New Micro-credentials Spotlight Employable Skills Students Gain Along the Away Feature Story

June 14, 2024

The educational journey of a community college student can be rife with twists and turns, and stops and starts. You might be surprised to know that nearly 20 percent of adult residents of Orange County have some college but do not have a degree. At the same time, community college students learn valuable skills in every course they take, but in our current educational model, credit for these skills only comes with the completion of a full degree or certificate program. While many believe this model encourages completion, it also deprives students of the immediate career or salary boost those skills might give them.

Orange County community colleges are collaborating to change this by developing micro-credentials that will identify the in-demand skills students have acquired. Eventually, the colleges plan to create a platform where students can promote these skills and employers can find potential employees with the expertise they need. In addition, it will provide an attractive option for working professionals who want to quickly earn a micro-credential that could help them gain a new job or a promotion.

According to Stephanie Feger, program director for Career Education & Workforce Development at Coast Community College District, the goal is to support students’ career advancement and respond to the needs of employers in a way that will better support economic development in Orange County.

“We are expanding the opportunity, particularly for people who have some college or no degree, to gain the skills that will give them more options so they can get a better job or continue to finish a degree,” said Feger who is leading one of two micro-credential programs being developed in consultation with Digital Learning Innovations and funded by the Strong Workforce Program.

How It Will Work

In coordination with the Workforce Development Support and Coordination, Feger’s project is focusing on developing micro-credentials in the Culinary Arts and Automotive Technology programs. At the same time, Dr. Jon Caffery, regional director of Employer Engagement, Talent Development and Retention at Saddleback College, is leading the Skills Cafeteria for Applied Learning Equivalency (SCALE) project, which is focused on Advanced Manufacturing programs but will include all disciplines. The hope of both projects is to eventually have micro-credentials used by all programs at colleges in the region.

Feger and Caffery began by working with faculty in their respective disciplines to take inventory of the skills students gain and in which courses. Depending on industry needs, they defined micro-credentials as a skill or a bundle of skills from one or more courses, including those in other disciplines. Once a student completes the work to gain the skill, they will receive a digital badge that will be placed in the Canvas platform that all California community colleges use.

For example, experience with point of sale technology is needed in the hospitality industry. It is covered in a culinary arts course and identified as a micro-credential. Once the student completes that course, they can earn a digital badge for that skill.

“You can earn a badge and use it to get a job or negotiate a better salary without having to complete the program,” Feger said. “Those digital badges will have all that metadata that describe those skills that you have been able to master. It doesn’t just say you took the course, it articulates those skills. It’s a wonderful feeling when you accomplish something and you have that sense of mastering a skill. Having evidence of that mastery is really going to help people advance in their career pathways.”

Employers will benefit from micro-credentials as well. Caffery embarked on this idea when an industry partner came to him after having a difficult time finding qualified employees. The employer had a list of 40 technical skills he was looking for fell across several disciplines.

Caffery plans to build a badging system that is convenient and automatic. As students gain skills that fall into a micro-credential category, badges will automatically be added to their digital “backpacks” in Canvas.

When an employer has a job vacancy, they will be able to log into the system and select the skills or “badges” their position requires. They will then receive the resumes of students who have these skills, or the students will have the option to receive an email about open positions that match their skills.

“This is going to link employers to students who actually have the skills they need,” said Caffery. “Before they were just throwing out job descriptions and getting thousands of resumes that may not meet what the job demands. These will be verified skills.”

To make sure the system is meeting workforce needs, employers will have the option to suggest skills for a micro-credential if they don’t see it represented. According to Caffery, most of the skills employers require are being taught already, it’s just a matter of locating the course and developing the micro-credential. This feedback system means colleges might also develop short-term courses for specific industry training and skills that are broadly needed allowing them to be more agile in responding to changing industry needs.

The micro-credential pilot programs are scheduled to launch in Fall 2024 with a goal to roll them out to students by Spring 2025. 

A County-Wide Collaboration

While micro-credentials may be new to Orange County, they are not new across the country. In California, Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga has already started using micro-credentials for competency-based learning. What is unique in Orange County is that the community colleges are working together to scale micro-credential programs and implement them across all nine campuses.

“We’re going to create a regional ecosystem where everyone knows all the skills offered and where you can get them,” said Dr. Trelisa Glazatov, a consultant with Digital Learning Innovations. “That is the piece that is both beautiful and challenging. You have nine colleges and nine ways of doing things. The central piece is that we have students in mind and we want to support our regional economy in a way that’s good for students, good for us, and good for employers.”

The process of identifying and mapping skills across different programs has given the faculty a better understanding of what the colleges offer, Fager said. “When you are meeting employers to talk about career events or internships you can really articulate the skills that are in those courses and programs,” she said.

Faculty are also enjoying the process which is having the added benefit of helping all involved articulate what exactly their program and courses offer.

“Being able to collaborate has been a great opportunity,” said Tiffany Heremans, a food and nutrition department faculty member at Santa Ana College. When we shared the project with our advisory board, they were impressed and they wanted to know more.”

Kathleen Lunetto, family and consumer science instructor at Saddleback College, is excited to see the program launch, especially as a way to reward students for the work they have completed on their educational paths.

“Micro-credentials will be a motivational tool for our students,” said Lunetto. “It also gives the students some leverage. With the badges, employers are assured that they have the skills and are ready to hit the ground running.”

Looking forward, Glazatov expects this micro-credential work will have a ripple effect.

“This is the good work that is going to be transformational for educational institutions beyond Orange County and California and it’s because of Stephanie and faculty and the courageous administrations who said, ‘Let’s innovate. Let’s try things a little differently,’” Glazatov said. “This is going to transform lives in ways that we don’t even understand yet.”