Employers, educators and human resources professionals often talk about skills. Skills have become the new measure for finding a desirable employee. Knowledge can be gained through training, eLearning, seminars, an online training software, testing or countless other mediums using learning management systems. Expertise and knowledge, so the thinking goes, can be readily learned in the digital world. Skills like problem solving, advanced numeracy, or creativity, on the other hand, take years to develop. All the talk about skills in the press and in human resources circles would seem to indicate that employers are looking for dynamic and adaptable staff for the 21st century, rather than those with specific expertise. Indeed, expertise are a remnant of the old economy where having mastery of a particular area of knowledge would serve one well for three decades, not three months. Today, employees need to be able to master new skills and expertise in a hurry to stay competitive.
However, old habits die hard. Despite the growing need for adaptability and skills, employers are still relying on credentials of all shapes and sizes as the basis of their hiring. Spend some time pouring over job advertisements and you are likely to find a list of essential qualifications that must be met before an application can proceed. These essential qualifications often come in the form of a list of degrees, certificates and specific work contexts. In short, candidates must staisfy the requirement for credentials before anyone even considers their skills.
The two categories are not mutually exclusive. Those with experience in particular organizational contexts or with particular degrees or certificates may well have the skills necessary. Indeed, credentials help to raise the likelihood of certain candidates having required skills, but they should never be confused with them. A candidate who understands the way their skills gained in a related context transfer to a new one, may have a much firmer grasp of their abilities as well as a host of useful outside skills not present in those who have only worked inside a particular organizational context. Many individuals develop skills and abilities from self-employed endeavors that are parallel, or separate from, formal education, giving employers the possibility of a well-rounded and adaptable employee. In short, the more specific the “essential qualifications” listed on a job, the less likely it is the advertisement will attract an adaptable and dynamic set of candidates.
This is particularly urgent today with the growth of micro-credentials. From weekend-long mini-MBAs to dubious certifications based on standardized tests and memorization, there is an expansion of these small credentials that are costly to get, but require little in the way of skill development beyond memorization. Certainly, these are no substitute for experience, or for credentials that require substantial investments of time and effort. Yet, so long as essential requirements become more and more specific to reduce the work of reading resumes, the micro-credential industry will continue to flourish and employers will continue to find themselves with a skills shortage in the midst of a credential surplus.