Blazing a Trail for Microcredentials in the Clean Energy Industry
By Veronica Buckwalter (JFF), Anna Sullivan (IREC), and Laure-Jeanne Davignon (IREC)
The energy auditor who comes to assess your home’s energy performance may possess a microcredential earned through a program that could be a national model for developing these key skill sets while working in other industries.
The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), a national nonprofit that supports increased consumer access to clean energy, looked at microcredentials as it tried to answer the question of how to balance the cost and quality of credentialing while being rigorous, nimble, cost effective, and responsive to rapidly evolving skills and industry demands.
IREC saw microcredentials as smaller in scope but laser-focused, viable pathways for stackable credentials and career advancement.
Energy, health care, and manufacturing are examples of industries with an urgent need for workers in traditional “core” professions who also have highly specialized knowledge and experience with cutting-edge processes or technologies. This growing challenge has not been effectively addressed by education or training providers in a way that validates knowledge, skills, and experience by means of a trusted, recognizable indicator companies can rely on to hire new talent.
JFF looked at the challenges of achieving more widespread adoption of short-term credentials as part of a recent research study for Lumina Foundation. Through this research, we discovered how IREC took a proactive approach to validating the knowledge and experience required to meet a growing specialized-skill need for energy auditors and, in addition, may have developed a framework that can be used in other industries.
The pace of the clean energy market expansion and job growth poses an exciting but daunting challenge to solar power employers, employees, and the workforce development infrastructure. Jobs in the solar energy industry grew to over 260,000 in 2016, and energy efficiency jobs reached roughly 1.9 million in mid-2017.
The rise of full-scope certification programs to support early job growth provided rigor and credibility while helping to structure job definitions and much-needed competency-based assessments of workers. But, in some situations, full-scope certifications alone are no longer meeting employers’ needs to recruit and promote personnel with the necessary blend of validated skills.
The IREC set out to define microcredentials as a valuable opportunity for individuals to demonstrate competency in a specialty area. Candidates for a microcredential may or may not be in a “core” profession (like solar power) but might need a specific set of knowledge and skills related to that core profession to perform competently and safely.
In other words, a microcredential would not typically cover a full job description but rather a subset of an existing job—for instance, the skills required to enable a code official to inspect a solar-powered system.
IREC recognized that microcredentials could also enable practitioners who want to add defined specialties to existing certifications to reach a higher credentialed status through stackable credentials. By wedding the rigor of full-scope certification with resource-conserving efficiencies, specialized microcredentials could cover topics such as solar-powered operations and maintenance or infrared thermography with on-time, quality credentials responsive to changing market realities.
IREC tested this definition and the microcredential development process with a partner, Professional Testing Inc., through an initial pilot at the intersection of energy auditing and home health assessment. Valuable lessons learned during the pilot were then applied to a partnership with the National Apartment Association Education Institute. The new microcredential, CAMT+E, allows maintenance personnel to validate their energy efficiency-related knowledge and skills to prepare for a more significant role managing and improving the energy performance of the apartment communities they maintain. The credential and relevant training will be available at a national level this year.
Since IREC’s initial forays into this niche, the demand for specialized credentialing has continued to grow. At the time of publication, IREC has undertaken a microcredentialing project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to create a new microcredential certification exam for quality control inspectors working in the energy efficiency retrofit sector. The microcredential is an add-on for certified energy auditors, creating a stackable credentialing framework that can expand career options and mobility for workers.
The experience of IREC is just one example of an industry’s growing need to develop a recognizable, trusted credentialing strategy for validating specialized knowledge and skills within a profession. In health care, demand for diagnostic imaging technicians who specialize in MRI and mammography and registered nurses who specialize in oncology and gerontology are spurring the emergence of in-house “mini-apprenticeship” programs. These short-term, highly focused programs combine on-the-job training with classroom coursework and seek to bring general practitioners up to speed on the technologies, practices, and nuances of specialized facets of the health care field.
JFF’s research for Lumina Foundation found that industries, in general, are unaware and skeptical of the value that microcredentials and similar short-term skills certificates can bring to their workforce. This is mostly due to the lack of evidence supporting the return on investment for hiring individuals who complete these programs, as well as the inconsistency with which these programs are developed and delivered.
The efforts of IREC and other national industry associations are helping shed light on the potential for microcredentials to meet the urgent, complex, and highly specialized skill needs of industries across the U.S.
For more information on the challenges of increasing uptake of microcredentials, as well as other sub-associate degree credentials, and a look into how community colleges are tackling this issue, please see JFF’s new report for Lumina Foundation, Four Ways to Increase the Value of Short-Term Credentials: A Guide for Community Colleges, available at http://www.jff.org/publications.
 2017, Four Ways to Increase the Value of Short-Term Credentials: A Guide for Community Colleges, Jobs for the Future.