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From Learning to Earning: Alternative Credentials and Youth Employment

15 Dec 2021
From Learning to Earning: Alternative Credentials and Youth Employment

By Julia Sellers, Bassem Nasir, Rachel Cooper

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the global learning and skills crisis. Before the pandemic, 267 million youth (15-24) were not in employment, education and training (NEET), two-thirds of whom were young women due to gendered expectations of unpaid family work and informal employment. Globally, over 73% of youth experienced the closure of schools, universities, and training centers during the pandemic. This exacerbated the learning crisis, leaving those most marginalized – including adolescent girls – without the skills needed for basic educational attainment and lifelong learning.

The pandemic also forced governments, education and training institutions, and employers to harness new technologies to ensure that young people have the foundational, transferable, digital, entrepreneurial, and job specific skills needed to succeed on the job and in life – including through the use of alternative and micro-credentials. Alternative credentials are those “that are not recognized as standalone educational qualifications by education authorities such as academic and industry certificates, badges, etc.” Micro-credentials “are focused on a specific set of learning outcomes and achieved over a shorter period of time; they also verify achievements acquired elsewhere, such as in the workplace, volunteering, etc.”

It is estimated that learners, companies, and governments spend more than $10 billion USD on alternative and micro-credentials, and the market is estimated to double over 3-5 years. With this projected growth and shift to skills-based education, the boundaries between formal, accredited degree programs and shorter, more targeted micro-credential programs, create more dynamic learning opportunities.


Figure 1. Alternative Credential User Landscape


While these forms of credentials are not new, many companies are revisiting their use case and impact on employability for three reasons: first, the fast pace of technological advances means that skills and knowledge produced in traditional degree programs cannot keep pace with market demand; second, transferable, or 21st century skills, are becoming more recognized signalers of employability; finally, employees recognize the need to become lifelong learners to ensure they have the skills needed for today and tomorrow.

Alternative Credentials: Opportunities for Youth

While currently used in developed contexts, alterative credentials have the potential to facilitate the school-to-work transition in places where UNICEF is on the ground, particularly for displaced youth. There are approximately 281 million migrants worldwide, and more than 4 out of 10 forcibly displaced persons below 18. Forced migration disrupts young people’s learning-to-earning journeys, leaving them “without recognized credentials, social networks, or mentors, as they move and settle in unfamiliar places.”

Alternative credentials offer flexible opportunities to gain skills, and provide a customized learning experience that give individuals control over the time and space where they learn. For displaced and vulnerable populations, this flexibility is important as they face additional barriers to complete formal education, often cut short due to economic need, gender barriers, natural disasters, etc.

For learners and earners, alternative credentials offer both short-and long term opportunities that provide a pathway for lifelong learning. This is advantageous for non-traditional earners who may require immediate skills for employment, while working toward an accredited degree by obtaining stackable credits.

For employers, alternative credentials are innovative, cost effective, and time sensitive approaches that maximize employee performance and retention.

For providers on both the education and employment side, alternative credentials are more agile than traditional post-secondary and higher education programs, which often require bureaucratic review processes that prevent programs from meeting market demand in real time. The market driven nature of alternative credentials can lead to increased collaboration between education providers and employers, ensuring that both agree upon the value and relevancy of specific learning and workforce outcomes.

Alternative Credentials: Barriers for Youth

Despite the promises of alternative credentials, the majority of employers still view traditional degrees and previous work experience as primary signalers of an individual’s knowledge and skills. One alternative credential provider noted, “while there is a shift away from degrees, changing a company’s culture takes time; innovation requires discomfort and a move away from what was once viewed as the only way things worked.”

Online education requires self-control, self-motivation, and self-management, so many youth may require additional support, such as mentorship, peer-to-peer exchanges, and opportunities to practice skills with project-based work. Alternative credentials may be best suited for mature learners who are self-regulated. Because the majority of alternative credentials are built on internet technology, the move toward digital also runs the risk of worsening learning inequalities, particularly for young women.

As boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone and 1.8 times more likely to own a smartphone than girls, alternative credential tools also overwhelmingly favor adoption by males and may leave girls and young women further behind.

What’s next?

This is still an emerging field and several coalitions such as the International Council on Badges and Credentials and the Open Badge Network have immerged to develop standards and drive coordinated efforts to realize the potential alternative credentials have in supporting youth’s transition from education to employment.  Still greater investment and commitment to partnership and research is required to understand how alternative and micro-credentials can be used to translate youth’s diverse skills, knowledge, and experiences for the needs of 21st century employers or other stakeholders. Finally, there is a need to develop alternative credentials systems that cater to marginalized youth including girls, youth with disabilities, and migrants. Through an increased emphasis on data, learners, earners, educators and employers can overcome barriers to build inclusive economic opportunities for the next generation.


Julia Sellers is an education consultant and Bassem Nasir and Rachel Cooper are education specialists at UNICEF New York Headquarters.