What Are Micro-Credentials, and Can They Help You Land a Better Job?

There's a growing number of micro-credential programs in Canada designed to bring workers up to speed in quickly evolving industries
(Illustration: iStock)

Digital transformation company FX Innovation had been struggling for years with its talent pipeline long before the pandemic exacerbated tech industry labour shortages. The company consistently found applicants lacked up-to-date cloud computing skills that are so crucial to its work; the field is evolving so quickly and some new skills aren’t yet taught in post-secondary courses.

So the Montreal-based company partnered with the University of Ottawa and tech non-profit Canada’s Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks in 2021 to launch CloudCampus, a micro-credential program to train Canadian tech talent.

“We need to urgently fix this skill challenge we have,” says Katia Renaud, the talent development and educational ecosystem director at FX Innovation, who adds the program is meant to help the entire information technology industry. “We’re more like a fireman than anything else right now as we’re coping with the talent shortage, but we believe CloudCampus will give us the means to take a long-term, strategic approach.” 

What are micro-credentials?

CloudCampus is just one of a growing number of micro-credential programs in Canada designed to help bring workers up to speed in quickly evolving industries and help solve staffing shortages. Experts say micro-credentials—short courses focused on a specific skill or area of knowledge—are a way for people to advance in their current jobs or develop skills that could get them a new one. They also help employers upskill employees to respond to changing industry needs—particularly in the red-hot tech sector—while attracting and retaining employees.

Micro-credentials are offered by numerous Canadian universities, like the University of Toronto and the University of Victoria, and even by some employers themselves, such as IBM’s digital credentials program, which has courses in business intelligence analysis, predictive analytics modelling and artificial intelligence. After completing a course, learners receive a digital badge certifying their new skill.

The courses also cost much less than a degree or diploma program, and typically only take days or weeks to complete. Further, they’re stackable: While learners can attend just one course to develop a job-critical skill, they can also build toward a larger qualification, such as a certificate or even degree. 

How micro-credentials can help Canada’s workforce 

Canada is facing a significant skills shortage in areas including technology, health care and hospitality, to name a few. This is a challenge that, according to the Bank of Canada’s business outlook survey, is constraining business growth. In 2020, Ontario announced it was investing $59.5 million over three years towards a micro-credentials strategy to encourage workers to take short courses to access more opportunities or upskill for in-demand jobs, like caregiving and advanced manufacturing. The government of B.C. also allocated $5 million in 2021 to help workers upskill with micro courses at post-secondary schools, and Alberta launched a micro-credential pilot project in 2021, too. 

These efforts show promise of a big pay-off: According to a May 2021 report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, about 60 per cent of employers said micro-credentials would “increase their confidence” in a prospective employees’ skills, and favoured courses that were competency-based, accredited and directly related to the job at hand.

One of the perks of micro-credentials is that many courses have no prerequisites and learners can quickly register and get started, says Kristin Mulligan, interim director of PowerED, Athabasca University’s continuing education unit, which offers micro-credentials and other short, online courses. “There’s an immediate benefit and a quick impact for workers and the workforce.”

Mulligan points out that micro-credential programs, which are typically offered online and have asynchronous components, give working Canadians the flexibility they need. According to LinkedIn’s 2020 workplace learning report, 49 per cent of employees globally feel they don’t have the time to learn at work. “The online micro-learning experience can fit into the little pockets of time people have throughout the day,” she says, adding that these short courses can also help people explore new career paths without the full commitment of an undergraduate or graduate degree.

For workplaces who want their staff to polish their skills or learn new ones, they should consider paying for continuing education. Mulligan says when employers support staff to earn micro-credentials, it shows that they’re invested in their personal and professional development. This, in turn, can help with employee retention and even attract new talent.

Postsecondary institutions have largely focused micro-credential development on growing sectors, or where labour shortages are particularly acute. As part of the provincial government’s strategy, eCampusOntario launched 22 new pilot projects in 2020 with colleges and universities across the province for rapid training in sectors including personal support work and caregiving, battery electric vehicle maintenance and digital marketing. Numerous institutions, including the University of Saskatchewan and seven British Columbia postsecondary institutions in a partnership called the Adaptation Learning Network, have launched micro-credentials related to environment and climate change adaptation careers.

Mulligan says Athabasca’s micro-credentials courses on leadership and project management have been consistently popular: They’re broadly applicable across sectors and employers of all types are looking for those skills. There’s also strong employer interest in PowerED’s micro-credentials on digital wellness and embracing allyship and inclusion in the workplace.

Tech skills are also incredibly in-demand, with companies like FX Innovation getting involved in micro-credential development to improve the industry’s talent pipeline. CloudCampus, for example, teaches highly specific cloud computing skills, such as DevOps for experts and security in DevOps. 

Renaud says current employees can take micro-credentials to upgrade their skills, and the company is now allowing staff to put four hours or more per week toward learning. FX Innovation also plans to make the rapid training programs part of its onboarding process for new hires. “The demand for these skills is much higher than what’s on the market,” she says. “It’s a quick win for our ecosystem.”

Kelsey Rolfe
Kelsey Rolfe
Kelsey Rolfe is a Toronto-based business journalist who covers finance, tech, mining and work. Follow her on Twitter at @kelseyarolfe