By Janet Lane and Stephen Murgatroyd
Published in Research Money

Governments and education providers have championed micro credentials as a learning solution for people who need to upskill or reskill to transition between jobs.

Amid the enthusiasm to implement micro credentials, there’s little clarity and agreement on what they actually are and, crucially, how they can work consistently and effectively for both people and jobs.

In their most useful form, micro credentials certify that the holder has the knowledge, skills and attributes — the competencies — that are required to successfully and reliably complete different job-related tasks.

They are considered to be a smart and effective solution to help close the skills gap to get people who were laid off or unemployed due to the pandemic or other economic transitions back to work. They also reflect a trend towards on-demand, short-form learning focused on skills, competencies and specific capabilities — a shift beyond long-form learning, such as degrees and diplomas.

Collaboration, careful design and effective delivery needed

To make micro credentials a truly effective solution both for people who need to increase their competencies and the employers who need to hire them, we suggest they be designed with these components in mind:

  • Early employer engagement: The needs of employers must be foremost in the determination of which skills and competencies are required to complete job-related tasks, and how the competencies are assessed. Employers must agree that a specific micro credential and its assessment provide a sufficient basis for employability.
  • Micro credentials for in-demand skills and competencies: Key to the development of micro credentials that match jobs with people and people with jobs is the development of focused labour market intelligence about both the current skill gaps and the skills needed to improve competitiveness.
  • Strong connections between competency frameworks and related micro credentials: Some employers and professional associations are active in the development of competency frameworks. These frameworks could be and, where available, should be the basis for competency-based learning and associated micro credentials.
  • Partnerships between employers and PSEs in the design of micro credentials for work-based training: Companies such as Shopify or Amazon Web Services offer training and skills development for both their clients and their staff. Canadian PSE quality assurance agencies should accelerate the capacity of our institutions to engage in this work, using micro credentials in work-based training to ensure quality, and portability through transparent and valid assessment.
  • Micro credentials that are ‘ladder-able’ into undergraduate and graduate programs: Some micro credentials could be stackable into undergraduate or graduate programs. If they are designed to be so, then the process should be transparent, the provincial credit transfer agencies should quickly evaluate and recognize them, and they need to meet the requirements for credit courses at the appropriate level of learning.
  • Portability: If micro credentials: a) are based on recognized competency frameworks; b) have had the involvement of major employers; and, c) make use of legally defensible competency assessment, then portability of micro credentials should be easily navigated. While credentials are a provincial matter, recent nationwide attention on future skills and competencies offers an opportunity to improve portability of micro credentials.
  • Delivery mode identification: Delivery models for micro credentials vary; many, but not all, are online. Therefore, any portal created to access to these credentials should make explicit the delivery mode, estimated time to complete and costs.
  • Increased PSE collaboration: New collaborative micro credentials, with modular learning delivered by different institutions across the country, could truly leverage the different skills and capabilities that exist within institutions.
  • Micro credentialed learning on demand: To increase the demand for and utility of micro credentials they should be, like many MOOCs (massive open online courses), available on demand rather than on a few fixed start dates; short (days or weeks, not months); and easily affordable.
  • Competency-based assessments: To be truly useful to employers, micro credentials must certify that the holder is competent to complete certain tasks or functions. Therefore, assessment must include direct observation or examination of submitted evidence of competence.
  • Assessment-only micro credentials: A variety of skills-recognition systems allow colleges and universities to assess incoming students first, and then require that they learn only what is needed to fill any gaps between existing competencies and those required for the micro credential. This can reduce time to certification. It also provides institutions an opportunity to build a new business model based on assessment only.

Government incentives can help ensure quality micro credentials

To prevent micro credentials from becoming just another education fad, micro credentials must meet employers’ need to know that a person has the skills and capabilities the specific micro credential says they have.

The incorporation of the components listed here into the development of micro credentials will help ensure they endure as an education and training solution and help Canada to become a leader in the delivery of what micro credentials are fundamentally about: credentialed short-form learning.

The incorporation of these components will also assure governments across Canada that their investments in micro credentials result in better outcomes. Federal funds allocated to the Future Skills Centre, the Sector Initiatives Program and the federal-provincial Labour Market Development Agreements could include provision for incentives to education and training providers to offer quality micro credentials that directly meet the needs of employers.

To encourage individuals to invest in their own upskilling, provincial and federal governments should consider making their student loans available for short-form micro credentialed learning. The Canada Training Credit, a tax credit of up to $250 per year for tuition, should be extended to include any tuition or assessment costs for micro credentials. To be really effective, the amount of the credit should be increased. Singapore, for example, provides a training credit of $500 annually to every citizen over the age of 25.

Corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s and Amazon are leading the way in making training opportunities available to all employees. Traditionally, companies have offered the most training to people working in jobs beyond entry level. An investment in micro credentials for all employees could be the way to encourage people to begin their lifelong learning journeys. It’s never too late, especially in today’s economy.

Janet Lane is the Director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation.
Stephen Murgatroyd is the Chief Innovation Officer at Contact North.

You can read their full policy brief, “Micro Credentials: ‘Small’ qualifications, big deal,” here.