Colorado Succeeds Conducts Landscape Analysis of Certifications, Credentials and Proofs of Competency

Colorado Succeeds recently partnered with the Donnell-Kay Foundation to research opportunities to increase economic mobility for Colorado’s students as they enter the workforce.  The study takes a look across Colorado and nationally at the current state of industry-recognized certificates, credentials, or other proofs of competency.

The report looks at how these opportunities give Coloradans ages 16 to 21 additional career pathways and seeks to understand how our state is preparing students today for industry’s needs tomorrow. Specifically, the landscape analysis set out to understand three things:

  • What are the biggest talent gaps in the labor market today and into the future?
  • How do we know when students are adequately prepared for jobs?
  • What innovative efforts are underway inside and out of schools to address those skills gaps, provide effective training, and prepare students to thrive?

These questions are particularly relevant as Governor Hickenlooper, Colorado Succeeds, school districts, the Colorado Workforce Development Council, and other partners work to implement HB-1289, which will incentivize high schools to offer many of the certifications analyzed in this report.

Industry Need

The landscape analysis started by looking at which industries and occupations are largest and growing. Knowing this can help organizations, like school districts and colleges, align their programs around the types of skills that are most likely to lead students directly to a job. Interestingly, we found that most new jobs will come from the top seven largest and/or fastest growing industries:

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To get a deeper sense of what types of jobs these large and fast growing industries will be adding in coming years, the report cross checked this with occupational forecasts. The nuance here is crucial. For example, what type of talent needs does the healthcare industry have? Do they need nurses or IT professionals? Do manufacturers need more machinists or sale reps? The occupational data gave a different, more detailed, picture of what jobs will be needed in the future:

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Combining the findings from industry and occupational forecasts, the report identified healthcare, construction, and manufacturing industries as the best place to focus workforce preparation efforts. Specifically, the combination of job growth, well-paid entry level occupations, and motivated employers makes these industries particularly well positioned to expand career pathways for Colorado 16-21 year olds.

Construction, healthcare, and technology occupations also stood out for their high levels of forecasted growth and the diversity of entry-level roles and relevant certifications associated with these professions.

Interviews with professionals in these industries bear this out. As Michael Smith of the Colorado Construction Institute (CCI) explained, “if you are ready to be employed you can get a job in a matter of days. I don’t know of anyone in construction who wants a job, and has the skills, that can’t find one. The challenge is to give the unemployed and underemployed the skills they need to work.”

“There is a substantial labor shortage in the construction industry that will only get worse,”  Smith says. “The way to address it is to have a common set of standards that truly show skills employers care about approved and adopted by local businesses and industry groups.”

Certifications and Licenses

The landscape analysis also looked at which certifications and licenses are most valuable to students and employers. It was immediately clear that while both certifications and licenses lead to higher income and lower unemployment, there is also a lot of confusion about which add value for an employee and which aren’t as important to landing a job.

Consider this: There are 136 different types of licenses issued in Colorado, 8,619 types of industry certificates issued nationally, and more than 14,000 different academic certificates issued by Colorado schools. Some of these–particularly in healthcare and construction–are valuable, even indispensable, to employers looking to hire qualified candidates and for job seekers trying to get their foot in the door. Other certifications aren’t worth the paper they are printed on, especially those with minimal quality control.

Additionally, many of the fastest growing industries don’t have relevant certifications. Those that do, such as the healthcare and technology occupations, have the most to gain from efforts to drive up certificate completion and to experiment with new approaches around student and school engagement.

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Another challenge arises when determining which skills matter most to employers. Many of the most valued skills do not have certifications or proofs of competency. Others are hard to measure or even define. For example, employers cite “communication” and “ability to work well with a team” as highly important in all industries. Yet, these soft skills are among the most difficult to measure. Clearly, much work remains to align certifications and proofs of competency with the skills that matter most to employers.

New Ideas

After taking stock of industry needs and the current state of certification and licensure, the report focused on ways Colorado could give 16-21 year olds more options.

Among the recommendations, it was clear that the perception of Career and Technical Education (CTE) must change. While many great programs exist across the state, too many people still consider CTE as the place where “failing students go.” Furthermore, public perception needs to catch up with the reality of CTE. These programs are no longer the domain of just auto mechanics and hairdressers; but of wind technicians, healthcare professionals, and engineers.

Student-making-notesCounseling and career prep were both identified as opportunities to change perception and expose students to a diversity of career pathways. Some schools are starting to get this right: Center High School, Denver Public School’s Denver Career Connects, James Irwin Charter School, and Adams 12’s ICAP program all have high quality programming with high student interest. However, in much of the state, student-to-counselor ratios are just too high to give students the support they need to navigate the important decision of what to do after high school.

Just as important, students need more opportunities to gain workforce experience and test out career pathways in high school. Job shadows, internships, apprenticeships, and other work-based experiences are all critical to expose students to different options and gain experience in the workplace.

Although experience is often more highly valued by employers, efforts still need to be made to simplify and clarify the certification landscape. The report identified six categories of certificates to focus on: healthcare, technology, construction, manufacturing, engineering and drafting, and general certificates that apply to almost all industries. Work to create a common set of certificate standards, like that being done by the Lumina Foundation, should be supported.

Finally, many organizations are experimenting with innovative approaches that should be encouraged and replicated where successful. For example, some programs are moving away from seat-time to competency based approaches so that students can move through learning at their own pace. Others, like Aurora Public Schools’ Digital Badging Program, are using online and blended learning to teach soft skills. P-TECH schools are offering industry certifications and an associate’s degree for students who are still in high school.

These and other efforts speak to a growing awareness of the talent gap and the importance of expanding the learning pipeline for students and employers. While in many ways this work is just beginning, it is also clear that both business and education leaders in Colorado understand the need to change the way we prepare Colorado kids for the jobs of the future.


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