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CAEL Pathways Blog

Prepared Remarks From Earl Bufords Opening Keynote at the 2022 IMS Digital Credentials Summit

Good afternoon, and thank you, Rob, for that introduction. For those who may not be familiar with CAEL, we are a national, nonprofit membership organization. Our vision is that every adult can navigate lifelong learning and career pathways that fuel social mobility and community prosperity. And our mission is to engage with educators, employers, and community leaders to align learning and work so that adults achieve academic and career success and their communities benefit from equitable economic growth.

So whenever CAEL is invited to address a group or even just attend an event, our natural response is to look for connections to that vision and mission. Well, in the case of the IMS Digital Credentials Summit, we didnt have to look very far. In fact, there are many instances. Each of them exemplifies how challenges and opportunities are bringing together IMS and CAEL stakeholders.

But lets start with an oversimplified analogy. Imagine if our currency only came in one denomination. Let's say $100 bills. But also imagine if everything you needed to buy was only worth $20. You'd still have to pay $100 every time, and youd receive no change.

At least for some learners, that's the way the traditional postsecondary education model always seems to have worked. But colleges and universities became more flexible over time. They offered new models with more sub-degree programs that not only met immediate workforce needs but also stacked into traditional degree programs. Digital credentials offer us the opportunity to enhance those synergies.

With that potential in mind, its easy to see how they converge with CAEL's mission and help bind our respective communities of practice together. For evidence of that, just look around the room. We have dozens of colleges and universities from the U.S. and abroad, K-12 educators, several state government agencies, lots of nonprofit organizations, and even some Fortune 500 companies. You could be a cross section of CAEL's own conference, and I know many of you are, in fact, already CAEL members.

The collaboration among practitioners and policy makers like you guides our vision and powers our mission. So I'm going to talk a little about the challenges and opportunities we share. I'm going to focus on how our priorities intersect. Hopefully, that will spur discussions about how that intersection can create opportunities to amplify our joint impact, especially around creating a more inclusive learning environment for all.

It turns out that this is a pretty busy intersection, and it's only getting more popular. And that's because what we're really talking about is the intersection of learning and work. It's where the CAEL community spends all of our time, because if you want to meet adult learners where they are, that's where you'll find them.

And as the lines between learning and work continue to blur, that intersection expands to encompass all corners of education. After all, it's never too early to align classroom programs with the skills and knowledge that drive career success. When academic credentials convey work-relevant competencies, they make all of those on- and off-ramps a lot easier for learners to navigate, with broad benefits that radiate in all directions from these intersections. We shouldnt confine students to a single path to find education and career success. Instead, we must do a better job to meet students where they are along the plethora of paths that can define that journey.

This is exactly where digital credentials shine. They promise to unequivocally tie academic credentials with "real life" job duties. When they do that, they can create intersections of their own, places where theory and practice dont conflict, but instead coalesce.

But to fulfill that potential, they need to be effective for learners, workers, educators, and employers alike. By building diverse partnerships, we can fully realize the potential of digital credential to achieve equitable efficiency. We can cultivate living links between learning and work.

Equitable efficiency is centered on the idea that learning is a two-way street. Students gain valuable knowledge from the classroom experience. But they can also enrich the classroom with their own experiences they bring from outside of the classroom -- if only those experiences are recognized and affirmed.

That commitment to diversity must start at the K-12 level by acknowledging the lived experiences of all learners. And it must continue with adult learners by embracing credit for prior learning, or CPL, which was previously usually known as prior learning assessment. CPL is at the heart of CAELs legacy and remains one of our signature causes. Just as they do for classroom learning, digital credentials have great potential for documenting and verifying competencies gained through experience.

By definition, CPL is a diversifying instrument. It opens up new pathways to postsecondary credentials and allows students to attain their academic and professional goals more quickly by building on what they already know and can do. In the process, CPL significantly boosts completion rates and saves students substantial time and money.

Unfortunately, although our research shows that Black and lower-income adult students receive strong boosts to credential completion from CPL, we also know they are the least likely to receive such credit. Closing this equity gap is an opportunity to enhance the benefits of CPL.

Those benefits drive institutional success as well. And not just by upholding their reputations through the improved student outcomes they hinge on. Because CPL students are more likely to persist and complete, they complete more traditional-course credits as well. And because CPL is a natural bridge between professional and academic experience, it nourishes those living links between learning and work. That adds up to improved student retention rates and increased revenue.

And all of the above adds up to a new national grassroots campaign CAEL has launched to encourage greater use of CPL programs. The campaign includes new resources available to institutions at no cost that will help them use CPL to broaden access to education while helping students complete credentials more quickly and affordably. To learn more about this and how you can participate, I encourage you to visit us at cael.org.

