What is preventing wider acceptance of alternative credentials in hiring? 


What is preventing wider acceptance of alternative credentials in hiring? 

Beth Kalinowski, Senior Director, Client Success


Every day different organizations like IBM, Google, Bank of America, Costco, and even the US federal government hit the headlines with an announcement that new hires for certain positions will no longer require a college degree. Whether someone works in IT, banking, or retail, the lack of a degree should no longer be a barrier to career progression.

Skills-based hiring is on the rise for exactly the kind of skills that can be evidenced by an alternative credential, meaning not a degree or diploma. Paradoxically, research shows there is still a reluctance by many employers to accept alternative credentials in hiring, specifically where a credential is not an essential job requirement but more a supplementary validation of relevant knowledge and skills.

The debate around alternative credentials starts with how they are defined. The more expansive definition of alternative credentials is represented here, including certifications, certificates, micro-credentials, stackable credentials, and digital badges.

So what is preventing wider acceptance of alternative credentials, despite a decline in the requirement of degrees? And more importantly, what can be done about it?

Do employers recognize alternative credentials in hiring?

Research by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that more than 80% of executives, supervisors, and HR professionals believe “alternative credentials bring value to the workplace”. However, just 53% of supervisors and 31% of HR professionals agree that “workers with alternative credentials are better performers”. These are the people most likely to be making hiring decisions.

What’s more, it is not just the people making decisions that fail to recognize alternative credentials. The same SHRM research shows 32% of automated applicant prescreening systems don’t currently recognize alternative credentials. A report from Northeastern University supports this, showing that just half of employer talent acquisition systems have fields where candidates can identify skills. And of those that do, none give recruiters the chance to verify these skills. Reviewing job descriptions for different roles gives evidence that employers desire specific skills, but as we know from job applications and interviews we’ve personally experienced, verification of those skills is often not required.

Why don’t employers recognize alternative credentials in hiring?

It seems that although the senior executives setting company policies might support alternative credentials, HR professionals and managers aren’t completely on board. SHRM’s research revealed some interesting and valuable insights into the reasons why:

  • Lack of quality and consistency among alternative credentials.
  • Lack of clarity around skills learned or level achieved.
  • Uncertainty about the equivalency of alternative credentials to other qualifications.

Understanding these reasons will help us address the concerns of employers and increase the acceptance of alternative credentials in hiring.

Quality in test development

The purpose of testing is to validate the knowledge and skills obtained by test takers and required by employers. Employers need to feel confident that the tests used to grant an alternative credential are high quality, consistent, and valid.

Offering employers the quality they want from alternative credentials starts at the test development stage with a job analysis. This process involves knowledgeable experts to identify the competencies and tasks associated with a job, role, or product.

In the job analysis process, a survey is distributed to a large sample of practitioners in the field to validate the importance of each task and competency. The survey results are used to form a test specification or Exam Content Outline (ECO).

The ECO is effectively a list of testable content reflecting current practice validated by experts in the field. It is used by Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to create content such as test items and forms, and referred to by test takers for understanding of the test structure and content.

The ECO gives employers clarity around the skills and competencies achieved by anyone holding the credential. And by demonstrating the involvement of practitioners and SMEs, alongside rigorous, scientific test development processes, you will give employers confidence in your alternative credential when hiring.

Consistency in test delivery and test security

To provide consistency, a well-developed test needs to be delivered in a way that is both reliable and fair. Only then will employers feel confident that test outcomes truly reflect the skills and knowledge of candidates applying for jobs. Reliable test outcomes are also important for demonstrating equivalency with other more traditional qualifications.

As with any credential, employers want to know that only test takers who have reached the required standard will hold an alternative credential. Test security is fundamental to providing this assurance. This is the case whether an alternative credential offers testing in a test center network, with an in-person proctor, secure facilities and regular audits, or remotely with online proctoring, with a secure test delivery platform and lockdown browser.

An increasing number of alternative credential providers now offer their test takers multi-modal testing, with the choice to attend a test center or test remotely. When it’s delivered correctly, multi-modal is a great solution that matches the accessibility of alternative credentials with convenient test delivery – while maintaining equivalency regardless of modality. Adding a layer to your test security with the use of data forensics for post test data analysis will reassure employers even further.

Market your programs transparently

Communicating your rigorous, scientific test development processes and secure test delivery should form an integral part of how you market and grow your alternative credential. This will reassure employers and increase acceptance of your credential, and alternative credentials more widely, during hiring.

In the short term, transparent communication about how you develop and deliver your tests will also encourage test takers to sign up for your credential – with the knowledge that it provides validated proof of their skills and knowledge in a way that is convenient for them. And in the longer term, knowing that more candidates hold a credential will increase employer acceptance, which encourages more test takers to sign up, and so on. It’s a virtuous circle!

The solution to acceptance

We are in the midst of a significant and growing skills shortage. Employers need fast, cost-effective training that gets their people up to speed with new and evolving skills and knowledge. Alternative credentials can offer this.

Expediency is not enough for employers to accept alternative credentials in hiring. The research proves they will only be fully accepted when they are rigorously developed and securely delivered. Organizations need to believe that an alternative credential demonstrates the knowledge, skills, and abilities for its designed purpose. With clarity around the skills and knowledge attained, alongside transparency and quality assurance throughout the assessment lifecycle, this can be achieved.