Editor's Note: This article was last updated in November 2022.
The most effective microcredentials are the ones that closely align with employer needs and high-growth, in-demand labor market opportunities. For colleges and universities, identifying the skills you already teach in the courses you already offer enables you to efficiently develop these credentials and showcase their work-relevance. To get started, institutions can skillify their curriculum, translating it into the same skill-based language used by employers and job seekers. Using a shared language allows you to find alignment between taught skills and sought skills, and use that insight to develop high-ROI credentials that advance learners towards their career goals.
The Current Landscape
Shorter. Skill-focused. Work-relevant.
These are the top criteria that today’s learners are using to sort through their (ever-increasing) options for education. To adapt, many colleges and universities are exploring development of more focused, short-term, and stackable microcredentials. Building these credentials effectively, so that they deliver maximum ROI to students while making the most of your existing program portfolio, requires clarity in two key areas: The skills employers are looking for and the skills you teach.
1) The skills employers are looking for (and list in their job postings)
Employer job postings provide near real-time insight into the jobs employers need done and the skills required to do them. With this data, institutions can assess overall labor market demand at the national level, or focus on the in-demand skills within a specific region. While a nationwide perspective might be relevant for larger, online institutions, a state or county-specific view can be especially important for regional institutions and community colleges. Since alumni migration often varies by institution type, it’s important to use whatever lens is most relevant for your institution and student body.
For institutions that collaborate (or would like to collaborate) with a few key industry partners, it can also be valuable to take an employer-specific approach. Analyzing postings from one or more key employers yields a more focused list of skills to inform curriculum development and conversations with employer partners. Some institutions have even found that this data is a valuable source of insight to the employers themselves (who don’t always track their own openings in such a skill-specific and systematic way).
Demand analysis can even be done at the level of job titles. This can mean drilling down into a specific role at a single employer to identify their unique skill requirements, or comparing similar jobs across multiple employers to identify common skill requirements (e.g. “What skills do all business analysts have in common at the top employers in my region?”).
2) The skills you teach (and list in your curricular content)
If job postings give us a signal to understand the skills and proficiencies that employers are asking for, course descriptions and syllabi provide the same kind of insight when it comes to understanding the skills that you teach (aka “curricular skills”).
Like job posting analysis, curricular skills analysis can be done at multiple levels. You could start by taking an inventory of skills taught across the entire institution. This big-picture view enables you to see your program portfolio through the lens of work-relevant skills — the way employers and job seekers might view it. But you can also drill down to “skillify” a particular college, program, course, or even “sub-course” units like competencies, modules, or learning activities.
At any of these levels, you can discover where skill content may be duplicated across departments, programs, courses, etc. This overlap might be the result of an intentional decision to reinforce essential skills. Or, it might be an instance of unnecessary redundancy, highlighting an opportunity to streamline course sequences into a more efficient pathway.
In either case, a systematic evaluation of taught skills can help you lay out the curricular “building blocks” that you have to work with when it comes time to design new credentials. As we’ll see in a moment, it also lays the groundwork for communicating the work-relevance of credentials to prospective learners, industry partners, and other outside stakeholders.
Comparing Sought vs. Taught
Now that employer postings and your curriculum speak the same skill language, you’re ready to pinpoint alignment between the two. Like the job posting and curricular skills analysis discussed earlier, this comparison of taught vs. sought skills can be done at various levels. For example, an institution might assess how its entire program portfolio aligns with employer demand in their state, through a skills lens.
But, for developing microcredentials, it’s usually helpful to narrow the focus by leveraging one of the unique advantages afforded by skill data: greater precision and granularity than what’s possible with traditional labor market information alone (CIP-to-SOC crosswalks).
This could mean comparing the skills taught in a department or program to in-demand skills within your region or even at a particular employer. At the most detailed level, it could involve aligning skills taught in a particular course to the skills required for a particular job.
For example, Lightcast's Skillabi platform enables institutions to parse skills listed in a job posting, identify which of those skills they already teach (and in what courses), and use this insight to begin organizing relevant courses into a new credential. This highly targeted approach is ideal for rapidly developing professional development and continuing education pathways to serve a key employer partner.
The Intersection of Sought and Taught
This sought vs. taught analysis can help you identify a “sweet spot” for developing microcredentials —- where the unique capabilities and expertise of your institution intersect with the workforce needs of regional or national employers (AKA – career opportunities for students).
For example, your analysis of job postings may uncover strong demand for proficiency in geographic information systems (GIS) at major employers like Aecom and Leidos. A skill-based inventory of your academic portfolio may surface courses that teach this same skill along with related software like ArcGIS or CARTO.
Based on this overlap, you could begin exploring ways to unbundle a full geographic sciences degree program by repackaging relevant courses into a GIS-focused credential. A skill-based inventory of existing courses (as outlined above) can help inform how you sequence and arrange these courses. The end result is a focused, work-relevant credential that may be a better fit for working professionals looking to upskill or career changes looking to expand their skill set.
When the Skills Don’t Align
Of course, not all of your taught skills will align perfectly with employer needs. But even in those instances, the skill-level insight gleaned from your sought vs. taught analysis can inform positive next steps.
In some cases, you may simply need to update course descriptions to do a better job communicating their skill content in the terms that employers use. In other words, the misalignment may simply be a misunderstanding.
In some cases you may be teaching skills that really are valued by employers, but aren’t explicitly listed in their job postings (possibly because they assume all candidates will possess these skills, or simply because they failed to create the perfect posting). This raises an important point to keep in mind: Job postings are an incredibly powerful but not infallible guide to what employers are looking for in an employee. As always, good judgment is required to interpret the data.
But in some cases, the misalignment may be real. As you discover where you teach content that employers aren’t asking for and where employers are asking for skills that you don’t teach, you can use this data to update existing programs or create new educational offerings that address the misalignment and fill the gaps. This may require more time and effort than unbundling and repackaging existing curriculum, but it also offers a chance to pilot changes on a small (micro!) scale that could inform broader program innovation later on.
Deploying Your Credential
A critical last step of creating any credential is deciding how you’ll deliver this new content to learners. When it comes to microcredentials, there’s no shortage of options, ranging from proprietary in-house solutions to partnering with well-known MOOC platforms like Coursera and EdX. Whichever delivery mechanism you choose, you can leverage your curricular skill inventory (as described above) to help you communicate the skill content of your credentials to prospective learners, employer partners, and other outside stakeholders.
Some platforms make this easy by allowing you to embed skill data directly into the credential itself. For example, institutions using Canvas Badges (formerly Badgr) can tag a credential with associated skills from Lightcast's open skills database, as demonstrated in the “Skills” section of this example badge. The integration automatically links this machine-readable skill data to related information (e.g. skill definitions, job posting trends, related skills, etc.) that helps communicate the labor market relevance of each skill.
Regardless of how you deploy your credential, articulating and calling out its skill content is key for attracting potential learners who are focused on work-relevance, as well as equipping completers to communicate the value of their credential to potential employers.
Among prospective learners of all ages and backgrounds, the demand for short-term credentials that teach work-relevant skills is stronger than ever. Attracting and serving these learners requires an approach to program development that matches their priorities. By combining a skill-based assessment of employer needs with a skill-based assessment of academic offerings, institutions get the detailed data they need to build effective, in-demand credentials.
What to read next
This article is part of a series exploring how higher education can adapt and thrive in an increasingly skill-based economy. Check out additional articles below, or download the complete series (plus additional content) in ebook form.
If you’d like to discuss transforming your own institution with skills data, let us know. We’d love to learn about the work you’re doing and explore how our data can help.