Thinking beyond the traditional four-year degree

Back-to-school season always makes me a bit nostalgic. It transports me back to the end of summer days I spent eagerly anticipating the start of a new school year. Sadly, my kids don’t always share my enthusiasm for heading back to school.


Last week, talk of the new school year prompted my youngest to groan, “but I hate learning.” I was quick to point out that learning is not limited to school. It turned into a lively conversation about how there are opportunities to learn something new everyday and learning continues long after school ends.


With technology at our fingertips and the increasing popularity of alternative credentials, there are perhaps more opportunities for learning outside of traditional school than ever before. This is welcome news as we continue to face a skills gap where we lack enough workers and skilled candidates to fill an increasing number of jobs.


Rising demand for upskilling and reskilling to close the skills gap has resulted in a rapid expansion in the number of alternative credentials available. Training certificates, course completion certificates and industry or professional certifications are all examples of alternative credentials. In fact, the number of unique credentials in the United States tracked and reported to Credential Engine increased from 334,114 in 2018 to 967,734 in 2020.


A recent report by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) sheds light on how workers and employers perceive alternative credentials.


Key report findings include:

  • Workers are increasingly pursuing alternative credentials as part of their career strategy to sharpen skills, enhance marketability, advance within their current career or even shift into new ones. 45% of those surveyed said they have some form of alternative credential and 49% of those who don’t have considered earning one.
  • Business leaders overwhelmingly agree that alternative credentials are valuable for employee development and most feel employees with alternative credentials gain more credibility.
  • Advantages of alternative credentials include their skills focus and accessibility. Their affordability combined with the ease of taking online and a comparatively short time to complete make them more easily accessible than more traditional formal education.
  • Greater recognition of alternative credentials enlarges the talent pool and may lead to increased diversity. The Cengage Group’s Employability Report published that only 38% of U.S. adults 25+ have a four-year degree. That’s quite a decline in the available candidates if an employer requires a degree.
  • Challenges keeping alternative credentials from becoming more widely accepted include inconsistency in the quality among various alternative credentials, lack of clarity around exactly what skills were learned, and uncertainty around evaluating alternative credentials and their equivalencies to work experience or traditional education.


Ready to embrace alternative credentials?  Here are some tips for workers and business leaders.

Tips for workers:

  • Do your research and select a reputable provider.
  • Consider the type of skill and how it aligns with the job competencies.
  • When possible:
    • Pursue industry or professional certifications.
    • Select alternative credentials that require you to pass a test to earn the credential.
    • Select alternative credentials that require work experience.
  • Display all relevant credentials on your resume and LinkedIn profile.

Tips for business leaders:

  • Evaluate what skills are genuinely required when establishing job qualifications.
  • Develop standardized criteria for assessing the value of alternative credentials across your organization.
  • Rather than focusing on whether it’s equivalent to a traditional degree program or work experience, consider mapping multiple acceptable paths to gain the skills needed for the job.
  • Evaluate your application process and ensure systems are in place to collect the information regarding alternative credentials.
  • Share success stories and communicate across the organization to increase awareness and pursue alternative credentials.


The professional world is competitive and ever-evolving making continual learning imperative for individuals to keep up. For workers, the good news is career opportunities are plentiful and our options for learning are nearly endless. For those hiring, it’s critical to be open-minded and consider creative solutions to the talent shortage. Thinking beyond your traditional approach may keep qualified candidates from being overlooked and provide a competitive advantage at a time when many are struggling to find the right fit.


For more insights on how to embrace alternative credentials as part of your talent acquisition strategy, check out Making Alternative Credentials Work from SHRM.


About the author

As Director of Organizational Development, Ashley Harwell drives career development strategies that support business objectives while promoting an environment where employees can grow and succeed. With over 15 years of experience in the staffing industry, her background includes talent management, employee relations, compliance and total rewards. Ashley graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is an active member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and holds an SHRM certification.


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