Credential pollution: Workers need better information to navigate a hazy labor market  

Op-Ed by Scott Cheney, Credential Engine, and Brian Sponsler, Education Commission of the States

Scott Cheney, Credential Engine, Executive Director (Photo: Credential Engine)

Although recent U.S Department of Labor data suggests that many of the more than 40 million American workers filing for unemployment may be only temporarily displaced, or furloughed, economists predict that 40 percent of the job losses will be permanent.

MIT Economist David Autor has described the pandemic as an “automation forcing event.” That means that tens of millions of Americans will have to scramble to build new skills for new jobs, in a vastly different job market than what they experienced in the past.

It’s unfair to expect them to make smart choices without the information they need to sort through an increasingly confusing, and sometimes predatory, market of education and training experiences. Research suggests that displaced workers must navigate as many as 730,000 different degrees, certificates, licenses, and other credentials.

Brian Sponsler, Education Commission of the States, VP of Policy (Photo: ECS)

Government leaders have an opportunity to act now on behalf of all learners.

The problem stems from the fact that there is simply not enough information available for consumers to make informed comparisons when it comes to costs, available options, labor market outcomes, and later opportunities to build on their education and training.

This information gap undermines American workers struggling to plot new work lives. It also enables providers to exploit workers by hindering informed decision-making, which then disproportionately impacts low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minorities who have the smallest margin of error to absorb a bad choice.

Displaced workers and policymakers, alike, need not just more information, but more specificity, if they are to target and maximize return on training investments.

Fortunately, even before the pandemic, the need to introduce transparency into the training maze enjoyed broad support from both political parties. Obama Administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in fact, joined former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida in signaling the urgency of providing clarity around the return on degrees and other credentials—the first stage in building the data infrastructure we need to create the sort of tools education consumers are accustomed to, and use daily to sort and filter everything from groceries to airline flights.

To date, just two percent of credentials available nationally are actually documented in ways that can enable their tracking and comparison. What’s worse, the complexity of credentialing is compounding. As Americans have absorbed major financial losses in recent months, the pressure to rapidly reskill and find new work has increased.

Providers are spinning up boot camps in fields from health care to contact tracing in order to capitalize on the needs—and fears—of displaced workers. Policymakers have introduced dozens of training bills and tax credits. That means that new programs—and ways to pay for them—are sure to replace and augment what already exists. But without government action, an increase in bachelor’s or advanced degree programs, or short-term certificate, certification, and badging programs will only make a bad situation worse.

American workers, employers, and educators know that how we prepare people for careers and life will evolve. As part of this change, all of us should have in the palms of our hands access to apps that provide detailed, up-to-date information about specific credentialing programs and the work possibilities they can lead to.

In this way, we can make much better decisions about how to spend our time and money.

The good news is that the U.S. Department of Labor and 17 states and counting are already taking steps to ensure apprenticeship, certification, and licensing organizations are generating clearer, more comparable information about programs they offer.

But here’s what should happen next.

States need to consider requiring education and training providers to publish information about every credential—badges, degrees, certificates, certifications, and licenses at all levels and of all types—describing the specific learning each credential signifies in the form of knowledge, skills, and abilities, and how each credential can be put to practical use in the labor market.

This should be a minimum expectation in return for taxpayer funds they receive for operating support, financial aid, and capital expenditures.

This information—published using an HTML-like, open description language called the Credential Transparency Description Language—would ensure parents and students can understand the meaning of a given credential.

But we shouldn’t stop with states.

The Education Department, the Labor Department, and other federal agencies should require the same reporting of any program that students or parents can pay for using federal student aid. This aid ranges from direct loans to Pell Grants to work-study. These programs cover two-thirds of all credentials, ranging from college degrees to apprenticeships in skilled trades.

But government leaders don’t have to shoulder the burden alone.

Unleashing this information can pave the way for a new language for talking about the knowledge, skills, and abilities that credentials represent. It will open the door to web developers, who can go to work, delivering real-time comparisons that point Americans toward economic opportunity and social mobility.

Individuals, empowered to make better-informed decisions about the ways in which their educational experiences translate into economic opportunity, can power not just the return but the transformation of our economy. We cannot afford to lose any time in our efforts to help Americans figure out their way forward.

Scott Cheney is executive director of Credential Engine, and former policy director for the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Brian Sponsler is the Vice President for Policy at the Education Commission of the States.

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