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The role of Verified Credentials in an equitable future of work

By The SkillRise Editorial Team

Verified Credentials, open badges, micro-credentials, learning and employment records... chances are good that you’ve come across one (if not all) of these terms. What are they? And why are companies, educators, and job seekers increasingly excited about their potential to improve the current workforce ecosystem?

While there can be some nuance in each term’s meaning, for the purposes of this post, we will group these ideas under an umbrella term: Verified Credentials. A Verified Credential (VC) is an open data standard that enables people to own their data. Let’s look at a scenario to unpack what that might mean in practice.

When students finish a program, a school will issue a credential to signal that completion (e.g. a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree).  

In order to send proof of that credential, like when applying for a job or additional schooling, a student needs to submit an official request for the credential to be verified and sent by the school (often for a fee). In this scenario, the data is owned and maintained by the school, not the student, who needs the school’s permission to access and send the credential (degree).  

With a Verified Credential, data is owned by the student. Credentials earned can be added to a digital wallet, a piece of software that can be used to store and share verifiable data. So once a credential, like a high school diploma or college degree, is issued and added to a wallet, the student owns the data. They no longer need permission from the school to share the record; they can quickly and easily send evidence of the diploma to an employer, or another school, or to anyone who needs access. 

As an example of what we mean by a “digital wallet”, both the Google and Apple Wallet can already hold a variety of personal data: credit card numbers, a driver’s license, concert tickets, insurance cards, and airplane boarding passes. Soon, thanks to the newly adopted W3C standard for Verifiable Credentials, all digital wallets (and there are a lot of options) will be able to include the functionality needed to store learning and employment records alongside your driver’s license, credit cards, library cards, and much more. 

Here at SkillRise, we believe Verified Credentials present a unique opportunity to improve how the labor market works for employers and job seekers alike. Let’s break down how.

Data ownership

VC (and digital wallets) give people ownership over the evidence of their work and learning experiences. That’s essential. If a student has done the work, sharing evidence of that work should be easy and at the discretion of the student.

As Jobs for the Future notes, “Digital wallets would put learners and workers at the center of the talent marketplace by enabling them to own and control the evidence of their academic and professional achievements.” When implemented effectively, VCs can therefore empower workers with a tool that enables greater capacity for self-advocacy throughout their time in school and the workforce.

Historically, in a world without computers, it may have made sense for schools to own credential-related data, as hosting large volumes of paper records was only possible for well-equipped institutions with endless rows of file cabinets and data warehouses.   

In the digital age, however, technological innovations enable us to distribute that data; students can own and share credentials as they see fit. Student-owned credentials are only possible due to these advances in technology, and they present a creative way to leverage digital tools to enhance the work ecosystem.

More robust signals

Verified Credentials also expand which skills, experiences, and knowledge can be communicated and evaluated in a hiring process. 

Again from Jobs for the Future:

Imagine if, instead of just getting a diploma recognizing their academic achievements, high school graduates could also receive credentials acknowledging the skills they gained through extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and volunteer work. And then think of the advantages they’d have if they could continually add to their collections of achievements whenever they acquired new skills or experiences as they advanced along their education and employment pathways. 

As a well-established example, many (if not most) current jobs require some kind of digital literacy. But how do applicants provide evidence of, or signal, that digital proficiency on a resume?

Presently, many companies use Automated Tracking Systems (ATS) that scan resumes looking for traditional credentials, like a college degree. But an applicant that has a college degree doesn’t necessarily have digital skills, or at least the digital skills needed to succeed in a specific role. 

A Verified Credential offers a unique and promising solution. The data structure, or the record and the information it stores, is innovative in that it is readable for both humans and machines. 

Imagine: a job seeker applies for a position and submits their resume through an online portal; the resume is scanned by an ATS, which finds evidence of digital literacy in the badge it finds. Since it finds the digital literacy credential, the computer forwards the resume to a hiring manager, who clicks on the digital badge to access its rich metadata, or additional fields of information, like: what skills were assessed in order to earn the badge, how the skills were assessed, an expiration date for the credential (if it exists), and other information related to the credential. 

The hiring manager uses that additional information to evaluate candidates and distinguish between someone who has the ability to create a slideshow presentation, as an example, versus someone who can understand CAD files and operate advanced machinery. Both are digital skills, but those distinct skills are likely to be found in applicants with different educational and professional backgrounds.

Adopting Verified Credentials and digital wallets enables a wider spectrum of experience to be captured and communicated on a resume. Employers can therefore draw from a deeper pool of candidates while also improving their ability to match applicants with the right job in the organization.

