To Close the Skills Gap, Create Industry-Vetted Certificate Programs for Students

Even though experts believe college is still worth the cost, employers question the value to their businesses. Many believe college degrees do not provide graduates with the skills needed in today’s workplace.

In a 2014 survey of over 600 business leaders, only 11 percent strongly agreed that college graduates had the skills their companies needed. The majority believed that universities are not adequately preparing students. The gap has only widened since then. Employers expect more from college graduates.

The mismatch between college programs and the needs of the business community creates two problems for graduates. Many cannot find meaningful employment after graduating, and then they cannot pay off their student loan debt. Unfortunately, universities are doing little to address this issue.

So why aren’t colleges offering courses that teach students the skills employers want?

The answers lie with university faculty who make course and curriculum decisions. Without industry experience, faculty cannot teach workplace skills.

This problem is often more severe for STEM degree programs despite STEM grads’ higher salaries because of the large gap between theory and practice. Universities need to change their approach and work with the business community when they create new courses.

One way four-year colleges could make their degrees more valuable (and marketable) is by embedding skills-focused courses in degree programs.

By asking local and regional employers about the skills they need, college leaders can create certificate programs within a major that makes students more employable. It could be the future of higher ed.  

Certificate programs are packages of four or more courses focused on specific employers’ needs that teach students in-demand skills. Colleges could also mandate an industry internship as part of a certificate program, so students gain relevant working experience. Many of those courses will require adjunct faculty who actively work in the business world. Academics seldom have the experience or the industry perspective needed to teach those more practical courses, as they connect theory with real-world application.

As COVID-19 affects the job market, many students and recent graduates will need to reconsider their career goals. Industry-vetted certificates can be an effective means for students to make changes. Many certificate programs already exist at the graduate level, but there is no reason not to embed these in more undergraduate programs. Industry-vetted certificates may be the 21st-century version of academic “minors.” 

For example, even STEM disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and mathematics don’t guarantee a job. Many will need to return for graduate education to be marketable in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and med-tech industries. However, with embedded certificate programs such as Regulatory Affairs & Clinical Trials, Forensic Chemistry, or Data Mining & Analysis, undergraduate students are eminently employable even before completing their degree

From my experience as a dean at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, one of the most successful certificate programs was Regulatory Affairs & Clinical Trials for biology students. It comprised five courses:  

  1. Drugs, Biologics, Devices, & Diagnostics,
  2. Biostatistics,
  3. Project Management,
  4. Clinical Trials, and
  5. Industry internship

Senior managers from Atlanta’s pharmaceutical, biomedical, and medical device industries vetted all courses in advance. Upon completing the certificate program, most students had job offers before graduation, often with the company where they interned. The pay range (often mid-$50,000) was at the high end of the scale for students with a bachelor’s degree. The university placement office played a significant role in arranging internships and preparing students for interviews.

Biology is a student-friendly STEM discipline that attracts many would-be medical students. Unfortunately, only the top 5 percent get accepted in medical school, and most biology graduates struggle to get a job with only a bachelor’s degree. A certificate program helps them find a decent job.

Cleveland State is one of the more progressive universities in creating certificate programs. Their online catalog lists 25 certificates from many departments—although only one requires an internship and none appear to be vetted by industry representatives—with some of them available to several different majors. The certificates range from chemistry and art and design offerings to business and biomedical engineering.

Lesser-known institutions like Cleveland State can make a name for themselves with certificates; they can’t compete with flagship universities on prestige, but industry collaboration can help them stand out.

Some believe today’s hiring managers expect too much of college graduates and that complaints of skill gaps are unrealistic. They feel employers keep raising the bar each year and are creating a barrier to entry. For example, recent survey found over 60 percent of almost 100,000 full-time jobs for entry-level hires required at least three years of experience. Employers appear to want employees who have proven they can do the job. Recent graduates often see this requirement as a catch-22. Industry-vetted certificate programs that include internships might help address these concerns.

Adding certificate programs won’t be easy, however. The faculty will resist change. New courses and programs within most universities must originate from faculty and require approval by departmental, then college, and finally university curriculum committees—any one of which can veto the proposal. Those bureaucratic hurdles are the crux of the problem.

Most departments or colleges lack “champions” for certificate programs. A faculty member seldom sees the need for certificate programs because their experience is in the academy, not industry or business. Additionally, if someone within the department is not qualified to teach the course, faculty may fear an adjunct will displace an existing position. That fear is greater as COVID-19 budget crises have meant job cuts for faculty, both adjunct and tenure-track.

The applied nature of certificate programs relative to the traditional, theoretical focus of the academy presents another issue. Industry-focused classes are often unfairly viewed as “professional training” and considered by faculty as lacking rigor.

Another option for accommodating certificate programs is locating them within Colleges of Continuing and Professional Education based in most universities. This option has the advantage of making the program accessible to students who currently work in the industry, have a degree, and want to enhance their skill set to improve their lot in life.

Many CCPE already have industry-focused certificates such as Kennesaw StateUniversity of Texas, and UCLA, but quality control is always a concern because none of them are accredited. An additional downside is that CCPE do not offer academic credit for their courses and are thus inaccessible to undergrads. Of course, leadership from the top can correct these limitations.

Unfortunately, after several years, even successful certificate programs can lose departmental curriculum committee support for some of the reasons mentioned above.

To stay viable, certificate programs need defenders in the departments that house them. Leadership changes or loss of its supporters frequently doom the program. Specialized certificate programs are fragile and hard to start, but they matter to students. Universities need to find ways to make these micro-credentialing programs sustainable.

In a visionary report titled “Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education,” Georgia Tech provost Rafael Bras envisions certificate programs as micro-credentials so employers can evaluate job seekers. However, “the future is now” and colleges need to work with local industry to develop and vet certificate programs.

Many previous examples focus on STEM disciplines, but certificates can enhance other degree programs. By embedding such programs within arts, humanities, and business degrees, universities become more relevant, and college degrees can be more valuable to graduates and employers.

Laurence I. Peterson is Dean Emeritus, College of Science & Mathematics, Kennesaw State University, and former Vice President of Research with BASF Corporation and Celanese Corporation. He received his undergraduate degree from Duke University and his PhD in chemistry from Yale University. This article represents his views and not those of the university.