Along with being more inclusive about how competencies can be gained, we must also be mindful about the diversity of those competencies themselves. Work-relevant skills are not limited to STEM, tech jobs, or even academic advancement. 84% percent of employers plan to digitalize working processes in the near future. And some of the most sought-after traits are so-called "soft skills." These include communication, critical thinking and analysis, problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility.

A Burning Glass report found that more than 80% of middle-skill jobs depend on digital skills. Overall, jobs that demand skills in multiple areas are growing twice as fast as general employment and command salaries that are 20-40% higher. And, although nearly half of all jobs are at risk of automation, only about 10% of these so-called hybrid jobs can be automated. While weve all heard the warning about a Jack of all trades, there is some value in having a diverse skillset, or at least avenues for adapting them, which Ill talk about later.

We don't just need to diversify the way we think about the qualitative nature of skills. Consider the shrinking shelf life of skills and what that means from a quantitative standpoint. Without access to continual learning opportunities, today's skilled employee could very well become tomorrow's underskilled displaced worker. And tomorrow may be here sooner than you think. 40% of workers will require reskilling within six months of employment. And nearly half of what todays college freshmen learn will be obsolete by the time they graduate.

That doesn't mean skills are necessarily more important than credentials. What it does mean is they are absolutely the most important aspect of credentials. Credentials must be an accurate proxy of an array of shifting work-relevant competencies, whether they are encoded in microcredentials, badges, and certificates or associate degrees, bachelor's programs, and graduate degrees.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Credential Engine has identified nearly 1 million unique credentials in the U.S. alone. As these choices proliferate, they promise greater opportunity for employers, educators, and students. They can be those living links between learning and work.

That has special potential for adult learners. For them, "student" is just one of many roles in a busy life. They are also workers, parents, and caregivers, to name a few others. Each of these roles competes for everyone's scarcest resource: time.

"Unbundling" the educational experience shifts it from an "all or nothing" to a "build as you go" model of college completion. It means you dont have to spend $100 of your hard-earned money for $20 worth of value.

It's more inclusive, more conducive to successful outcomes in education and employment, and it offers new ways for colleges and universities to remain relevant in a rapidly changing postsecondary landscape.

But I think we all recognize that unbundling isnt easy. It can also further muddy the already complex pathways learners must navigate. As learners consider these options, digital credentials and traditional degree paths must offer a "both/and" complement, not an "either/or" gamble.

As we expand the paradigm of education, it becomes all the more challenging to remain "on the same page." So we need a common language, because those one million credentials should create constellations, not chaos. And thats where I see the greatest potential for digital credentials. They can ensure academic milestones project work readiness in a language all parties can access and understand.

Unfortunately, we're not there yet. Here are a few signs that we're not all speaking the same language yet:

  • Less than half of employers today believe that new college graduates possess vital competencies like written and oral communication.
  • Just over one third of business leaders feel that institutions leave graduates with sufficient training. Only one out of ten strongly believe that postsecondary education confers competencies.
  • Only a third of postsecondary students in the U.S. believe they will graduate with the competencies needed for career success.
  • Only about a fourth of U.S. workers who have attended college strongly agree that their educational experience is relevant outside of the classroom.

Yet educational aspirations remain high:

  • Less than 20 percent of Americans feel that a family member should limit their education to a high school diploma.
  • About half of respondents in a 2020 survey said the pandemic had increased their interest in pursuing additional education, with about half expressing enrollment plans for the next six months.
  • On the employment side, three quarters of companies favor reskilling workers over hiring new employees.
  • 94% of business leaders say they expect workers to acquire new skills after being hired.


  • Enrollment in higher ed dropped another 2.7% in fall 2021. The overall loss in enrollment in the two years since the pandemic was 5.1 percent. That equates to nearly one million students nationwide.
  • Meanwhile, bootcamp enrollment increased more than 30 percent from 2019 to 2020.
  • 36 million people in the U.S. have some college experience but did not complete a degree. More than three million of them received two or more years of credits before stopping out.

This isn't just a problem for higher ed:

  • Prior to the pandemic, the World Economic Forum said that one-third of the global workforce, or more than one billion people, would need to reskill by 2030. COVID-19 prompted the organization to raise that estimate to 40%.
  • But upskilling isn't limited to just saving jobs. The WEF also found that it could result in a net gain of 5.3 million new jobs by 2030, including nearly 3 million here in the U.S.
  • The WEF further found that investing in upskilling can add $6.5 trillion to global GDP by 2030. The gain here in the U.S. could total $900 billion by 2030, which is 3.7% of our overall GDP.
  • In manufacturing alone, the U.S. faces a shortage of workers that is projected to grow to 2.1 million by 2030. Almost 80% of manufacturers project challenges in recruiting and retaining workers will continue past 2021. Again, this has wide-ranging ramifications. The toll on the U.S. economy from just the skills gap in manufacturing could total $1 trillion by 2030.
  • Ironically, the shortage of jobs can be a self perpetuating problem. For example, enhanced infrastructure spending promises to create jobs and revitalize roads, bridges, and more. But the foundation of such efforts, the construction industry, is already struggling to fill jobs.

