It’s estimated there are one million unique credentials in the United States when you count all of the degrees, certificates, licenses, badges, and apprenticeships offered. But how are employers, educators and learners supposed to determine their validity and whether they might actually help someone advance economically? “It’s our job to make sure information about credentials is accessible in a web-based format and comparable so employers and others can make their own determinations about what’s valid for their purposes,” says Scott Cheney, CEO of the nonprofit Credential Engine. One upside of having a robust, transparent basis for comparison of credentials might be the erosion of entrenched biases toward the value of degrees over other qualifications. “It might be that a really good apprenticeship or an industry license is what you need in order to advance your own preferences and goals.” As he explains to Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan, Cheney thinks more and better data on credentials will also enable customized career pathways and make it easier to see the fundamental value a person brings despite restrictions they may face in access to education. This episode of WorkforceRx is a great opportunity to learn more about this increasingly important area of education and employment and how it might empower learners and job seekers from all backgrounds.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
A recent report revealed that there are nearly 1,000,000 unique credentials in the United States when you count all of the degrees, certificates, licenses, badges, and apprenticeships offered by schools, employers, online providers, and others, but how valid are these credentials? And do they actually help someone advance economically? Employers, educators, and learners all want to know.
Well, here with us today to address these questions is Scott Cheney, CEO of Credential Engine, whose organization generated the report in question. Credential Engine offers web-based services to make it easy to search, compare, and validate credentials. Scott brings many years of experience on Capitol Hill and at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to this role. I’m looking forward to getting his insights on this increasingly important area of education and employment. Thanks for joining us today, Scott.
Scott Cheney: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: It’s good to reconnect. Well, let’s start by helping our audience understand more about Credential Engine, how it got started, and whose needs were you trying to meet when you got started?
Scott Cheney: Sure. The start of the organization really dates back now about 8 years, and it was started by a couple of foundations that were really trying to focus on, to your question, how do we know which credentials out there are actually any good? How do we know if a degree is better than a certification or a license? How do we know that there’s a certificate that isn’t the best thing that could actually help someone get a really great job? Part of the problem was that we didn’t have any way to be able to compare.
Let’s say, in a particular sector you have an apprenticeship, you may have a two-year degree, you might have a short-term certificate, you might have a four-year degree, there might be a license or something else — how do you know which of those are actually good? How do you know which ones connect to each other? The problem is that a lot of the systems that provide these credentials keep their own data, and they don’t share their data in easily comparable ways.
The easy analogy here is, imagine when you were traveling before the days of Travelocity or Expedia and you wanted to compare a really interesting sounding resort in Hawaii with a motel or boutique lodge, and you didn’t know any of them and you were going just on the Yellow Pages. Well, now, if you have Travelocity and Expedia, the richness of the information that you can get about all of those gives you much more ability to make an informed decision.
We’re trying to do the same thing in the education and credentialing space: give people the chance to compare and understand all types of credentials, regardless of who offers them, what level they are, or how much they cost.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: That’s a good overview. To help our listeners, I wonder if you could start with the basics because most listeners understand the concept of degrees — your associate’s degrees, bachelor’s, master’s and so on — but you have used the “credential” word as a big umbrella for many other types of education paths. I was wondering if you could just spend a little bit of time explaining, what are the dimensions when you’re referencing a credential? Is there a difference? Can a credential have college credit, or can it not have college credit? Maybe you could just give us a primer on that.
Scott Cheney: Sure. Let’s actually use the definition that we’ve used for the word, “credential”. Really, it is anything that someone can earn that explains what they’ve learned and how that learning is able to advance them, either in further education or employment. It can be everything from a high school diploma to a digital badge, to a certificate, to a certification that’s given by an industry association, a professional license, or a degree. In that sense, a degree is really just a type of credential. It’s one we know and we can refer to easily.
But honestly, how much do people really understand about what’s in an English degree or a two-year associate’s program in Psychology? We don’t really know a lot of detail just from knowing it’s a “two-year degree in Psychology” or a “four-year degree in English”. We assume that it brings all sorts of value, but really, most people know as much about those as they do about a certification, license, or a badge.