Skills-based hiring, advancement, and training

As discussed, the current workforce system relies heavily on a small subset of credentials: high school diplomas, college degrees, and professional experiences (versus skills gained and/or accomplishments achieved in previous roles). 

There are several limitations to this model, most notably that it often restricts the pool of candidates to only those with traditionally-accepted credentials, leaving an estimated 27 million workers “hidden” from employers, or people that are “not working and not seeking employment but are willing and able to work.” 

By enabling companies (and their computers) to scan resumes for a wider range of credentials, organizations would be better positioned to recruit and leverage the talent of workers with the experience needed to succeed in a role, even if they don’t have a traditionally accepted credential. This could be a boon for employment and productivity as companies continue to struggle to fill open roles.

Once hired, employers can also use rich metadata to match workers with high quality training programs aligned with future growth opportunities, enabling adult learners to build new skills across a lifetime that can lead to more meaningful career advancement. 

Suppose a manager identifies a cashier that could be a good candidate for advancement and invites them to enroll in a management training program. Once the worker completes the program, they can use the digital badge they earned to apply for assistant manager positions. In order for this future to be realized, that badge would need to be recognized, understood, and accepted by the employer during the interview process. 

Similarly, job seekers can develop personalized learning paths based on skills needed to access and advance in their careers. If skills-based hiring systems are adopted, job seekers can enroll in programs with greater assurance that the training (and credentials) will lead to meaningful career advancement. Even if they don’t finish school, as is unfortunately common for working and non-traditional adult learners, students can earn credentials along the way to get some credit for the work they’ve done while enrolled.

How SkillRise seeks to support a skills-based future workforce

A natural question one might ask at this point is: If the technology is so promising, why isn’t it more widely used? Why aren’t companies recognizing alternative credentials? Why aren’t job seekers aggressively pursuing new badges?

The answer is: They are. And it’s early; the new data standard has only recently been developed and accepted, and it takes time for the established data infrastructure to evolve. HR systems at every company, university, and government organizations need to be updated, HR staff need to be trained in how Verified Credentials work, and job seekers need time to learn about and start experiencing how VCs function.   

At SkillRise, we are looking to help advance the skills-based hiring and training ecosystem through three primary strategies: a course, an assessment, and a Verified Credential, all aligned with our Profile of a Lifelong Learner.

First, our Profile course provides a high quality digital skills training program that helps adult learners build the digital competencies needed to thrive in the future of work. Alongside the course, students can take the assessment that measures the competencies in the Profile. Lastly, successful learners will earn a Verified Credential that can be added to resumes and digital wallets as a signal of digital and lifelong learning skills.

For now, if you are curious to learn more about digital wallets and Verified Credentials, we suggest this report from JFF (and SkillRise advisor, Sharon Leu) that provides an accessible and detailed overview of VCs, digital wallets, and the current landscape of skills-based hiring.

Next, stay tuned for part two in this blog series where we’ll detail the technical layers of building and deploying a Verified Credential to ensure it is usable for job seekers and includes meaningful data for hiring managers. Simply put, we’ll look at how the VC technology itself works so any organization can prepare to build and deploy a Verified Credential.

Lastly, are you thinking about how to best support digital skills growth at your organization (or for yourself)? 

Click here to join our monthly newsletter list where we will share updates about upcoming digital skills training opportunities, including a no-cost pilot starting in January 2023 where employers and training organizations can partner with SkillRise to enroll staff in the digital skills course and assessment program designed to help workers build the digital skills needed to thrive in the careers of today and tomorrow.

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This is part one in our series on Verified Credentials. Click here to read part two!

The SkillRise Editorial Team consists of:

  • As Director of Research at ISTE, Brandon Olszewski brings experience in educational research, edtech, and adult professional learning to the project. He leads the SkillRise initiative. Find Brandon on Twitter or LinkedIn.
  • Caroline McKinnon is ISTE's Senior Program Manager of Adult Learning and brings over 25 years of experience in domestic and international education, working with refugees and workforce development groups. Find Caroline on LinkedIn.
  • Lea Downing is Project Manager with SkillRise, bringing to the project experience in adult education, community college education, edtech, and nonprofit management. Find Lea on LinkedIn.
  • Joey Lehrman is a Project Manager with SkillRise and the Assistant Director of Program Effectiveness and Data for the Adult Education Program at Delgado Community College, where he brings over 15 years of experience as a classroom teacher and administrator in adult education and career pathway programming. Find Joey on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Follow us on Twitter @SkillRiseOrg to stay in touch!