SHRM All Things Work

Wendi Safstrom on the New Importance of Skilled Credentials

Episode Summary

In this episode of All Things Work, Wendi Safstrom, president of the SHRM Foundation, joins host Tony Lee to discuss skilled credentials and their role in closing the skills gap.

Episode Notes

Helping both candidates and current employees improve their skill levels through certifications and related efforts has taken on a new importance in a tight labor market. In this episode of All Things Work, Wendi Safstrom, president of the SHRM Foundation, joins host Tony Lee to discuss skilled credentials and their role in closing the skills gap.

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Episode transcript


Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: This episode is sponsored by Mystery. Mystery creates meaningful connections at work by curating virtual events for teams based on their shared interests. With hundreds of quality vetted events, Mystery has something for everyone. For a special BOGO offer, head to try to book your first event and get the second for free.

Tony Lee: Welcome to All Things Work, a podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee, Head of Content here at SHRM. Thanks for joining us.

All Things Work is an audio adventure, where we talk with thought leaders and taste makers to bring you an insider's perspective on all things work. Today we're discussing the skills gap, an issue facing employers large and small. Recruiting and retaining qualified employees is a real challenge, so helping candidates as well as current employees improve their skill levels through certifications and related efforts has taken on a new importance. Joining us today to discuss this topic is Wendi Safstrom, the President of the SHRM Foundation. Wendi's an experienced leader within the private and nonprofit sector. Prior to joining SHRM, she served as a Vice President at the National Restaurant Association and has worked in HR at such companies as Leo Burnett and Hyatt Hotels in Chicago. Wendi, welcome to All Things Work.

Wendi Safstrom: Thank you, Tony.

Tony Lee: So the SHRM Foundation, let's start there. I'm sure a lot of our listeners have heard of the SHRM Foundation. They're not completely sure what it is. So can you give us an overview?

Wendi Safstrom: You got it. The SHRM Foundation, we're the 501(c)(3) philanthropic affiliate of SHRM. And our focus, we have a shared purpose with SHRM and that's to elevate HR. And our role in that is really to help mobilize HR professionals to lead positive social change in the workplace and a really critical body of work that has emerged along with SHRM is understanding this topic that we're going to be talking about today, which is the skill gaps certainly, how employees and employers view skilled credentials, and most recently the uptick in terms of individuals who are pursuing those alt skilled credentials, and how employers and hiring managers and business executives view the talent that come to them with that type of career preparedness.

Tony Lee: Well, that's perfect. So let's dive right in. I mean, historically employers have always looked for the same thing when they're recruiting employees and even when they're promoting employees, which is college education. What's their skill set? And what we're talking about here is that that has negatively impacted a fairly large percentage of the workforce that may not have a college degree, that may have credentials that they got through the skills they developed or alternative credentials. So tell us a little bit about what the foundation is doing to help make that change.

Wendi Safstrom: Sure. So we wanted to understand. Everything we do at the Foundation is really rooted in research. What problem is it or are we trying to help solve along with SHRM? And so we first wanted to take a look at how employers, as I mentioned, employers/employees really view and value, or don't, skilled credentials. And then explore the kinds of alternatives that exist out there that build access and help create opportunities for diverse talent that are often left out of the equation when HR professionals are recruiting individuals to go to work within their organizations. So the SHRM and SHRM Foundation, together with Walmart, we've conducted some research that surveyed US executives, supervisors, certainly we talked to HR professionals and workers who are individual contributors. So those are individuals who don't have any direct reports. And we also gathered some qualitative information through a series of focus groups that we refer to as learning labs. And then we reviewed the results or the outcomes of that research with HR professionals to get their insight and their view in terms of the findings.  

Employers have said that they approach skilled credentials really frequently and increasingly on a more frequent basis in the hiring process today as they're receiving resumes, as they're talking with candidates, and the majority of executives, about 90% of them, have encountered them, 81% of supervisors have, HR professionals, 77% of them say they actually encourage job applicants who hold skilled credentials to interview for positions. But despite the skilled credentials that have really entered the market, the number of people who are actively pursuing them, research found that a lot of HR professionals and other business leaders, and that's kind of what we're talking today, have been slow to understand, they have been slow to accept, and really integrate skilled credentials into their recruitment and talent management strategies.

Tony Lee: Let me stop you there.

Wendi Safstrom: Yeah, yeah.

Tony Lee: Can you define what skilled credentials are? Because I'm sure a lot of people are aren't sure. Is it a certification? Is it an Associate degree? What what's a skilled credential?