So, we try and remove the idea that just because it’s a degree, it has greater value, and just because it’s a noncredit credential, it may have lesser value. We actually don’t think that’s right. We try and bring essential information about all of those so people can make their best decision about which of those credentials is the best thing that you need to get for your own career path. It might be that a really good apprenticeship or an industry license is what you need in order to advance your own preferences and your own goals. “Credential” is very broadly used here, and is used to try and level the playing field a little bit to give people a chance to make their own decisions about the actual value for their own aspirations.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Right. In general, when you talk about employment outcomes, a four-year degree would outearn a two-year degree, for example, and so on. But then if you dive more specifically, STEM majors outearn non-STEM majors and you could have associate’s or certificates in allied health occupations that outearn bachelor’s depending on what kind of bachelor degree you’re taking. Part of the conundrum is that when you’re looking at it from an employment lens, the value of each type of education pathway changes.
Scott Cheney: That’s right. I think it’s also important to remember we’ve built into our outcome measures years and years of cultural expectation and value expectations about, “Oh! if you got a four-year degree at so-and-so university, you must be exactly what I’m looking for.” We tend to automatically offer higher pay scales for people who have that without really knowing that, to your point, someone who has a two-year degree or certification may be exactly what that employer needs if you just got below it and looked at the skills and the competencies that come with each of those.
I think as we have an opportunity to understand more about what you exactly bring from any one credential and the value it brings to you and your employer in the marketplace and you price that accordingly, we will probably see some shifting of the historic patterns — probably not a wholesale reversal — but you’ll see some shifting in the historic patterns about the value associated and outcomes associated with different types of credentials.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: So, if we assume that students kind of walk with their feet, or their families walk with their checkbook, it makes me wonder why anybody would create a credential that has no industry value, for example?
Scott Cheney: I’m always fascinated by the phrase ‘industry-recognized’. I think it’s a heavily used but often misused and misunderstood phrase, even by industry. If we stop and think about it, industry recognizes all four-year degrees. You may value some of them differently, but we recognize as an employer that you’ve got this English degree — and you bring certain capabilities, maybe, to it — but I’m hiring for a particular technician position and I’m looking for someone who has the exact skill. So, I’m never quite sure what ‘industry-valued’ or ‘industry-recognized’ credential, written broadly, really means until you start naming “I need someone who has that CNA credential.”
Even then, we know that there are certain providers of health credentials that we think actually do a better job of teaching and the students that come out with the credential from that provider actually have better team skills, listening skills, and collaboration skills because that’s the way they were taught in that institution, even though they walked out with the exact same credential as another institution that maybe doesn’t emphasize some things better. Industry-valued, industry-recognized…it is always a bit of a struggle for me when we talk about it too broadly.
That doesn’t help answer your question. I think people create credentials because they think they’re going to get people to take them. There’s a lot of organizations that create credentials and market them with the hopes that their name — and their promise that it’ll have some sort of industry value and employment outcomes — will get people to go spend their money with me, instead of someone else.
We also know in talking to lots of community colleges — and you know this, having come out of the background that you have — there’s a lot of community colleges that offer programs because people just love them. We have a community college here in the Washington, DC area that offers a certificate in Historic Architecture. People take it because they want to be able to walk around DC and understand the history of certain buildings but they’re never going to get employed with it, and they know that, but they take it because it’s a personal interest. So, I think there’s value in having offerings that are both industry and non-industry recognized.
We also need to understand that even in that industry-recognized space, it’s really more about the specific credential from a specific provider, not the category as a whole.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, this leads me right into my next question which is about the credentialing jungle. How have you managed to create some order in this credentialing jungle, and how do you help your users understand what’s valid? You might want to even start by just explaining what “valid” means.
Scott Cheney: Right. First of all, let me explain that Credential Engine does not determine the validity of any particular credential. We’re here to bring transparency and bring a common ability to explore credentials to everybody — from a high school senior looking to determine their pathway, to a laid-off worker who’s looking to re-skill and get back into employment, to an employer who is looking to have some understanding of the actual competencies that somebody brings to them based on the credentials they have.
The comparison here, going back to that travel example, is we’re not the Expedia or the Travelocity tool that people will actually go look at. We’re the set of data that populates Travelocity and Expedia. They’re the ones that create that really interesting interface that lets you go find this airline, that resort, restaurant, and museum you want to visit. All the information about the airlines, restaurants and the resorts lives in a data format. That is what we do for education and training. It’s not our job to say, “That credential from Cal State University is better than that one from Sacramento Community College.” It’s our job to make sure that the information about both of those is accessible in a web-based format and comparable, and then Futuro Health, or the California Chamber of Commerce, or the State of California Department of Labor can look at that information and be able to make their own determinations about which of those credentials meet their standards to be valid for their purposes.
