Stackable Credentials Help Students and Employers Navigate Job Market

Navigating the array of credentials in the U.S. can be tricky. Employers sometimes find themselves trying to compare degrees, certificates, industry certifications and other credentials among job candidates without an apples-to-apples guideline.

“We’re looking for a way to make that more understandable, a way to interconnect them,” said Larry Good, chairman, co-founder and senior policy fellow of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, a nonprofit organization that partners with governments, businesses and community leaders to help connect workers to education and good jobs.  

Good was one of three presenters in a recent CSG eCademy webcast, “Using Stackable Credentials to Increase Job Earnings.” He said credentials should be transferable, transparent, useful and easily understood by students, workers and employers.

“You’ve got degrees, you’ve got certificates, you’ve got industry certifications, you’ve got badges, licenses; … that’s bewildering and confusing,” Good said. “Some of them lead to dead ends. Some of them really do have market value, some don’t. Some transfer well, some don’t.”

A new credentialing system would help students and workers make informed decisions about their educational investments, help employers with recruitment and help communities build competitive, skilled workforces, Good said.

The U.S. Department of Labor has defined a stackable credential as part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time. Stackable credentials help individuals advance along a career path or find different, possibly higher-paying, jobs.

The webcast, which was presented by the CSG National Task Force on Workforce Development and Education, highlighted two postsecondary institutions that use stackable credentials. Both Portland Community College and the Wisconsin Technical College System provide students with visual road maps of stackable credentials in all Career Pathways programs.

Students enrolled in a Career Pathways program at Portland Community College can earn, or stack, credentials and credits that build toward jobs and an associate of applied science, said Marc Goldberg, associate vice president of Workforce Development and Community Education at the college.

The road maps at the Wisconsin Technical College System show the ins and outs of Career Pathways programs, as well as the jobs and potential wage ranges that correspond with each level of credential, according to Ann Westrich, education director of Career Pathways/Transitions and Career Prep for the system. Students in Career Pathways programs can earn various technical diplomas as they accumulate credits and possibly earn an associate degree.

“Students can kind of come and go as they need to, which is really helpful,” Westrich said. “And if after the technical diploma they want to work for a while, obtain some connections in the workforce, maybe even find an employer who will help with their tuition to go back and get the next level,” the map makes it easy for them to proceed.

All schools in the Wisconsin Technical College System have a staff pathways representative whose duties include overseeing stackable credentials and communicating with area businesses. 
“This particular Career Pathways coordinator will be able to reach out and discover more about what are the potential industry-based credentials, say in health, and how can we align them with our statewide curriculum,” Westrich said.

Oregon also has a Career Pathways representative at each of its community colleges and there is a state director of the program, Goldberg said. The Oregon Career Pathways initiative was established in 2004 to create pathways for middle-skill jobs, which require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. An Oregon Pathways Alliance meets quarterly to share best practices as well as state and federal updates.

Portland Community College’s Career Pathways initiative started in 1999 with a vocational English as a Second Language program that taught English language skills alongside occupational skills to prepare the students for jobs.

Goldberg said Oregon’s Career Pathways program has become an effective tool for college recruitment, retention and completion. He said 92 percent of the college’s students in the program earn at least one credential, 72 percent of students continue beyond their initial certification and 77 percent find employment. He said a study conducted during the Great Recession found that the average wage among students who completed a pathways program was $19.40 after one year of employment.

Goldberg said 50 percent of the students in Portland Community College’s Career Pathways program—which serves about 600 students each year—are students of color, 52 percent are low-income students and 72 percent are age 30 or older.

“So we really see this as an equity strategy, which aligns with our college’s strategic plan in equity access and diversity,” he said.

Portland Community College works extensively with businesses in the area. It annually holds a Career Pathways job fair with employers who recognize the value of stackable credentials, Goldberg said. Employers also have helped develop Career Pathways programs at the college.

Connecting Credentials—a website launched in June by the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and the Center for Law and Social Policy, with support from the Lumina Foundation—was created to organize stakeholders in a national dialogue about creating a learning-based credentialing system in the U.S. Visit to participate.

Good said stakeholders can comment directly on the site and sign up for online conversations about credentialing issues.

“The core of this is the idea that learning matters,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you obtain it on the job, whether you obtain it informally, whether you obtain it in a classroom. Learning should matter.”