When Pima Community College in Arizona rolled out its first “Fast Track” programs in October 2021, allowing students to earn a stackable micro-credential that would lead to a high-paying job in as little as 12 weeks, Vice Chancellor of Workforce Development and Innovation Ian Roark wasn’t surprised that the programs generated a lot of interest from the community.
However, he wasn’t prepared for just how popular they would be.
“Within the first month, we had more than 1,000 people indicate interest,” Roark says. The college didn’t have the capacity to serve nearly that many students right away.
Micro-credentials are short, highly focused programs designed to provide in-demand skills that help students quickly advance their career, often in just a single semester. They have emerged as a way for students — many of whom are adult learners looking to change jobs — to acquire and demonstrate a core set of skills that can jumpstart their entry into a new career.
Both students and employers can benefit from this highly accelerated credentialing process, which is helping workers overcome the loss of jobs during the pandemic and pivot rapidly into new careers amid the Great Resignation.
Yet, there are many challenges involved in creating effective micro-credentialing programs.
For instance: How can community colleges retool their existing processes to award fast career credentials without disrupting traditional degree and certification programs? How can they ensure that micro-credentials will have value for both students and employers?
“If you’re just offering short-term training for a very specific, entry-level job at a low wage, that doesn’t help with upward mobility over the long term,” Roark notes.
To address this latter question, community college faculty and administrators are working with employers and industry organizations to design micro-credentials that are stackable toward a full associate degree and transferable across states and institutions.
Pima was one of six community colleges to develop micro-pathways in collaboration with the Education Design Lab (EDL) beginning in 2020 as part of the first cohort of EDL’s Community College Growth Engine Fund.
During an intensive, year-long process, Pima developed eight micro-credentials that it has branded as “Fast Track” programs to prepare students for a career as an automotive service technician, automated industrial technician, carpenter, electrician, plumber, HVAC technician, computer user support specialist or emergency medical technician.
These programs involve sequences of three to six courses that can be completed in 12 to 24 weeks at a cost to students starting at $1,500. Pima’s own full-time faculty and adjunct instructors developed these micro-credentials by modularizing parts of their degree and certificate programs, under the guidance of the college’s workforce development unit.
“The challenge we issued to faculty was, what is the highest-level job somebody can get with the least amount of technical skills? That served as the foundation for our curriculum design,” Roark says.
Initially, automotive faculty were skeptical of the Fast Track initiative, he says — until they heard from employers that “this was exactly what they wanted.”
Large car dealerships in the Pima area have been hesitant to hire graduates earning an associate degree in automotive technology for senior technician positions, preferring instead to start new employees as lube technicians until they could demonstrate competency on the job. The new Fast Track program in automotive technology gives students enough skills to get their foot in the door as lube technicians at a fraction of the cost and time of an associate degree — and if these new hires work out, dealerships might use tuition reimbursement dollars to send them back to Pima Community College to complete their degree or certificate.
“We see that as a big success,” Roark says.