What we really think about is what does the state, what does the Chamber, or what does an employer need to know about that credential to be able to make a decision? Is it a good credential or not? Does it meet our needs or not? And then we think about how we can get that data into their hands in order to make that determination.
It kinda goes back to your question about the jungle, right? If we know that there are one million credentials in the United States, and we know that every one of those credentials probably has 20, 30, 50, 100 different data points about them in order to be able to make a good determination about its value, that’s a massive amount of data that we’re trying to wrangle into a new format to let people make better decisions.
That’s a hard challenge, but we’ve been doing it in partnership with states. We’ve been doing it in partnership with education and training systems. The federal government has been very supportive and very active in this space. There’s a lot of people who are working with us, and who we’re working with, in order to help make this transition of data from old formats, PDFs, and websites into this new format that helps people be able to compare across the entire space.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Having headed up the data and tech division of the community colleges here in California — in addition to doing the workforce side — I have great appreciation when anyone is working on data systems and bringing together data in a clean and quality way. It’s one of those things where somebody does the legwork for years and years and one day, it just becomes part of the fabric of how we all do what we do. Thank you very much, Scott, for doing this legwork.
Scott Cheney: Thanks.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Just a clarification question: you talked about transparency. Let’s say I’m an employer confused by the panoply of credentials out there that even have the same name, right? In the past, what I would do is I’d hire somebody who had gone to a particular college and loved how that turned out, so I’ll go back to the same college. That’s how that behavior pattern got established. If we can have this data and are able to be more inclusive and cast a wider net, where do you see things going in terms of tools that could be made available in the future for the chambers and the employers to cast a wider net?
Scott Cheney: It’s a great question, and it’s actually the reason that Wes Bush, who was the former CEO of Northrop Grumman, was such an active proponent of starting this organization and doing this work. Wes knew that you could get great engineers from MIT, Stanford, Purdue — name the top 15 engineering programs in the country — but he also knew that you were probably getting similar thinking about how things should be done, and you may be losing some of that diversity of thought by being able to tap into other programs that had great engineering offerings, but weren’t on Northrop Grumman’s radar.
What Wes always saw was the ability to have a universal search of all engineering programs in the United States, and probably the world, and look for those programs that had an exact match with the skill requirements that Northrop had, and then go visit the ‘University of West Wherever’ that they’ve never visited before, but they knew that they were turning out students who had the skills and competencies they needed. If they liked what they saw, they might start hiring different individuals with different backgrounds in order to help bring some difference of thinking to Northrop that may actually help them both with their cultural goals in the company, but also with how to breakthrough some particularly sticky engineering challenges.
It might take new tools, or it might simply be the tools that employers already have on their desks — whether that be Indeed, Workday, or any other job search and applicant tracking system — but the more this information is available, the more you will be able to look deeper into what an individual brings and to be able to understand that, “I may never have heard of that university, but I see the credentials that this person has and I see the competencies, and I’m intrigued. I want to go look at them a little bit better.”
I think it’s going to be a matter of better data and better search capabilities both coming into existing tools. But the beauty about our economy is that somebody is going to come up with a better tool that uses this data that disaggregates and disrupts the marketplace in really good ways, because it’s going to bring more equity and diversity into the hiring process.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: The timing of what you’re doing is good because we need to lay the groundwork as we move into an economy where there’s much more talent scarcity. Certainly, we’re feeling it now in the pinches of the pandemic and trying to get everybody back to work, but just the demographics over time are going to make the competition for the educated very acute.
Let me jump a little bit to the pairing with education by asking how do you afford this education? I think I met you initially in a meeting of policymakers on The Hill who were discussing if there should be short term Pell Grants for adults who are trying to continuously upskill. There were prior attempts in which offering financial aid for shorter-term training — such as non-degree — created not only chaos, but some abuses. I was wondering if you could just talk through what was seen then, and where do you think things are now in terms of that problem?
