Non-degree Credentials in Engineering: Exemplifying the Promises and Challenges for All Credentials

Female engineer working on machine with non-degree credential knowledge.

There is surging interest in the development and use of non-degree credentials—such as certifications, certificates, and licenses—in the education and workforce communities, with a significant focus on understanding the value and use of these credentials. One significant challenge when tackling the questions that arise around this topic is the variety of existing credentials. Non-degree credentials vary in structure, scope, purpose, and quality, making it challenging to disentangle the impact of any single credential.

One way to better understand their use and significance is to focus on how they are used within one discipline or career pathway. Workcred recently co-authored a chapter that more fully examines how non-degree credentials are used within (postsecondary) engineering education and/or the engineering workforce. The chapter also explores the types of non-degree credentials commonly used in engineering and how they support and/or complement associate and baccalaureate degrees.

Importantly, the data available in engineering strongly suggests that (by the numbers) non-degree credentials play as important a role as degrees. In 2019, community colleges awarded 258,000 certificates in science and engineering technologies.[1] This number does not include the additional certificates, certifications, badges, and licenses issued annually by professional societies, certification bodies, state licensure boards, and engineering companies, which is likely in the hundreds of thousands, annually. Compare this to the number of engineering degrees awarded—724,927 baccalaureate and 104,435 associate[2]—and the importance of credentials in engineering becomes obvious.

For that reason, the three challenges identified in the chapter—concerns around assessing quality, limitations of existing evidence, and understanding how learners and employers are using non-degree credentials—should be taken seriously by educators, policymakers, and other engineering education and workforce stakeholders. And while the demographics of those with engineering degrees and those in the engineering workforce do not perfectly mirror the broader U.S. workforce, there is a strong argument that the same promises and challenges that non-degree credentials hold in engineering will be seen nationally.

To address these challenges will require a transformation of how learning is recorded, recognized, and communicated by credential issuers, learners, and employers. Technological advances, such as Learning and Employment Records (LERs), digital credentials, and skills frameworks and/or taxonomies, must be further developed and integrated into existing processes so they are broadly implemented by organizations and used by individuals. Equally important, data from these systems must be linked together with relevant data (e.g., demographics, employment, wages) to understand their impact.

Without this transformation, the number and variety of credentials will make it difficult to judge the value of any credential. Therefore, developing and implementing this technological and data infrastructure—and ensuring that data is collected to populate it—is essential to realizing the value and use of non-degree credentials.

[1] Okrent, Abigail and Amy Burke. “The STEM Labor Force of Today: Scientists, Engineers, and Skilled Technical Workers.” National Science Foundation, August 2021.

[2] Burke, Amy, Abigail Okrent, and Katherine Hale. “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022.” National Science Foundation, January 2022.

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