Wendi Safstrom: Absolutely. So skilled credentials are defined as really any micro-credential, an industry or professional certification. It's acknowledgement of an apprenticeship program, either registered or unregistered, or badging, digital badging, that indicates one's competencies and skills within a particular field. So skilled credentials do not include traditional academic degrees or required occupational licensors. And that's how we've defined them at the organization and how they're broadly defined externally as well.  

Tony Lee: Perfect. That's very helpful.

Wendi Safstrom: Yep.

Tony Lee: So many of us have over the last few years called them alternative credentials and that name seems to be falling out of favor. How come?

Wendi Safstrom: Yeah, it's interesting. We kicked off this research I was talking about with Walmart that looks specifically at the value of what we're talking about today, non-degree credentials. And when we first released the research, we were using the term alternative credentials, but in subsequent conversation and subsequent research, we've determined that the word alternative may denote that employers actually may consider candidates with those credentials as different, less valuable, in terms of options. And so our goal as part of this broader campaign and this broader opportunity to inform and inspire people to think differently is to challenge that thinking and really declare and proclaim these credentials as skilled credentials, being imperative in the workforce.

Tony Lee: That's extremely helpful. So let's dive into those credentials specifically, because you just covered credentials, lots of different credentials, offered by lots of different institutions. Are there differences? I mean did your research show that employers are valuing certifications more than their digital badges or is there a differentiation between them?

Wendi Safstrom: So the most common types of skilled credentials that US workers hold are really there about 52% of those who have skilled credentials have training certificates, 48% of them have course completion certificates, and about 38% of the folks who indicated that they have skilled credentials have industry or professional certification. But at the root, truly, these skilled credentials reflect, and across all of these types of skilled credentials, reflect, again, the competencies, the skills, the knowledge and the abilities, and the specific experiences that workers are bringing to the job. So as it relates to recruiting untapped pools of talent or perhaps diverse talent, those types of credentials are even more popular, again, with those job seekers who are often excluded from consideration as part of a potential pool of talent.

Tony Lee: Now, alternative credentials, skilled credentials, they're not necessarily new. I mean, they've been around for a while. And what comes to mind to me are unions have often trained young union employees and given them certifications for it. What's new? What's going on that's different now?

Wendi Safstrom: I would say it's increasingly folks have turned to accessing and earning skilled credentials as a way to really enhance and demonstrate their skills. These credentials, we found, have become even more popular during the COVID-19 crisis, certainly. When workers found themselves furloughed or jobless, they had perhaps unanticipated time to think about or wanted to sharpen the skills to become more marketable. Or even took that as an opportunity to pursue a new job or new type of career. And some individuals certainly were misplaced or displaced in terms of their organization or their company, their industry, and whatever their community is, may have had to shut down or left the community entirely, and so they weren't left within any other choice but to pursue the quickest and perhaps most economic way to access and get back into the world of work. And certainly we've seen all of the outcomes of that need surface itself in the last couple of years, in particular.

Tony Lee: Yeah. So a lot of us think of these types of credentials as being critical when recruiting, because we're looking for candidates to fill certain roles and if they do not have a college degree but they do have a certificate that they've proven that they've done training for that role, that's a fine substitute in many cases. Are you seeing more recruiters kind of turning this way because of talent shortages, is that really what's driving that interest? Or is there something more?

Wendi Safstrom: I think we're seeing more recruiters and we're seeing more HR professionals want to start to turn that way, to start to look to, as we mentioned, alternative or additional pools of talent. And I think that there are certainly situations and perhaps some misconceptions about skilled credentials that employers and recruiters face. And I think that we still have some work to do, we know we have some work to do, and that's work we'll be doing over the course of certainly the next six months to year to really help demonstrate and reset a misconception that perhaps a skilled credential has less value than a traditional credential or degree.  

There are a lot, there are plethora of skilled credentials that exist on the market today, and truly evaluating them can be really complicated and time consuming. And so we're starting to work through and create tools and support for HR professionals and hiring managers to really sort through the credential certifications that make the most sense for the industry and that are representative of the skills and competencies that are just in time and needed more specifically.

And I think some people think that maybe this is just going to be a fad. Things have changed, where ever evolving talent has flooded the market, looking perhaps a little bit differently in terms of how they prepare to go to work. And I think it's here to stay. I think that individuals not only who are looking for a job are going to be actively pursuing skilled credentials as a means of preparation to go to work. And I think it's a tremendous opportunity for employers and HR professionals to continue to invest in their existing employees and encourage them and support them on their own personal journey and own professional growth once they've joined an organization. I think in particular for those industries that are changing so rapidly, in tech and healthcare and innovative industries, where a degree that you may have received 10 years ago and secured certainly years of experience, you've got to stay on top of the latest and greatest and accessing skilled credentials is definitely a way to do that.

