The New Credentials Marketplace

Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented the shocking increase in “deaths of despair” – the rising mortality rates for middle-aged White Americans with a high school education or less. While conversations continue about how best to prepare people for the future of work, the Case and Deaton data reminds us of the human impact of the loss of good jobs for those without the skills demanded by today’s knowledge economy.

In addition to assuring people have opportunities to develop the skills that lead to good jobs, it is essential that workers and employers be able to find each other to match their skills and  needs. This means that credentials are taking on an even more important role in the economy. But the credentials marketplace is bewilderingly complex and extremely difficult to navigate. For one thing, there are lots of them – more than 334,000 at last count. There are numerous kinds – from licenses and certifications to certificates and degrees. They are awarded at multiple levels – after a weekend training course or after years of post-graduate study. They are issued by thousands of institutions and organizations – from colleges and universities to corporate or industry-based training programs. There is now explosive growth in new kinds of credentials like digital badges and micro-degrees.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this proliferation of credentials as long as both workers and employers understand what they represent in terms of learning, skills, and employment opportunities. Sadly, this is not the case now. For example, people accept that a college graduate has learned something of value, but they usually don’t know exactly what that something is. From experience, employers may know that people who hold a particular degree from a particular institution can perform well in a particular job, but when presented with a degree they are not familiar with, they often don’t know what to make of it. In today’s knowledge economy, greater transparency about credentials – what they mean and how to get them – is essential.

An even bigger problem is that people who hold a credential often don’t know what it means, either – at least, not clearly enough to communicate it to potential employers. Aside from making harder than it needs to be to find a job they’re qualified for – and for employers to find them – it makes it hard for them to know what else they can do if they want or need to change careers.

At first glance, it seems impossible to make credentials transparent. But we now take transparency for granted in numerous other fields where the challenges are similar. We can book hotels and flights online anywhere in the world after comparing prices and features using common definitions. We can access our sensitive financial information in much the same way in spite of the numerous, highly competitive companies that control it. We can research and compare almost any product or service by perusing aggregated online reviews and comments after sorting them based on the criteria important to us. All this was made possible because the massive amount of information behind these systems uses a common language – a description language – that allows for the construction of online tools to freely access all of it. It’s an incredible transformation of how we use information – all the more so because it’s all so simple and seamless that we’re scarcely aware of it.

Credential Engine has developed just such a language for credentials – the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL). With the language, they created a Credential Registry to, for the first time, house up-to-date information about all credentials, including what they represent in terms of skills, who awards them, and how they are used. This will become a platform upon which multiple new applications can be built to allow anyone to search and retrieve the information they need about credentials. There will be apps for people looking for a credential that will lead to a good job, apps for employers wanting to know what credential represents the learning and skills they are looking for, and apps for people design learning programs to develop the skills people need. Many other such efforts are underway to build the infrastructure for transparent credentials.

Making credentials transparent will not be done by government at any level. After all, Orbitz was developed by a consortium of airlines themselves – each one in extreme competition with the others. But since government is a major user and issuer of credentials, public policy can play a constructive role in encouraging these efforts and participating in them. It won’t be easy to make credential transparent, but the benefits to both individuals and the economy of doing so will be worth the effort.