Rapid growth in the clean energy sector has placed exciting yet daunting challenges on employers, employees, and the workforce development infrastructure. The rise of full-scope certification schemes to support this young industry has helped provide quality and consistency through the structure of job definitions and competency-based assessments of personnel.

But with continued market expansion and technological change, full-scope certification schemes alone are not always meeting the needs of employers to recruit and promote personnel with the required blend of validated skills.

In the face of this challenge, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) posed this question: “How do we balance cost and quality in credentialing – as part of a system to measure competencies across industries – that are rigorous, nimble and cost-effective, while also responsive to rapidly evolving skills and industry demands?”

In January 2015, IREC convened a summit of credentialing and energy industry experts in Washington D.C. to examine the viability and potential anatomy of a “micro-credential.” The term was defined as a nimbler framework to validate specialty skills and competencies that could co-exist alongside full-scope certification schemes.

The front and center question: how and when can smaller be smarter?

Following the summit, IREC set out to pilot a custom micro-credential framework. We partnered with Professional Testing, Inc. (PTI) to design a prototype for a credible, valid, high-quality micro-credential development process.

MicroCredCoverJust released is a case study that details the work accomplished to date, including the framework developed, and IREC and PTI’s involvement in an important pilot project with the Building Performance Institute (BPI) and the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI). This pilot, still in progress, seeks to bring a new credentialing option to certified energy auditors who want to expand their home health assessment expertise. The report looks at the strengths and limitations of the micro-credentialing framework in the context of the pilot, and at future directions for the continued development and adoption of micro-credentials within and potentially beyond the clean energy sector.

Micro-credential: An opportunity for individuals to demonstrate competency in a specialty area, not typically covering a full job description. Candidates may or may not be in the core profession, but some portion of their job might call for a specific set of knowledge and skills associated with that core profession to be performed competently and safely.

As IREC President/CEO Jane Weissman puts it: “When micro-credentials stay true to a valid and vetted process, they bring a needed layer of quality into the market. Responsive to new or changing skills, they help match workers’ competencies with workplace expectations.”

IREC Director of Workforce and Credentialing, Laure-Jeanne Davignon, adds: “A micro-credential is not a second-tier designation then, but one that announces the achievement of skills and competencies for a clearly defined specialty function of a job.”

For example, allied industry workers whose job tasks intersect with photovoltaic or other clean energy systems on certain projects could benefit from credentialing opportunities based on an analysis of specific subsets of clean energy-related skills and knowledge. Examples of allied industries include code officials and inspectors, real estate appraisers, first responders, electrical engineers, project managers and architects.

Micro-credentials can also apply to practitioners who wish to add defined specialties to existing certifications, or to reach a higher credentialed status through stackable credentials. Specialized clean energy micro-credentials could, for example, cover select topics from areas such as energy storage, energy management, operations and maintenance and data acquisition.

Additional competency validation options would fill gaps in the credentialing landscape, including “just-in-time” micro-credentialing for specialty skills that can be layered on top of existing certifications when market changes and technology updates outpace quality assurance infrastructures.

As Professional Testing Vice President Christine Niero puts it: “Following accepted practices in measurement and assessment-development, and utilizing technology as the research and development platform, micro-credentials that save time and resources are providing a ‘real-time’ solution to qualifying a workforce.”

Clean energy training providers already report they are seeing a rise in enrollment from students with diverse professional and educational backgrounds who are looking for more distinct, stackable, job-ready training and skills validation than that offered by full-scope credentialing schemes alone.

This is where micro-credentialing can really step in and offer highly customizable but also valid competency-based assessment.

A few key take-aways you will find in the current report on our work in micro-credentialing:

  • Early discussion was important about what the term micro-credential would signal and how that would impact perceived value in the market.
  • Communications must convey that this is not ‘credentialing lite’ but an equally stringent, nimbler process that co-exists with and supports traditional certification schemes, providing more responsive bridges to advancement and competence in fast-changing industries.
  • Establishing a common definition and scope of the micro-credential is critical early in the implementation process with all stakeholders developing the credential. Refocusing and refining the scope, audience and intended use for the micro-credential throughout the development process is key to keeping the process on track.
  • The credential development process can be streamlined without compromising quality or rigor.

IREC is now in discussions with other key players in the clean energy sector to identify prospective partners who might also benefit from a micro-credentialing solution.

This initiative so far has indicated that there are viable ways to “chunk” existing or new certifications into stackable micro-credentials and that this goal can be achieved without diluting the value and rigor of full professional certification scheme processes.

Whatever else is learned, IREC sees the value and potential of micro-credentialing in clean energy echoing the country’s successful development of other career pathway models that offer integrated, progressive steps to advance in jobs and training, with different on-ramps for workers at different points in their careers.

Want to know more about micro-credentials? IREC will hold a webinar on Thursday March 31, 2pm ET. For more information on this free webinar, “Micro-Credentials: Creating New Pathways for Skills Validation,” please contact me at: [email protected].