But there are some silver linings. Surveys have shown that adults and employers overwhelmingly see value in earning sub-degree credentials such as badges or microcredentials. In 2020, enrollment in short-term credential classes surged 70% during a period of drastic decreases in overall college enrollment.

Considering what I've shared about skills gaps and labor shortages, that should come as no surprise. If digital credentials can make educational qualifications portable, interoperable, and universally verifiable, they can shorten the distance between students and their goals goals that connect everyone in this room goals that bring us all together at that intersection of learning and work.

Every busy intersection needs some good crosswalks. Think of the potential digital credentials offered to displaced workers. The pandemic hit low-wage workers especially hard. Millions of jobs may never return even as new ones are being created. But career changes often mean going back to school. This can be overwhelming to workers, who may think they need to start from scratch. What if they didn't have to start from scratch, but instead could build on what they already know to move into better jobs?

With widespread workforce disruptions created by the pandemic, technology, and a combination of both, time is of the essence for displaced workers. The same can be said of employers in growth industries struggling to fill openings amid the rash of layoffs in declining ones. A "crosswalk" connecting the former and latter is the missing link for workers looking to resume their career journeys in more rewarding occupations.

Making such transitions usually requires upskilling or reskilling. That's why more postsecondary educators are complementing their traditional degree programs with innovative shorter-term certificates and other sub-degree credentials that are both work-relevant in the near term and stackable into formal degrees in the long term. I see digital credentials as an opportunity to democratize upskilling and reskilling, amplify their capacity to address income disparities, and drive equitable economic expansion.

When we pair the flexibility offered by digital credentials with credit for prior learning, we can make the transition between declining and advancing industries even more seamless and transparent. Without this visibility, adult learners often can't judge just how far (or close) they are to their educational and career goals. Crosswalk programs unveil opportunities hidden in plain sight: opportunities to remain in their community, validate their hard-earned work experience, and ensure the end of one journey is just a part of a bigger and better one.

This can benefit efforts to address equity challenges. Research from The National Fund for Workforce Solutions has found that racial income inequities cost the U.S. economy about $2.3 trillion per year. Removing obstacles to reskilling and reemployment can help solve labor shortages, close skill gaps, advance equity, and boost our economy.

Getting back to the point I made at the beginning of my remarks, I don't think I could quantify how many ways CAEL's mission intersects with digital credentials. But I can tell you they are increasing on a daily basis. Because every day, we see new opportunities to build a transformative and equitable culture of lifelong learning and economic empowerment for all adult learners.

But we can't bridge the skills gaps that are holding back workers and employers until we build better bridges between academic credentials and industry standards. Digital credentials create new ways to do just that. They make us more effective at centering the experiences of adult learners not only by valuing those experiences within curricula, but also by scaling educational experiences to the real-time lived experiences of learners.

Before I wrap up, I'll share a few recent examples of putting theory into practice -- educators and employers coming together to meet learners where they are. I'd like to first highlight the Wellspring project, which was led by IMS. CAEL's involvement included the Energy Providers Coalition for Education, a CAEL industry coalition partner. EPCE represents energy employers across the country who work together to create, sponsor, and offer easily accessible online education and training pathways for the energy workforce.

Wellspring is a multi-year initiative to bridge the gap between education and work using open standards. It aims to ensure that everyone can communicate transparent evidence of their accomplishments so they can benefit from their hard work. Ultimately, it seeks to level the playing field with low-bias, data-based recruiting and hiring that centers competencies and skills rather than seat time.

It should come as no surprise when I tell you Wellspring was built on collaboration among educators and employers. They worked to identify in-demand skills to inform the construction of digital credentials that could serve as a trusted currency for valuing learning and workplace achievements.

The Wellspring project completed primary research on the use of competency frameworks at more than 700 employers. It also developed software prototypes that model how digital credentials can sustain the professional and academic mobility critical in a thriving education and workforce ecosystem.

CAEL also is building new national partnerships at the K-12 level through Connected Pathways, a career-exploration system funded by a U.S. Department of Education Grant. This online platform will be personalized, scalable, and adaptable so that underserved learners around the country can use it to make informed decisions about their educational and career pursuits. Connected Pathways, which will be available at no cost to users, will launch later this year.

On a similar note, we are joining forces with SEMI, the industry association representing the global electronics manufacturing and design supply chain. Recent supply chain challenges related to the pandemic have thrown a spotlight on just how important this industry is.

