Online Skills Are Hot, But Will They Land You a Job?

By: Lauren Weber

On LinkedIn, hundreds of thousands of users note on their profiles that they have taken online classes or earned certificates from coding boot camps.

But when Richard Fye, the top recruiter at IT firm Fino Consulting, looks at candidates’ profiles, those credentials aren’t what helps them get hired—not yet, anyway.

While his company is eager to hire data scientists, for example, “taking a class…doesn’t carry much value in recruiting,” he said.

Employers’ search for hires with up-to-the-minute technical and digital skills has given rise to a boom in online classes and tutorials. Course providers like Udemy and, along with coding boot camps and massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as edX and Coursera, promise to refresh workers’ skills or help them acquire expertise they didn’t get in college.

But those new credentials don’t carry much weight in hiring yet, recruiters say, because managers don’t trust or recognize many of the companies and organizations behind the badges and courses.

“This market is basically chaos,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “With these credentials, there’s no one body setting a standard.”

Job seekers are frustrated, too. St. Paul, Minn. resident Adam Hook, 33, has taken dozens of classes from online providers such as Udemy, Coursera and Microsoft Virtual Academy. Mr. Hook is yet to land a full-time job and says he has heard from employers that credentials from online courses aren’t enough to cover his lack of a college degree.

The recognition of specialized skills could go in two directions, employers and labor market experts say. Independent groups could step in to develop standards for credentials, or employers could test more applicants’ skills during hiring, which could make some laurels—be it a bachelor’s degree or boot-camp diploma—superfluous.

A cadre of academic researchers, with guidance from business trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, is setting out to create standards. They are building an online registry where employers and workers can search credentials—such as a badge from an online academy—and see exactly what skills they reflect. The effort is supported by a $2.25 million grant awarded this year by the Lumina Foundation, which has set a goal that 60% of Americans should acquire high-quality, post-high school training by 2025.

“We want employers to be able to lay out the skill requirements of a job, and then find credentials that best match their criteria,” said Robert Sheets, a workforce expert at George Washington University, which is creating the registry with Southern Illinois University and the American National Standards Institute. A pilot version of the directory, with around 100 educational institutions publishing their credential information, will be available next spring or summer.

To convince employers that a badge is a sign of rigorous training, the group plans to ask companies about the credentials held by hires in particular roles—a sort of validation of any given course or badge, said Jason Tyszko, senior director of policy and programs at the Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“Absent that,” he added, “people could be going through a lot of programs, spending a lot of money and time, and not coming out with anything that employers want.”

LinkedIn Corp. is piloting a similar program in Phoenix and Denver, asking employers about the skills they desire and the credentials of their new hires. Using that data, LinkedIn will allow users to find out which skills are required for a given role, and which particular courses or training sessions recent hires in that role have held. The platform will launch early next year in the two cities.

Even the White House is entering the fray. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama’s administration launched TechHire, an initiative to “fast track” training and job opportunities for people without traditional academic backgrounds. The program is expected to speed up validation of emerging credentials, in part by convincing employers to review their skill requirements and work closely with training organizations offering nontraditional coursework such as coding boot camps and online programs.

Meanwhile, employers may try harder to test candidates’ skills—in programming, spreadsheets or marketing—with online job simulations administered before, during or after an interview. At an HR technology conference in October, a host of firms demonstrated tests designed to assess a candidate’s skill in everything from basic math to drafting legal contracts.

Should those practices become widespread, a college degree or a technical certificate may become irrelevant, predicted Dennis Yang, chief executive of online learning platform Udemy.

“The most important skill in the employee base of the future is the ability to learn something new, and a willingness to do so. There are still very few people who have the motivation to do that,” he said.

For now, badges, one-off courses and other micro-credentials are meaningful mostly because they show a person’s openness to learning, recruiters say.

At Waste Management Inc., Melkeya McDuffie recently promoted an internal candidate to manage the trash hauler’s contingent workforce programs, in part because he had taken several MOOCs—massive open online courses—through Coursera.

“For me, that tipped the scale in favor of that candidate,” said Ms. McDuffie, the company’s senior director of talent acquisition. “I was not at all familiar with the course content. It was the fact that he had taken the initiative and could demonstrate a greater depth of knowledge,” she said.

Online Skills Are Hot, But Will They Land You a Job?