Scott Cheney: Well, there is no doubt that there were two very powerful forces taking place — probably more than two — but one of them was institutions that absolutely were defrauding students and the public by using public dollars to provide access to reportedly high-quality education and training that really was nothing of the kind. There were misuses and abuses in the system by a handful. It wasn’t everybody, but there were too many that were causing real concerns.
On the other side, though — and one of the pushbacks that came — was that access to what were then known to be really good programs is not always easy for people that are struggling to tap into education and training to upskill and re-skill to move ahead. So, there was a mismatch between people that needed access to high-quality programs that were not available, and that space was being filled by bad actors.
I think an awful lot of the challenge came down to the fact that we really had insufficient data systems to be able to reveal which of those providers were good and bad and which of the credentials and programs they were offering were good and bad, and to have really strict limits around quality. I don’t think quality is necessarily a direct factor of time, so I get a little uncomfortable with the idea that if you’re shorter than 6 weeks or shorter than 10 weeks, or non-credit, that there’s somehow a clear strike against your offering.
We know of an awful lot of students that go through a four-year program who can’t get gainfully employed, who then jump back into our community college to get a specific training that’s industry-related and get a great job. So, it’s not a matter of time or provider, necessarily. It’s a matter of, “Do you actually provide high-quality training and education with content and skills that are aligned to the labor market where you’re going to get great outcomes?” If you can do that in 6 weeks, if you can do that in 10 weeks, if you can do that in 2 years, I think it probably is worth looking at your eligibility for some type of federal funding if you’re helping people actually move along their economic pathway.
I think the work we’re doing is really perfectly aligned with this moment where we need better information to make determinations about quality that can then guide our policy about funding and eligibility.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, I’m cheering you on in your work, Scott. I think this will be important data infrastructure for the country.
Scott Cheney: Well, thank you.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: This seems to be real momentum in the shift from degree-based hiring to skills-based hiring. What’s your assessment of where we’re at, as a country, with regards to this practice?
Scott Cheney: I think there’s a lot of value, and I think there is a lot of reason to be pushing in that direction. I think the big movers you’ve seen are a lot of the more innovative education and training providers who are able to shift a little more quickly to be able to demonstrate the skills outcomes of their offerings. I think you’re seeing some of the larger employers that are able to make that shift also moving in that direction. You’ve seen that announcement from places like Walmart or IBM, and others who are really interested in that skills-based hiring question.
The challenge in this country has always been when you get into the small and medium-sized employers. That is the bread and butter of our economy. That’s the vast majority of employers who employ a majority of the workers in the country. We’re not going to be able to see real success in skills-based hiring — and not just hiring, but really, skills-based advancements and career development — until we are able to have the tools that sit on those owners’ desks that make this a turnkey, easy-to-do process for them.
Having Walmart be able to do this is one thing. Having every mom-and-pop store on Main Street in every American town be able to do this is going to be the proof that shows that we’re able to do this at scale. I’m encouraged. I think there are policy moves that are taking us in the right direction, but I’m not going to rejoice until I see that we’ve been able to solve that economic challenge of having every employer — and that’s where chambers will come in, business roundtables, and employer associations of other types — who will step up and help develop the software and the tools for those small and medium-sized companies. Until then, I think it’s a really good idea, but it’s not really going to change most people’s daily lives.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I think that’s very insightful about the small-medium companies and what it would take to change their behavior. The idea of skills-based hiring is that you could be more inclusive, and so, what do you think about whether the wider acceptance of non-degree credentials can address and advance goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Scott Cheney: I think there’s even greater promise there than just about the idea of skills-based hiring, in general. I think they go hand-in-hand, but the more we can recognize the fundamental value that a person brings, regardless of the other restrictions around them — access to education, may be one of them — then we’re going to do a much better job of being able to bring real diversity and equity in hiring and into our economy, as a whole.
We absolutely need to address the education deserts and other realities, for example the lack of high-speed internet to give people a chance to take online learning regardless of where they live…those are our critical priorities for the country, and they’ll help solve some of this, but more fundamentally we need to look behind that degree or that credential into what it actually contains.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Scott, are you seeing any great examples of where these alternative paths to acquiring skills have been helpful in moving the needle on economic mobility?
Scott Cheney: I’m not sure that I am in the most versed right now in the latest studies and economic analysis about some of those. We’ve just been so heads-down in trying to work with states to help them make more of this data public. We’re moving really aggressively in states like Indiana, New Jersey, Alabama, and Ohio, and as more of that data comes out, we’ll be able to map traditional as well as nontraditional pathways.
