In today’s learning economy, the line between studying and working is disappearing. Learners work; workers learn. And fewer Americans believe that a college degree is necessary for career success.

Therefore, although lifelong learning still occurs at colleges and universities, it increasingly is moving into the workplace and taking place via a variety of informal learning opportunities, many of them online.

Hordes of working learners are earning certificates, badges, nanodegrees, and microcredentials. These mostly digital credentials satisfy a need for competency-based learning, which is the focused study of skills or information that is immediately applicable to learners' jobs. Organizations—and their leaders—are faced with decisions about how to upskill and credential learners, as well as whether to recognize microcredentials that employees bring with them to the job.

Learning and working are no longer sequential

The paradigm of finishing high school, going to college, then seeking one’s first “real” job is giving way to a new model of lifelong learning while also working. “The separate silos of working, learning, and living are no longer separate,” according to “The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner,” a study by Parminder Jassal and Hope Clark of the ACT Foundation.

Jassal and Clark found that half of high school students and three-quarters of college students work at least part time. Not all working learners are attending high school or college, either. Many learn in informal or unaccredited programs, such as online skills courses, or in boot camps, internships and apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. And working learners are not all young; a third are over age 30.

Learners seek relevance, flexibility

The ACT study found that only 42 percent of Americans think that a college education is needed to succeed in the workforce—a significant drop since 2009. At the same time, “Working learners are more concerned about gaining work experience and acquiring in-demand skills,” the report said. The high cost of college and questions about “the return on investment and the practical benefits of a degree” have focused attention on newer, more flexible learning opportunities.

Some executives are paying attention: “For decades, degrees, grades, and resumes have been the traditional tokens of value or currencies in the workforce, but that is changing,” the report said. “An abundance of learning resources in a variety of formats” can “jumpstart workplace advancement and earnings growth.”

Employers embrace informal learning

Heavily regulated professions such as law or medicine are unlikely to embrace unaccredited microcredentials any time soon, but many professions and industries see clear benefits in narrowly focused, competency-based training.

Employers are increasingly turning to informal learning to upskill employees. According to a 2016 US News article, “Employers spend $413 billion on informal, on-the-job training annually, and individuals spend another $30 billion for professional education and certification.”

The advantages include:

  • Informal courses or certificate programs are more focused on specific skills or topic areas than degree programs. Employers can send employees to targeted training that will boost performance in the short term.
  • The informal learning courses are of a shorter duration—anything from a few microlearning courses to a three-to-seven course certificate at a university—than typical degree programs. Many are fully online, reducing cost and logistical barriers to employees' participation.
  • Professionals can take courses in an emerging area or learn new technologies to update degrees—and skill sets—they already have, for example, a journalist adding data journalism skills or a marketing professional adding social media and analytics expertise.
  • Adding advanced degrees, while costly and time-consuming, is not a road to higher pay or promotion in some fields. Those working in the arts, media, or marketing and PR, for example, may well see more immediate benefits from a shorter, less expensive certificate or nanodegree than from formal graduate studies.

Learners’ and employers’ needs diverge

A hallmark of undergraduate university degrees, at least historically, has been that bachelor’s degree programs include “general education” requirements, designed to ensure that graduates have broad knowledge in addition to particular skills tied to a major or future career path. Graduate degrees tend to include a hearty dose of theory and research skills. This comprehensive education, which also emphasizes softer skills like critical thinking, research, and creative problem-solving, is still highly valuable to most professionals—whether freelancers, employees, or job-seekers—and degrees from accredited colleges and universities are broadly recognized and accepted credentials.

That broad focus is a direct contrast to competency-based training that focuses narrowly on a job-role-linked skill set. “Virtually all of the microcredentials that have been launched and offered—and where the enrollments are and where companies appear most interested—are oriented toward professional and technical skills and disciplines,” Sean Gallagher, the founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, told EdSurge.

In most fields microcredentials, badges, and nanodegrees haven’t quite reached the same level of acceptance and credibility as university degrees. Even so, they appeal to many employers seeking to upskill employees. “While individual workers remain interested in credentials—which are portable from job-to-job—companies often prefer to invest in targeted learning opportunities that relate directly to their business needs and has a clear business return on investment,” Gallagher wrote in a column on EdSurge.

Gallagher told EdSurge that, while there’s been a modest decline in employer support for traditional degree programs, there’s “a pretty significant interest among employers in providing employees with microcredentials, which are quicker, less expensive, and more targeted to what they need.”

Continuous learning benefits learners and employers

The continuous learning paradigm is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The plethora of flexible digital learning opportunities is broadly appealing to learners at all stages of life and career. “When there’s a need for information or new skills, employees today are increasingly turning to instantly accessible sources such as search engines and online course libraries available on their mobile devices,” Gallagher wrote.

As informal learning credentials become more common, it’s inevitable that some will rise to the top. Terms like microcredential and nanodegree may take on a patina of legitimacy as some informal learning providers prove their value, and as employees seek recognition of their training and abilities as they move to new jobs and careers.

Explore the possibilities of performance-based and self-directed learning further in multiple sessions at Learning Solutions 2019 Conference and Expo, March 26–28, 2019, in Orlando, Florida.