Are short-term credentials really the best thing since sliced bread?

The accelerating pace of workplace change raises the specter that formal degrees no longer meet workplace demands and might not be providing the skills and competencies that employers require and workers need. This sense of urgency has shined the spotlight on short-term credentials.

Short-term credentials—such as certifications, certificates, and badges—appear attractive because they purport to capture the training necessary for specific job tasks in a relatively brief time. Some short-term credential programs last only weeks or months, so they sound like a magic bullet for solving the gap between workers’ skills and employers’ needs. Don’t be surprised if you soon see a certificate in critical thinking.

But are short-term credentials sufficient to meet the needs of employers and the workforce? Let’s take industry-recognized certifications as an example: 46 million workers hold industry-recognized certifications, and on average they earn more than workers without certifications. However, few of these workers have only a certification. Instead, the overwhelming majority of workers with certifications also have traditional postsecondary degrees.  

So what is at play here? Are certifications turbo-charging degrees? Or are degrees falling out of favor, making certifications necessary to breathe new life into staid traditional postsecondary education? The rise and value of industry-recognized certifications reflect a new chapter in an old story of the relationship between general and specific education in the United States.

The development of human capital is multi-dimensional, with general and specific education interacting in the workplace. General education teaches a student to recognize underlying rule structures and apply them to new situations. This builds a foundation that enables a worker to be flexible and to make the best use of specific education in the quickly-changing economy. Specific education is also necessary so new workers are ready to perform their job duties on the first day. For example, in a software development job, algorithmic thinking and complex problem-solving are general foundational abilities, while programing in Ruby on Rails or C++ are specific skill sets. A worker with only a general education could be great at algorithmic thinking but unable to interpret C++ code.

However, short-term credentials tend to strip out general education in favor of specific education. At the extreme, specific education is not transferable to a new job. A worker who can read C++ code, but who doesn’t have skills in algorithmic thinking and complex problem-solving, will be limited to a very narrow set of tasks. Specific education may open the door to a first job, but general education keeps the door open to growth in that job and future jobs.

The spread of industry-recognized certifications reflects a new chapter in the relationship between general and specific education in the United States. Although the US labor market values general education, employers appreciate the verification of core skills conferred to individuals by industry-based credentials. Because many short-term credentials validate a limited set of skills and abilities, most workers hold multiple certifications.

So, we have a quandary. On one hand, short-term credentials provide a speedy response to skill shortages. On the other hand, overreliance on short-term credentials can slow long-term economic growth by locking an economy into outdated processes. The current hype around short-term credentials—specifically the focus on vocational education—overlooks the fact that the United States already has a unique balance of general and specific education.

The success of the American model hasn’t resulted from creating a short-term credential for every competency and task. Instead, the American model has succeeded with a combination of general and specific education that empowers the workforce to use current technologies and processes while adapting to rapid change.

Workers need both specific skills to get the job done and general education to keep up with the swift developments in technology and the global economy. So, while short-term credentials provide a fast and efficient way to gain new skills, they’re most effective when paired with a strong foundation of general education acquired through conventional degree programs.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands. Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter, (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedInYouTube, and Facebook.