Why business leaders and HR need to care about microcredentials

The world of work is experiencing talent dynamics like we’ve never seen before. Even during the Global Financial Crisis, we didn’t see the pace of change that’s happening now. Entire industries are being forced to come to grips with the fact that talented employees want to work differently, off the back of the pandemic. On the other hand, there are industries where mass layoffs and restructures have created job uncertainty and unemployment for many. 

According to Gartner, 32% of businesses are expanding their gig workforce, or investing in initiatives like talent sharing and 4-day weeks. This means that there’ll be an upswing in the need for tools that help business to identify, recruit and onboard an influx of new talent.

What’s happening in the microcredential market?

There’s been a boom in the microcredentialing space over the past few years, with the online degree and microcredentialing market set to grow to $20bn by 2025. Microcredentials are short courses often seen as ‘alternative credentials’ in the education sector.

It’s becoming a crowded market in terms of who’s making credentials. Long-established credentialing badging providers like Accredible, Credly (owned by Pearson) are joined by innovators the Education Design Lab, creating new credentials. And even traditional providers of ‘long-format’ qualifications – including universities and vocational providers – have been investing more in microcredentials, usually as an add-on to their core degree offerings.

To those of us who’ve been asking for the past decade or so, ‘when will the moment for microcredentials arrive?’, there’s a feeling that it’s finally here. The global workforce is grappling with a pace of change that is forcing industry and education providers alike, to move away from trusted but slow-to-earn, expensive traditional qualifications, in favour of credentials that are faster, more cost-effective, and aligned to current workplace needs.

What do microcredentials help with?

I’m seeing microcredentials popping up wherever there’s a need for fast paced, flexibile,and cost-effective, tech-driven solutions. The tech and startup industry is well established with credentials, as credential-based ‘universities’ and ‘academies’ have been developed over several years by companies like Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and many others.

How can professionals benefit, and how can firms tap into the microcredentials boom?

Powering the early careers of young professionals in the gig economy

Young aspiring business professionals are showing up to their very first job interview armed with more qualifications, work experience, and varied industry credentials than ever before.

Why? Because young people have been forced to get creative about how they squeeze maximum value out of early work experiences that are overwhelmingly casualised, self-employed or in the gig economy. These types of experiences often have significant relevance to a career, but there’s little employer sponsorship or continuous learning support on the job.

So young aspiring business professionals are finding creative ways to build a portfolio of experiences, and to get them recognised in a format that will help their career.

Increasing people’s access to upskilling and reskilling opportunities

How people show up at work is already, and continues to, change – and the skills they need to stay relevant in their working life are different too. I’m not only talking about dynamics like increased working from home, or flexible hours, although those are part of the picture.

I’m talking about a fundamental shift in how people want to handle their professional identities, their professional growth, and their career pathways. And a fundamental shift in how organisations enable and empower employees to demonstrate their skills.

Enabling professionals to switch careers at any time, more quickly

The war for talent has intensified in the past year. That’s because huge numbers of employees, inspired by more time at home, have started questioning whether they’re in the right job, the right company, or even the right industry. They’re seeking jobs with more purpose, and being more exploratory and adventurous in their search for fulfilling roles.

They need work-relevant ways to show future employers what they know, what they can do, and what their potential could be, and they aren’t waiting around to do a traditional qualification. One answer to the need for a speedy career reinvention? Microcredentials.

Helping organisations to attract, retain and grow post-covid talent

For firms, supporting flexible, agile ways to grow is a vital part of the value proposition you can put out to attract talent. There’s more to a job than earning money – once the financial package is dealt with, people are expecting a supportive, learning-friendly company culture.

It’s also time to think about how you’re going to retain priority talent – because with the right approach, you can anticipate and close up emerging skills gaps by building internal capabilities.

This will save yourself the need to navigate that intensely competitive external environment, at high cost and no guarantee you’ll find the talent you need. As Mark Perna said in Forbes, “It’s time to get creative not only with where we source new talent, but how we create it.”

What you need is super-quick upskilling, combined with deep relevance of that new learning to the heart of the roles you’re trying to bring to life. Microcredentials can help you do this business-attuned internal upskilling and reskilling, at lower costs than external recruitment. This flips the narrative of ‘it’s more expensive to build talent than to hire it’ on its head.

What can you do to get started?

If you’re in a position to create microcredentials, that’s great! There’s a lot of options for you.

  • Investigate existing credentials in your field – search for ‘microcredentials’ in your industry or sector. From innovation to marketing to finance, there’s an existing credential that you can explore to understand what players are already doing in your space.
  • Run a proof of concept – testing out a new pathway between learning/recognition/credential needs a bit of a trial run. Some credentialing firms offer a free proof of concept where you can test out how credentials would work for you and your talent. Time to pilot!
  • Talk to your talent community about their needs ­– there’s no point in creating a credential-based approach in your company if you don’t have a deep connection to the challenges and opportunities facing your workforce. There are many possible use cases for microcredentials, and how you want to play will depend on what you want to achieve.

So grab analytics from your human resource or Learning and Development or Workforce Planning team. Run surveys. Bring in a facilitator to workshop future learning provision at your company. There are lots of ways to get amazing insights.

If you’re aiming to innovate how you recognise people’s learning and achievement in a way that employers value, it’s time to look fresh at microcredentials. Good luck!


Dr Katy McDevitt is Chief Learning Officer at HEX (startwithhex.com), an award-winning edtech company delivering internationally recognised innovation and entrepreneurship programs to university students and the next generation of talent.