‘Micro-Degrees’ Bridge Pace-of-Change Gap Between Education, Technology

Don Tennant
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It’s a perennial issue that IT hiring managers face: Given that technology is evolving so much more rapidly than our educational system is, how can companies tap the enormous talent coming out of colleges and universities, and at the same time harness the skills they need in a competitive world where skills requirements are constantly changing?

One trend that’s addressing that disconnect is the emergence of programs with various labels — most commonly “micro-degrees” or “nanodegrees” — that aim to deliver a credentialed set of skills in a relatively short period of time. In a recent interview, Jason Weingarten, CEO of Yello, a talent acquisition software provider in Chicago, shared some keen insights about this trend, and the value these degrees might add to the skills acquisition ecosystem. Weingarten explained the pace-of-change disconnect this way:

There are new tools that seem to emerge almost daily in the technical space. It’s hard to rely on an old-school class when the tool is so new that schools don’t even have proper materials to teach it. So where technology moves faster than education is an area where nanodegrees could become a much quicker way to help verify that people can do things.

 To give an example from nine years ago, when Apple came out with the iPhone, iOS was born and you had the ability to develop apps for it. But the people who developed apps really didn’t learn how to do that in school, because you had no one who could even teach it yet.

 Apple then held developers’ forums; they showed people how to use tools similar to those used to develop stuff for Macs; and they were able to help translate that out into the work force. So I think you’re going to see that type of thing happen more and more, and that’s why micro-degrees could be very interesting down the road.

I was reminded of an interview I did a couple of years ago with a tech recruiter who argued that a successful IT career is becoming increasingly accessible without an expensive four-year college degree. So are micro-degrees a suitable alternative to a four-year college degree? Weingarten says definitely not:

I think four-year degrees offer a lot of soft skills that people need in order to be leaders in organizations. Those who don’t have a four-year degree right now might have certain technical skills that can be very valuable to a company. But being involved in different activities and organizations where you’re able to relate and empathize with different groups of people, prepares you to work in organizations, beyond just doing your job.

 So I don’t see micro-degrees as replacements at all — I see them as supplements, as quicker ways to learn things. As people look at LinkedIn profiles as the new resume, it’s more valuable to throw a nanodegree on there than it is to just say you read a certain book. We’re only at the start of it — we’re not sure where it will end up. But I don’t think it will disappear.

Weingarten went on to highlight the role micro-degrees can play in enabling people to acquire skills in specific coding languages:

It could be Ruby or Python, which are some newer languages; or it could be Microsoft-focused, where you need to learn .NET. Whatever those are, nanodegrees could be a quick way for people who currently have no experience in that area, to at least assert that they have made attempts to gain that experience. I think that’s something we’re going to start to see more of, especially as the prices of nanodegrees come down dramatically.

So what’s the difference between a micro-degree and a traditional certification that outfits like CompTIA have been offering for decades? Weingarten said the difference lies largely in the manner in which the information is delivered:

Certification is often done in person, in the form of night or weekend classes. So there traditionally has been more of a physical aspect to it, or at least it was done live — people spoke to other people. Typically, with these micro-degrees, like on Coursera or Udacity, it’s recorded, so you learn when you can. While it has its draws — it’s cheaper information to get, because it’s more accessible — people still need time to accept and adopt it as a new way of learning. I think we’re just now at the forefront of it — I don’t think there will be wide acceptance of these programs for at least a few years.

I asked Weingarten whether and how Yello is using micro-degree graduates to fill its own talent pipeline. He said Yello really only trusts its own assessments:

For us, we just really focus on the skill sets — there’s nothing inherently verifiable, even for someone who graduates from one college vs. another. So especially from a technical standpoint, we have very difficult technical assessments and tests. People who qualify through those may have had four-year engineering degrees. Most of them do — some of them have master’s degrees. Others have just worked in the space for 10 to 15 years, and have picked up the skills after switching from other careers. So at least from an engineering standpoint, we don’t look at it as, they got a nanodegree from here or a micro-degree from there.

Weingarten wrapped up the conversation by addressing the question of the weight that tech recruiters should give to micro-degree programs:

From my standpoint right now, I think micro-degrees are an option that is really important to collect data on, and then let the data tell you what works. I think it’s almost impossible to put a weight on it today. But the groundwork is being laid, so you can start getting a good sense of what it will be 12 or 24 months from now.

If you think about the way recruiting has changed, now you have data on where people were sourced from; you have data on what their resume was like at that time; you might have updated information on them through assessment data as they move up in the organization.

Micro-degrees should be one of those new data elements, just like a university degree was a data element — you might say, ‘We’re going to hire from this school, because that’s where we’ve successfully hired in the past.’ Nanodegrees should be looked at as a similar benchmark. I think data science and a lot of machine learning technologies, similar to the software that Yello provides and is working on, will help determine how valuable these are in the future.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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