What I’m really excited about is the idea of being able to take Scott, and understand Scott just lost his job. Scott has X number of credentials with him, and we need to figure out a completely new customized pathway for Scott that has to reflect what Scott brings, what’s around him, what can he get to fill some of his skill gaps, and what are the jobs he’s looking for that he can get access to, and how do those all match up?
It’s going to give us the ability to mass customize pathways for people that are most appropriate to get them to where they need to go as quickly and efficiently as possible. I think about not just pathways and alternative pathways, but customized, personalized pathways that help you find your own best success. We’ll see more of that as we have more of our state partners getting more data in.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I love the word “adjacency” when speaking about the topic that you just covered. We all want to know what careers are we adjacent to if we were to lose our current one, right? What does it take to go from here to there? By the way, are you thinking about making this data public and including organizations outside the U.S., as well?
Scott Cheney: Yes. All of our data is public and it is, by its definition, open data. We believe that it is a public good, and it’s really a public necessity in order to have everybody be able to get access to this information anytime, anywhere, when they need it the most.
We were founded with the vision of being a global standard, as being a global influence. We have focused most of our attention up to now on the U.S., but we are actually in active conversations with 2 or 3 countries outside of the U.S. who are interested in the value of the technologies that we bring, the value of that open, transparent data system, and recognizing that no one country’s economy is isolated; we are all heavily interdependent with each other. Labor flows move very easily. COVID aside, people will still move to good jobs and good opportunities regardless, and we need to be able to connect and understand credentials and competencies and skills regardless of where you are in them.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, then, let me ask you to put your future hat on and look out into the 5 to 10-year future. Where do you see credentialing going over that time horizon? How does it fit into other trends in employment and education? What do you see, Scott?
Scott Cheney: I think we all continue to see a very dynamic credentialing ecosystem. By that, I mean the beauty about having one million credentials is that there could be too many, but they keep getting created because we have a really dynamic economy. We’ve got employers who are constantly innovating, thinking about different ways they should be producing a product or providing a service, more efficient ways with new technology that require different skills. Those different skills on the job mean that we need to be training people differently to be ready to do that job.
I think we’re going to continue to see a really robust credential marketplace. I think one of the things that we’ll be able to do is to have better insights into which of those credentials actually have great value, and there will be better decisions made both by college presidents and system chancellors, and budget officers in state legislatures deciding, “Why are we spending money on a credential that isn’t really yielding a lot of value?” There may be some that they choose to keep because people want that Historic Architecture certificate, but there’ll be others that they get rid of, and I hope we’ll see a more rationalized credential marketplace, not necessarily a smaller one, but one that is dynamic and has better feedback information.
I also think we’re going to see much more movement to making sure that learners, students, workers, and job seekers are able to capture and carry their own credential information — similar to what you’re trying to see in the health field of personalized health records — and that people can carry their health records with them regardless of what doctors they are seeing and what hospital system they’re in.
You’re going to see the same thing happening in education and training, where I don’t have to pay $50 to get my transcript from my old high school, college, or university. It’s mine, and it’s in my own backpack or wallet, and I can share it as I choose to. I think that is also going to be a tremendous value in the equity and diversity space because once you’ve earned it, you’ve got the information to share. You don’t have to go back and pay more money to get your own information about yourself.
I think you’re going to see those two things happening — a little bit more rational organization of the credential marketplace, and a lot more power put into learners’ own hands.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’ve heard it referred to as a “learner and employment record” or “interoperable learning record”. I actually am looking forward to that future, and I would love the algorithm to be able to crunch through all this data and recommend, “What adjacent career would be good for Van, or be good for Scott, or good for any of our listeners?” That would be an interesting world.
Scott Cheney: Yes. There are really good pilot projects and early-stage models of some of those happening right now. We just need to learn more about how to make it work best, how to take it to scale, and then how to actually have it be implemented for everybody in the country.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, that is a wonderful place to end. I’ve learned so much, Scott. Thank you so much for being with us here today.
Scott Cheney: Oh, it was lots of fun. I really appreciate your inviting me, and look forward to getting a chance to continue the conversation.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Thank you, Scott Cheney. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.