College & Workforce Readiness

Do Students Need Licenses or Certifications? A Career-Readiness Question

By Catherine Gewertz — October 20, 2016 2 min read
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Defining career readiness continues to be a tricky endeavor. And for those who work to guide teenagers in building solid preparation for the workforce, understanding the world of licenses and certifications can seem daunting.

The pressure’s on, too. As a recent paper from the Brookings Institution reports, the demand for vocational credentials is “skyrocketing.” (And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics just put out a helpful explainer about the difference between licenses and credentials. More about that in a minute.)

The Brookings paper dives into the credentials piece of the landscape, explaining the difference between short-term credentials, which take less than a year to earn, and long-term credentials, which take more than one but less than two years. Both are typically earned at community colleges.

Their popularity is soaring: Between 2000 and 2012, author Adela Soliz reports, the number of long-term credentials awarded by community colleges rose 63 percent, and the number of short-term, or “short,” credentials rose 157 percent. Contrast those with the rise in associate degrees over the same period: 47 percent.

The paper raises some questions and concerns in particular about the short-term credentials, which are most commonly obtained for jobs like emergency medical technician, automotive mechanic, welding technologist, commercial vehicle operations, and law enforcement.

Soliz examines the limited research available about how such certificates impact students’ earnings, and she finds mixed results, which is of particular concern given how quickly the sector is expanding. The certificates can be valuable if they’re well matched to labor-market needs and if employers recognize their value, Soliz says. But there isn’t strong evidence that this is consistently the case.

Another new study, reported by Inside Higher Ed, also raises some questions about the value of short-term certificates if they’re not thoughtfully designed. It examines a program that created 11 health-care pathways in five states.

Amid those questions, counselors are still struggling to decipher the world of vocational credentials. And a new help sheet from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics could come in handy there.

The resource tries to clear up confusion about licenses and certifications. One key distinction, the BLS says, is that some licenses are conferred by government agencies, and are required in some occupations, when certificates are not. Here’s how the Bureau breaks it down:

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Many people use the terms interchangeably, and in some fields it’s standard practice to earn a certification, then go on to pass a licensing exam.

Licenses are far more common: 22 percent of employed people had them in 2015. Three percent of employed people held a certification but no license, the BLS reports.

Licenses are most common in health care (pharmacists, massage therapists), legal and protective service (firefighters, some judges and lawyers), community and social services, and personal care and service.

Credentials crop up most frequently in health care and community and social services (counselors, social workers), but also in computer and math occupations (network administrator, anyone?), and in jobs requiring skills in installation, maintenance, and repair (such as aircraft mechanics and electric-power-line installers).

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.