The Role of Industry Based Certifications in Career and Technical Education

By Wilcox, Dave | Techniques, January 2006 | Go to article overview

The Role of Industry Based Certifications in Career and Technical Education


Wilcox, Dave, Techniques


A compelling case can be made for embracing industry-based certifications (IBCs) for use in secondary and postsecondary programs of study in career and technical education (CTE). This idea has generated a great deal of interest among educators and policymakers all across the U.S., especially during the last five years, with an increasing awareness of IBCs as alternatives, or supplements, to more traditional credentialing systems such as postsecondary degrees, state licenses and apprenticeship certificates of completion.

As the certification industry grows and matures, and the application of certifications as tools for educators expands, the strengths and weaknesses of this approach become clearer. The appeal of industry-based certifications emerges from a continuing need to prove relevance and impact. Some of these needs are:

The need for program relevancy. Assurance is needed that the student has been adequately prepared for success in the current labor market. An IBC, by definition, is based on a workplace analysis of proficiency needs within an occupation or a technical area that reflects performance requirements of employers in an industry.

The need for accountability. An IBC is based on a valid, third-party testing protocol that insulates the learning process from the process for determining the level of skills and knowledge attainment.

The need for consistency of results. All students are tested against the same skills/knowledge objectives via a standardized testing process.

The need for nationally portable credentials. Prospective employers may not recognize the value of traditional local credentials, but often place significance on a credential that is developed and nationally portable within their industry.

The need to control educational costs. Even though there is a cost associated with certification testing, a single institution could never support the overall expense of the necessary skills/knowledge analysis, test development and test management associated with an IBC. If the overall educational outcome is enhanced, the total system cost/benefit may be very low compared to other locally developed alternatives.

The need for coherent programs of study. The underlying IBC objectives are often de facto "skill standards" that form the framework for developing competency-based curricula, articulation strategies between secondary and postsecondary providers, and program approval processes.

The Value and Role of IBCs

For students who are planning on immediately entering the workforce, IBCs can offer attractive benefits in the form of a valuable credential that can provide a competitive edge. IBCs also provide employers with a standard that is useful in evaluating and "benchmarking" a candidate who has no substantial work experience. This is not to suggest that higher education is not a desirable next step for students, but a CTE program that has multiple points of entry can offer flexibility for the student.

Evidence is building, however, that IBCs are not the full or complete answer to many of the needs identified above. That would be too much to hope for. There are several issues that have emerged as the debate about the value and role of IBCs in CTE continues. A brief summary of these issues follows.

In order to assure validity of the certification development and testing process, the underlying objectives can often be narrow in scope. The scope and depth of student learning in a particular program of study need to prepare the student for a broad, full career in which technology and work systems continuously change, not just provide help in getting the first job.

A well-thought-through approach might be to build a strong foundational knowledge and skills curricula, while incorporating the learning content requirements that support preparation for related and relevant certification tests. Such a model could support multiple objectives. …

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