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The real question is, can you do the job?

November 1st, 2014

We are all familiar with the “everyone must go to college” message. Not as widely promoted is the message of industry-based certification. Business and industry-based certification can supplement, and serve as an alternative approach to measuring work-readiness. Many businesses increasingly use the college degree as a sorting strategy for applicants, often with mixed results. A parallel trend is emerging that contrasts the fuzzy measurement represented by the “seat time” of a college degree, with skill specific measurements based on validated business and industry skill needs. The US Department of Labor has cataloged almost 5,000 such certifications on their CareerOneStop.com website’s Certification Finder.


Back in 2010, Georgetown University made predictions about workforce needs in 2018. Those predictions were, and continue to be, widely quoted and used to drive public policy. A primary, and most frequently cited, conclusion from those predictions was that 60% or more of new future jobs would require post-secondary training by 2018–not necessarily a four-year degree. Idaho adopted this prediction as a goal. That goal due date is now only four years away. Workforce predictions continue to make reference to middle-skill jobs. These are jobs said to require some college or post-secondary training or certification.


Business and industry certifications are typically based on direct assessment of knowledge and skill. Not necessarily seat-time, as are most post-secondary degrees. This difference between seat-time and assessed competence is important. The difference is important because performance on-the-job quickly becomes more critical than the degree that impressed the interviewer. Another trend is the rise of competency-based college and university education. The growth of competency-based education parallels the increase in business and industry-based skills credentials. This competency trend includes direct assessment of prior learning. The concept is simple, demonstrate what is known and what can be done, and then be credentialed for those skills. As a sorting and hiring tool for prospective employees, skill-based competency credentials hold great promise. The promise will be fulfilled if the assessments can verify a person’s ability to do the job, and not simply measure the ability to remember information.


Almost twenty years ago, Microsoft dominated the certification scene with its MCSE exams (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.) These computer certifications were intended to be a sure pathway to better pay and better jobs. What business discovered was that a flood of “paper MCSE’s” were developed. Weekend boot camps flourished promising that you would quickly pass the MCSE exam. When these MCSE’s were hired, they couldn’t do the job. Multiple-choice questions cannot measure job performance in the real world. The MCSE faded in popularity as a result. On-the-job learning reemerged as a needed component for effective performance in the workplace.


The trend to incorporate business and industry certifications in career and technical programs is almost universal. In North Idaho, Kootenai Technical Education Campus (KTEC) is offering eight industry-based certifications, one for each program offered. Idaho is home to 12 professional-technical high schools like KTEC offering 129 total programs. Each of these programs reflects the communities they serve.


Over the past couple of years, there have been many articles about massive open online courses (MOOCS.) Usually free, and available to anyone, these MOOCS are said by some to represent the future of higher education. MOOCS may be the ultimate expression of the delivery model of learning. The delivery model of education seeks to present information to the learner. Being presented with information is not the same as learning. The true revolution in education may instead be competency-based education. Proving what you know, and what you can do, might supersede being exposed to instruction.

by Robert G. Ketchum

Previously published in the North Idaho Business Journal

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