By 2020, 65% of all jobs in the economy will require post-secondary education and training and, at its current production rate, the U.S. will fall five million short of the credentialed workers that will be needed to fill those jobs, according to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Thus, many Americans are faced with an impossible choice: either go into debt to earn a degree and have a chance at landing a decent-paying job or forgo post-secondary education altogether and likely struggle to find employment that offers a living wage. This reality has helped drive the student loan debt crisis, which has now reached around $1.5 trillion — but what if there were another option? What if there were a way that high school graduates could obtain the education and training they need to succeed in today’s workforce — quickly and without going into debt — all while holding down a part-time job (or two)?

Professional certificate programs offer an alternative to degree programs by making post-secondary education accessible to a broader range of learners, from recent high school graduates to single mothers. After becoming certified, these learners are better equipped with the industry-specific skills needed to advance their professional development.

Making Learning Accessible For Everyone

Ashish Rangnekar, co-founder and CEO of BenchPrep, founded the online learning platform to help learners have 24/7 access to the tools needed to succeed in any educational program, including certifications and certificates. “Our goal is to make it insanely easy to study for these professional certifications,” he says. To that end, BenchPrep is helping learners of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels access key tools (e.g., study guides, study plans and flash cards) to achieve a professional credential.

For low-income learners especially, professional certificate programs make it easier to advance their development, employability and earning potential in today’s job market — in far less time than it takes to complete a four-year degree. Amber Garrison Duncan, Ph.D., strategy director at Lumina Foundation, says, “I think the benefit of these credentials is often the shorter time to completion. If I’m low-income, I’m probably working one to three jobs.”

The affordability of earning a professional certification is game-changing in the post-secondary education space, especially when considering the increasing cost of college. “The cost of getting these certifications is roughly one-tenth of [the cost of] going through a four-year degree program,” Rangnekar explains. “That is substantial … You can cut through the student loan crisis if you go through a professional certification, which is much cheaper, for one, and the ROI is much more clear.”

Closing Skills Gaps

Overall, it is evident that alternate credentials are helping close barriers to employment by empowering learners with the skills and competencies needed to thrive in the workforce. However, learners aren’t the only ones that benefit from alternate avenues to education: Organizations directly benefit from hiring candidates with alternate credentials, as they are often already proficient in many of the skills needed to succeed on the job. This proficiency, in turn, can help close skills gaps and shorten the onboarding process.

These professional certifications are so laser-focused on a specific profession or job requirement that the alignment creates a much better candidate pipeline than hiring a standard four-year graduate,” Rangnekar says.

Learning and development (L&D) professionals should work to instill a culture of learning at their organization to ensure that these new employees have access to key opportunities for continued learning. In order to support employees’ professional development, Rangnekar says L&D leaders should focus on enabling learners as they pursue additional certifications relevant to their job. “Enablement means giving them the right tools [and] the right platform that fits their preferences,” he says. “It’s not about you. It’s about the learner.”

Lastly, Rangnekar says that L&D leaders should make the certification’s benefit clear to learners: How can it advance their careers? What industries value the certification? Addressing these questions from the start will help ensure learners are successful not only in earning additional certifications but also in using those credentials to advance their professional development.

Arming Learners With Relevant Skills

While four-year degree holders typically boast a wealth of knowledge, Rangnekar believes they sometimes don’t have the competencies and industry-specific skills needed to successfully perform on the job. “Employers need to make sure that the people they’re hiring are capable of doing something,” Rangnekar notes. “They don’t care if they know something or not … it’s more about mastering the competencies rather than just acquiring the knowledge.”

Thus, certified professionals have a competitive edge: proof that they have mastered the competencies needed to thrive in a certain industry. “Certificates are obviously industry-specific, and industry certifications are obviously co-designed with the employer in mind,” Garrison Duncan explains.

Many professional certificates are even more specific. Anthony Carnevale, Ph.D., research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says, “There are hundreds of more specific certificates, because a certificate is something you might get not necessarily to do a whole job but to perform specific tasks and activities in a job. You could be a computer professional but might get a certificate to learn a new language.”

Assessing the Value of Certificates

With the overwhelming number of certificates circulating in the job market, it can be difficult for organizations to assess their individual value. One way to determine the value of a certificate is to consider the industry at hand, as there are certain industries that value certificates more than others. Carnevale credits certificates in industries such as aviation, technology, business, drafting, transportation, health care, construction trades, food services and cosmetology as offering the most value to both organizations and learners.

Another way organizations can assess the value of a certificate is by looking at current job ads. Carnevale says that certificates that are not valuable won’t be mentioned.

After assessing the value of a candidate’s professional certificate, organizations can better determine if he or she has successfully learned the skills needed to perform in a specific role. For L&D professionals, this process means new hires will be ready to jump into the training process headfirst, as they already hold many of the skills needed to be productive members of the organization.

All in all, with the help of L&D leaders in fostering a culture of continuous learning and supporting employees throughout the entire learning process, professional certificate programs are increasing access to post-secondary education and training. As a result, a diverse range of learners will be armed with the tools needed to succeed on the job, advance their professional development and explore newfound opportunities for growth.

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