The Microcredentialing Minefield: Why Online Certificates Don't Really Get You Hired

Part 7 of The Case for Inventing a New Form of Work Experience: the Externship
Matt Wilkerson | Co-Founder & CEO of Extern
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In my last article, I delved into the return on investment from a modern college degree. Here, I talk about why microcredentials and online certificates aren't the Promised Land many job-seekers are led to believe.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of education, alternative credentials like online certificates have been heralded as the future. Yet despite growing adoption and learner enthusiasm, the stark reality remains: these microcredentials alone rarely sway hiring decisions. This article delves into the mismatch between the perceived value of alternative credentials and their actual impact on employment opportunities, highlighting the ongoing challenges in standardization and employer recognition.

Why a Coursera or LinkedIn Learning Certificate Won't Get You Hired

You’ve been hearing for the past decade about the rise of microcredentials and online certificate programs.  Aren’t they supposed to be the future of skill development, stepping in where higher education is failing?  

As far back as 2015, the Wall Street Journal investigated the use of alternative credentials, questioning whether they were effective in helping job seekers land jobs.  While some companies were experimenting with them back then, most employers did not recognize the credentials and did not have a standardized way of assessing them.  Fast forward to today, and there still isn’t a standardized way of evaluating badges and certificates from skill-based courses and simulations.  Alternative credentials just confuse employers, colleges, and learners.  

Exploring Alternative Credentials

Most of the hype around the adoption of alternative credentials has been from the provider side, although this is used to justify the rise in the trend.  Absent still is actual evidence that these microcredentials drive any sort of hiring decisions.  For instance, recent reports from organizations like SHRM (which makes its money from selling alternative credentials) tout that:

  1. “Nearly half (45%) of workers say they have some form of alternative credential and for those who don’t have one, 49% are considering earning one.”
  2. “Nearly three-quarters of U.S. workers (72 percent) agree they are an affordable way to gain the skills or experience necessary to enter a new job, and 77 percent agree that having a job-relevant alternative credential increases or would increase their chances of being hired for a job.”
  3. “People who hold alternative credentials bring value to the workplace, according to executives (87%), supervisors (81%) and especially HR professionals (90%).”

The first two statistics only show that there is demand from learners and a perception that these credentials will lead to a job.  We’ve all seen people who load up on the Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton certifications.  I’m not saying that there isn’t value in these programs for the learner.  But employers are not hiring people because of these certifications or even making them a requirement.  The third statistic above purports to show that employers do value these alternative credentials, but the question is the wrong one. 

I’m sure that people who hold alternative credentials can bring some form of value.  If nothing else, they’ve demonstrated that they are willing to take the time to learn, grow, and develop.  That’s definitely a signal.  

But are hiring managers and recruiters actually making hiring decisions based on an alternative credential that someone holds?  The answer is no.  

Microcredentials: A Disappointing Illusion

The SHRM report tacitly acknowledges this and says that a significant obstacle to the broader acceptance of alternative credentials by employers is merely technical in nature.  Automated Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), according to the report, often fail to recognize these credentials. They say this is primarily because there is no standardized method for recording alternative credentials, unlike the established systems for documenting traditional education and work experience.  

But the reason nobody has put in the work to create a standardized system for alternative credentials, badges, and certificates is because there is no demand for one.  In summary, nobody ever got hired by doing a Coursera certificate or pursuing a microcredential.  

In my next article, I explain why when it comes to getting hired, only professional experience really matters. I’ll explore how there is simply no substitute to real work experience when it comes to demonstrating employability to recruiters.

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