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CAEL Pathways Blog

Stackable Credentials: Living Links Between Learning and Work

In discussions about linking learning and work, the focus tends to be on the classroom. We want to know how postsecondary institutions are adjusting their programs so that students are prepared for the workforce. But the very phrase 'link learning and work' should remind us it's a two-way street. By joining forces in a proactive way, educators and employers can create far more impact for the employees and learners whose own success they jointly depend on. When we view the adult learner as the common link between lifelong learning and work, we become less preoccupied with roles. Instead of fixating on where and in what order learning occurs, we focus on the value it creates for learners and their communities.

The National Alliance for Communications Technology Education and Learning (NACTEL), a CAEL partner organization, functions as a hub that fosters links among all levels of postsecondary education and the rapidly evolving workforce needs of the communications industry. NACTEL includes employers and labor unions representing industry workers. At the League for Innovation in the Community College Virtual Innovations Conference earlier this month, I joined two NACTEL partners, Pace University and AT&T, to talk about how stackable credentials and employer-provided education benefits are meeting learners where they are, fulfilling challenging workforce needs, and even boosting employee loyalty and productivity.

We know that adult learners have growing concerns about the value of education. 2020 vs. 2019 comparisons of Strada Education Network surveys of adults contemplating college show they are less likely to believe it will be worth the cost (by 18 percentage points). Respondents also are 25 percentage points less likely to think that additional education will land them a good job. Fewer than one in three said they had a solid understanding of available career pathways, valuable skills, and details about potential education programs. Given the uncertainty, it's not surprising that adult learners favor flexibility and multiple access points. More than two thirds indicated a preference for non-degree educational pathways, up from half the year before.

Stackable credentials attack these problems on several fronts. They can be aligned directly with employer needs. And they don't lock learners into linear, all-or nothing trajectories. Learners can complete courses to earn a digital badge indicating their mastery of a specific skill. Or they might focus on earning a certificate or finishing their bachelor's degree. The whole point is that stackable credentials pave the way forward, through as many educational on- and off-ramps as the learner needs. The destination can be a microcredential, a master's degree - or anything in between. Along the way, adult learners who complete stackable credentials are more likely to be employed, according to a study cited by the Brookings Institute. The study also found that stackable credentials were associated with a 7 percent wage premium.[1]

Stackable credentials are front and center of the industry-driven curriculum that Pace University built in partnership with NACTEL. They form a pyramid of learning experiences that meet students where they are and take them where they want to be. At the base of the pyramid are Jumpstart Courses. Although credits can count toward a future certificate or degree, they focus on building skills that have immediate workplace benefits independent of a degree program. Badges are the next rung up. Like the Jumpstart Courses (and all sub-degree components of the pyramid), they can stack into a degree. But they also offer adult learners a more immediate impact. All of the badges are conferred through Credly, a leading digital credential service provider.[2] That makes them independent of the university, wholly portable, and seamlessly evidenced. For example, recipients can post the badges to LinkedIn, where they can provide tangible evidence, practically in real time, of mastered competencies. A series of certificates continues the pyramid, each an actual credential tied to essential industry functions. These are followed by associate degrees all the way through a master of science in information technology with concentrations in cybersecurity or networking.

The building blocks of this pyramid are not just stackable, they are often interchangeable. Students may earn a degree in one area and acquire a certificate in another as they build a career path by becoming qualified for evolving technology roles. NACTEL was built to weather continual evolution. The Pace-NACTEL partnership began in 1999, when copper line prevailed and mobile phones were still mostly for talking. Today, we take cloud computing for granted and carry what would have been regarded as supercomputers in our pockets. To keep pace, Pace University meets four times per year with industry practitioners to review curricula and ensure competencies relevant in real-world roles remain infused in them.

In the telecommunications industry, the rapid advance of technology has created an extremely competitive recruiting environment for these roles. With a limited supply of external talent, it makes more sense than ever to look inward. Education benefits that incorporate stackable credentials support that strategy. They build skills for current employees as well as future recruits. These are among the factors that underscore AT&T's wisdom in prioritizing a culture of continuous learning. Its investment in education and training is building a learning architecture that fits evolving demands in real time as the industry makes continuous leaps in technology. From AT&T training for specific systems and processes to microcredentials and all the way up through advanced degrees, AT&T invests about two million hours of training per year in various channels with multiple education partners to meet learners where they are: the intersection of learning and work.

Several key metrics have proven that investment to be a rewarding one. Thanks to the multiple upskilling and reskilling pathways it offers employees, AT&T fills around 80 percent of its roles internally. Even among emerging technology roles, it is able to source nearly 60 percent of its hires internally. The retention effects are also impressive. Employees who are highly engaged in education benefits are about one and a half times less likely to leave the company. And they are 10 to 20 percent more productive. With the morale-boosting practice of internal hiring, it's no wonder employees are motivated to stay longer and do more for the company.

I mentioned earlier that stackable credentials help pave the way for on- and off-ramps that connect education and employment. Recognition of prior learning is another way to maintain viable links between learning and work. And it's another place where industry and curricula intersect within NACTEL. Through 20 years of collaboration, NACTEL members have helped thousands of learners gain industry-relevant credentials. So it was only natural that recognition of prior learning would become ingrained within the NACTEL model. Pace University, a longtime CAEL member, drew on CAEL's decades of experience helping institutions build effective prior learning assessment (PLA) resources. Before beginning a NACTEL program, Pace University encourages students to engage in prior learning assessment (PLA) to gauge their on-the-job and other experiential learning for potential credit. In fact, most NACTEL students at Pace University receive nearly half of their required credits via transfer and PLA credits accepted by the school, providing tremendous cost savings through PLA. This incredible performance is owed to the strong employer partnerships within NACTEL, which directly support Pace University's foundational PLA culture. Credit for prior learning further validates the industry's heavy investment in education and training by accelerating learners' progress through degree programs based on qualifications gained in the workplace. We can think of those qualifications as the complement to work-relevant education. They are 'education-relevant' work. And, we know from our recent research that PLA offers many other benefits for both students and the institutions they attend.  

I thank my fellow presenters, Wes Long of AT&T and Nancy Hale from Pace University, for sharing such great examples of how persistent partnerships between educators and employers can support lifelong learning. The good news is that any industry with dedicated employers and educators can adopt this approach and realize the benefits of increased loyalty, more effective recruiting, lower attrition, and the priceless impact of being part of a process that contributes to social mobility by helping people stay prepared for the future of work amid a period of challenging economic instability.

If you would like to learn more about the NACTEL program or how to incorporate stackable credentials and recognition of prior learning in your programs, please contact cael@cael.org.


[1] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2021/02/02/stackable-credentials-can-open-doors-to-new-career-opportunities/

[2] https://badges.pace.edu/about-badges-at-pace/

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