Tony Lee: Yeah. Oh, boy, that makes perfect sense. Actually, that's a great segue to my next question, which is what about existing current employees, folks who have been in your workforce for 5, 10, 15 years, and now want to transition into a new role, but may not have the training? That seems like that's a prime opportunity to look at skilled credentials.

Wendi Safstrom: That's absolutely an opportunity. And I think it's coming with this movement to where you're creating a culture that is incredibly inclusive, provides equitable access to opportunities to get a job and certainly to progress within a job. And it would be interesting if you've got someone with a degree and 10 years worth of experience, 10, 15 years of experience, looking to maybe stay within the organization, but go into a different discipline or a different role within the company, to encourage them to pursue these types of learning opportunities. And with the intent that if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for everybody else. Again, we're creating opportunities for everyone. We're opening up access to amazing talent through our untapped pools of talent work, certainly at the Foundation, the SHRM Foundation, and we're really, really pushing this notion of skilled credentials because we know it brings value and opportunity to anybody that possesses it.

Tony Lee: Yeah. So, clearly this is a win for employees who don't have college degrees but have credentials to be considered more seriously, but let's get really practical here from the HR perspective. I mean, it can be a real win for HR as well, right? I mean, it increases the talent pool, it boosts candidate diversity. I mean, what are some of the other reasons that employers should look at this seriously?

Wendi Safstrom: I think just what you said. I think that it's really then introducing and infusing an inclusive culture. You're introducing individuals who have different perspective, different lived experiences. You have the ability to attract perhaps older workers. You've got folks who've been incarcerated or impacted by the justice system who are bringing a different type of learning and preparedness into the workforce. And, again, contributing to that overall workforce that's more reflective of your customer base, and are bringing different kinds of perspectives, experience, and expertise perhaps than if you'd gone kind of the traditional route and stuck to that.

Tony Lee: It feels like we're seeing more apprenticeships than we have in the past. And apprenticeships often come with a completion certification certificate. Are you seeing that too?

Wendi Safstrom: Yeah, we are actually. SHRM was just asked to serve through the US Department of Labor as an apprenticeship ambassador. And in fact, SHRM Foundation secured a grant from the US Department of labor about two years ago. And we have the first registered apprenticeship for the profession of HR. And what we've seen is traditionally, and you know this, traditionally apprenticeship has been embraced by the trades and has not necessarily been all encompassing of the variety of careers and jobs and positions that exist today. And one of the reasons we pursued a grant, and therefore were able to develop our own program, is because we wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk. HR, and I think our organization, should be and is a tremendous proponent of apprenticeship. It's a great way for people to earn and learn so that they're learning about the job and the career they're preparing to pursue and they're earning money at the same time.

And so I thought, and we thought as a team, that it would be great for HR professionals to experience it themselves by being supportive of a apprenticeship for the field of HR and at the same time learn about apprenticeship in a much more broad based way. And I think you'll see that continue to grow in terms of adoption by employers and engagement by post-secondary institutions, two and four year alike, really to further the efforts of apprenticeship. Again, just another venue and avenue for individuals who learn differently, think differently, or different situations within their life where they don't have the ability perhaps to take time off to go and pursue a degree full time.

Tony Lee: Yeah. So let's say I'm an employer and I've just heard what you've had to say and I'm thinking, "Well, this makes perfect sense." Is there a case study or an example of an employer that's doing extremely well in adopting skilled credential candidates, of candidates who've gone through apprenticeships, anyone you can point to?

Wendi Safstrom: Yeah, that's actually what we're doing right now. And I would encourage you to check out the SHRM Foundation website, our SHRM website. We're gathering case studies and storytelling. There are many companies out there in a variety of industry sectors who have gotten into the space and or getting into this space today. And in fact, what we're doing over the course of the next six months is really taking a look at the recruitment life cycle and working and piloting different stages of how to infuse and how to incorporate skilled credentials as part of your recruitment and hiring processes with different companies in different industry sectors and different sizes. So I don't want to point out any one particular organization today, but really encourage you to stay on top of what we're learning in the field and what we're sharing with everyone on our website at at And everything about skilled credentials you can find out the latest and greatest and encourage you to access it.

Tony Lee: Well, that's wonderful information, wonderful guidance. That is going to do it for today's episode of All Things Work. A big thank you to Wendi Safstrom for joining us and sharing her insights into skilled credentials and where they go from here.  

Before we get out of here, I want to encourage everyone to follow All Things Work wherever you listen to your podcast. Also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening and we'll catch you next time on All Things Work.

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