Market Without a College Degree

Jun 20, 2017
Nan Maxwell

A single mother with a high school diploma and a knack for bookkeeping applies for a data entry position at a manufacturing company just two miles from her Milwaukee home. Her sharp instincts and relevant experience impress the hiring manager, but she is turned away immediately because she has no college degree. Even if she could afford the tuition at a four-year college, this busy mother cannot wait that long. She needs a paycheck now.


A large Wisconsin-based manufacturing company seeks a responsible data entry specialist with skills in knowledge management. Despite an exhaustive recruitment process, the hiring manager is unable to fill the position. Most candidates with a four-year college degree opt for better paying, more advanced positions at this and other companies. Even if the hiring manager were to consider someone without a college degree, she’s locked into a recruitment structure that’s been in place for years.

This is a fictional illustration of an experience that is only too real for many workers at lower skill levels.

Both the Milwaukee job seeker and the manufacturing company seem to miss out on a mutually beneficial opportunity that could prove to be a good match, all because the requirement for a four-year degree stands in the way. What if the skills required to demonstrate job competency could be obtained in other ways, and in less time, than it takes to complete a four-year degree program?

For three years, my Mathematica colleagues and I have worked closely with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to explore a growing phenomenon in job training known as “micro-credentials.” More specialized than traditional academic degrees, micro-credentials can help job seekers build in-demand skills and give employers more flexibility as they seek to match applicants directly to job requirements.

We can use the Wisconsin-based manufacturing company to illustrate the concept. Say the position our hypothetical candidate is interested in has four key requirements: (1) skills in knowledge management; (2) familiarity with the principles behind manufacturing processes; (3) general abilities in numeracy; and (4) data processing skills. Instead of requiring a four-year bachelor’s degree, the manufacturing company could work closely with a local credential provider to develop competency certifications in each of these areas. Potential job candidates, like our Milwaukee job seeker, could choose to participate in an online credentialing program, and use the resulting micro-credentials to demonstrate mastery in the four required areas.

Why take this approach?

A micro-credential takes a relatively short time to obtain and focuses on just a few observable job competencies—or only one—to help job seekers quickly build skills in a wide range of areas. Micro-credentials help employers recruit job candidates more selectively, and allow those pursuing the micro-credentials to focus on in-demand skills. When offered to develop abilities needed at the entry level, micro-credentials can open employment opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach. Job seekers and workers can also “stack” complementary micro-credentials to build their skills, affording them the flexibility to respond to a changing labor market. If our Milwaukee job seeker, for example, considers a move within the manufacturing industry, she can layer new micro-credentials atop her existing ones. 

Anyone thinking, “Sounds great! Where do I sign up?” should know that we aren’t quite there yet. We don’t have all the answers about what works, but we’re learning. Understanding the full potential of these credentials will require more study. The growing popularity of the micro-credentials that are available, the recent proliferation of providers, and a lack of standardization in structure and quality can make it difficult for employers and job seekers to evaluate their options. Consequently, relatively few employers have adopted them as part of their regular hiring practices.

Our DOL study has moved the needle forward, however, by identifying six micro-credentialing practices used by employers and providers that show evidence of success when used in employment and training programs. These promising practices include: (1) providing “industry-recognized” credentials that can be used in in-demand jobs; (2) using innovative and flexible training methods for students; (3) ensuring micro-credentials are closely aligned with required job competencies; (4) engaging employers early; (5) offering job seekers access to current labor-market information; and (6) integrating a comprehensive set of academic, non-academic, and career support services into programs.

To talk more about these practices, we gathered industry leaders, employers, job seekers, researchers, and academic institutions for a panel discussion at Mathematica’s Washington, DC, office on June 29th. Representatives from IBM, the Colorado Community College System, DOL, WorkCred, and the Lumina Foundation for Education examined the state of micro-credentials in a variety of industries.

A recording of this event is available here.

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