Challenges to its talent pipeline are limiting its enormous impact on the global economy. We and our partners at Roadtrip Nation are working with SEMI on an interactive platform to educate and empower women and minority candidates for career advancement within the industry. The platform will help connect underrepresented candidates to available jobs today, while also addressing long-term industry personnel needs with an equity lens. Grants from Strada Education Network and the SEMI Foundation are making this work possible.

And CAEL soon will announce a new grant-funded project with the potential to expand career pathway and DEI work to several regions around the country. This work will forge partnerships among education providers and employers within financial services and adjacent industries. The collaboration will be intent on better defining viable career paths and making them more accessible, with a focus on minoritized populations who are unemployed or working in frontline roles. Stay tuned for an announcement in the next month or so.

I hope Ive made it clear how important we view education and industry partnerships. They are literally at the intersections of learning and work that we talked about. But without adult learners, those living links I mentioned could never come alive.

Thats why I want to close by sharing what I think is the best way to communicate the potential such collaboration offers: a real-life success story.

Alphur Willock, who goes by "Slim," is a widowed father of six. Recently, CAEL presented him with our Adult Learner of the Year Award. Slim's story exemplifies the peril and promise that often define the journey of lifelong learning.

In 2019 Slim completed an online bachelors degree in computer science from Pace University, the educational partner of NACTEL, another of our industry alliances. The National Alliance for Communications, Technology, Education and Learning is a collaboration of industry employers and unions, working with higher education to create and sponsor online education programs that meet the needs of current and future telecommunications professionals and to address critical employment needs. Slim's degree was just the latest step in a learning journey that intertwines career and coursework. In fact, as we speak, hes nearing completion of an online master's degree with Pace, which he began working on in the fall of 2020.

Twenty-eight years ago, Slim was working as a security guard. He had taken the job while completing his associate of arts degree. While on the job Slim had regular interaction with employees of the New York Telephone Company (now Verizon), who worked in the same building. Employees encouraged him to apply, and he joined the company as an operator for directory assistance. This decision would turn out to play a chance role in launching a different career path, one that has allowed him to pursue two of his passions: learning and interacting with people from all walks of life.

Slim soon learned about an educational benefit offered through Next Step, a partnership among the company, Communications Workers of America, and a community college. Participants earn an associate degree and can become telecommunications technical associates. The company provided the student employees a laptop, scientific calculator, and time off to attend the once-per-week classes. Employees who completed the program had the opportunity to receive an increase in pay and responsibilities.

Although Slim had to wait for a slot to open in the popular program, with the help of CPL credit, he earned his second associate degree, this one in science, in 2009. Slim relished his accomplishments, but he still had, as he described it, a "yearning for higher learning."

One of his coworkers mentioned an educational opportunity made possible through NACTEL. Under the program, employee tuition was covered. Intrigued, Slim prepared to pursue a bachelor of science degree.

Then, tragedy struck.

In 2011, Slim's wife, Dawn, died just a week after giving birth to their newest son. He recalls sitting in a chair at his house, where well-wishers had gathered after the funeral. Right in front of him people were wondering aloud how he'd be able to take care of the kids on his own. At that moment, Slim admits to having wondered the same.

He had to adjust quickly to the new normal of his daily life. Those initial anxious moments quickly became a source of determination. Slim resolved to raise his kids how Dawn wanted them to be raised. That meant persisting in his own lifelong commitment to personal and professional improvement.

Ultimately, Slim enrolled in the NACTEL program in 2013. Despite his extensive prior postsecondary classwork, it was his first online learning experience. He says it took some time getting used to the asynchronous format's lack of instant feedback. But he quickly appreciated the increased flexibility.

Thanks to his hard work and the support from Pace faculty, Verizon, his union, and his family, Slim received his bachelor of science in information systems in December 2019. He was further honored with the Founder's Award, which Pace and NACTEL annually confer on a graduate who has demonstrated a passion for lifelong learning and exemplified the spirit of innovation that is a hallmark of the NACTEL program.

Slim served on the front lines of the telecom industry's support of the fight against COVID. In April of 2020 In April, he was part of a Verizon team that supported the telecom needs of the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship dispatched to New York to reinforce local health care resources.

To support corporate communications and employee engagement, which are among the additional duties he's taken on as his career has progressed, Slim also documented the team's experience, helping get the word out to fellow employees and the community.

Raising awareness is important to Slim because people often overlook the contributions of telecom workers, even as their role became more vital in the rush to remote learning and work. It's important to us as well. Slim's story reminds us of the many barriers adult learners must overcome. But it also reminds us of what is possible when educators, employers, and mission-aligned organizations intersect, there can be collaboration instead of collision. And with that, I'd like to close by sharing a short video about Slim.


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