Badges and Certifications – the new Degree?

1309-kim_articleAs an increasing number of individuals realize the need for continued education, yet also face the realities of taking care of families in a tough economic climate, some Americans are asking if traditional college or graduate degrees are the solution.  Perhaps these degrees do more to show how much money an individual has or how much time an individual spent in class, not actually what skills that individual has to offer to an employer.

In response, various industries, non-traditional educational institutions, and employers are creating unique programs by which students can gain credits, badges, or certifications to verify the skills that they have.

Anne Kim, writing in the Washington Monthly, reports:

Web browser maker Mozilla launched in 2011 to promote what they call “digital badges” to anyone who can demonstrate that they’ve mastered a specific skill. Much like Boy Scout merit badges, participants can earn their way up the badge ladder. Aspiring Web designers, for example, can earn a badge as a “Code Whisperer,” an “Editor,” a “Div Master,” or a “Super Styler,” depending on their ability to demonstrate their coding skills and to build their own Web projects. At the top are the “HTML Basic” and “I am a Webmaker” badges, stepping stones for becoming the Eagle Scout of the Mozilla digital badge world: a “Mozilla Webmaker Master.”

As another example, the manufacturing industry began developing its own system of industry-approved credentials for prospective employees. In 2011, the Manufacturing Institute unveiled a pyramid of “stackable credentials” that workers can collect in the same way that budding Webmasters can earn a progression of badges from Mozilla. At the bottom of the pyramid is a basic credential—the National Career Readiness Certificate developed by the ACT testing service—attesting to the core workplace skills, such as critical thinking and teamwork, that every worker is expected to have. At the top are a variety of “skills certifications,” also organized by increasing levels of knowledge, that workers can earn in specific jobs such as machining, welding, construction, and automation. “Machining Level I,” for example, qualifies a worker for entry-level jobs, while “Machining Level III” would put someone in the running for the highest-paid and most advanced work—with a potential salary of up to $80,000. In the past two years, more than 84,000 manufacturing workers have earned certifications under the new system, and the industry’s goal is to issue at least 500,000 by 2016.

In addition, Walmart announced a new work-for-credits partnership with the online American Public University (APU) in 2010 that provides its employees with college credit for work experience. Roughly 100 different positions qualify for the program, including cashiers, store managers, photo technicians, and inventory supervisors. To get the credit, full-time workers have to be on the job for at least one year, get good performance reviews, and take part in in-house trainings. Karan Powell, APU’s provost, says approximately 5,000 Walmart employees nationwide are now enrolled in the program.

Probably the best example of the sort of individual who can benefit from these new programs is former truck driver and Army vet, Joe Weischedel.  As a professional truck driver, Weischedel spent two decades hauling everything from produce to chemicals up and down the East Coast and across the country. On his longest hauls, he’s spent as much as four weeks away from home. After stints in community college as well as Temple University in Philadelphia, Weischedel joined the Army for four years and served as a combat medic. Around 2000, he tried college again with a few online classes at the University of Maryland and the University of Phoenix but ended up dropping out.

In 2010, he resumed the college education he had abandoned years earlier and enrolled online at APU. After receiving college credit for the skills he picked up in the military, it took him two years to earn his degree, taking two classes at a time and studying (while sometimes attending classes online) in hotel rooms on the road. This summer, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in transportation and logistics management. He also earned a professional certification from the American Society of Transportation and Logistics.

Today, Weischedel is looking at senior logistics management jobs that could quadruple his current salary driving trucks. “I had the practical experience, but I didn’t have the paper,” he said. “There was a ceiling before, but now I’ve broken through.”

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