There’s been a lot of discourse over the value of a college degree, workforce readiness, and the rise of micro-credentials this past year. Some say that traditional degrees that emphasize critical thinking are still needed, but some employers and graduates say that a degree is no longer enough to prepare a person for highly sought-after jobs.

For colleges that are looking for new ways to attract students, it may be time to take a fresh look at programming structure. One new approach to programming involves micro-credentials—a way of enhancing program offerings through the use of specific, skills-targeted courses. Micro-credentials have been rising in popularity and recent reports regarding in-demand workforce skills explain why.

A 2016 workforce skills-preparedness report by Payscale indicated that while 87 percent of recent graduates felt prepared for their jobs, only 50 percent of managers felt the same about those graduates. Additionally, workforce analysis by Burning Glass reported in September 2017 that “hybrid” jobs (those that require skillsets from multiple academic programs) are growing fast—nearly twice as fast as jobs overall.

Consider, for example, the skills required to be a mobile app developer. Such work involves programming, marketing, user-experience and design skills. Too often, a student’s access to an education combining all of these would require the pursuit of several degrees simultaneously, such as computer science, business, user-experience/user-interface and graphic design. But employers aren’t asking graduates to come in with four degrees. They’re asking for a new blend of courses that would bring key components of each specialty together.

Although most colleges allow students to take elective courses outside their major, few would allow for the broad and fragmented approaches that would be needed to qualify for a role as a mobile app developer. What’s happening is that as workforce needs have evolved, causing job qualifications to draw from multiple areas of expertise for a single role, traditional academic programs remain siloed.

Even if a student tries to customize a degree, as many colleges allow, it can be challenging to determine the right mix of courses for the career they want. Graduation requirements and job requirements often don’t align well for a number of reasons: prerequisite courses required, scheduling, or added cost, to name a few.

What’s more, a student with interests in multiple areas may find that their vision is so cutting edge that there are no mentors to guide them as they select courses or prioritize skillsets. There is no trail. They must pave their own. And paving a trail with only distant information about employer needs increases risk for the student.

At the same time, employers are saying that they would like all college graduates to have higher-level skills in digital literacy. While Generation Z and Millennials are often regarded as digital natives who seem to be confident with tech tools, Burning Glass points out that employers’ needs begin with basic proficiency in Microsoft Word and Excel—and can go as far as software coding for highly specialized systems. It turns out that these are exactly the skills that employers find lacking in their applicants.

Some job candidates may benefit from the emerging “prove it” economy that relies more on portfolio work, good recommendations and demonstrating an ability to hit the floor running regardless of their official credentials. Overwhelmingly, however, most middle-skill jobs still require a college degree, as well as basic proficiency in office-computer skills.

For people who are already in the workforce, education is now being seen as a lifelong endeavor. Workers are finding that they can qualify for pay raises and promotions with the help of a degree-supplementing badge or certification—or other micro-credentials.

Confirmed by Burning Glass’ analysis of job postings is the theory that employers still seek candidates with writing, research and critical thinking skills—the basics of a traditional college degree. However, employers are willing to pay a higher salary to candidates who also have skills in:

  • Coding
  • Digital literacy
  • Media literacy
  • Data analysis

That said, one unexpected finding in the Payscale report mentioned above is that the same skills that are synonymous with a college degree: writing, public speaking, critical thinking and problem solving, are skills that managers identified as most lacking in new hires right out of college.

Skills lacking among recent graduates according to Payscale:

  • 44 percent of managers feel writing proficiency is the hard skill lacking the most among recent college graduates.
  • 39 percent say public speaking skills are lacking.
  • 60 percent of managers said critical thinking and problem solving is the soft skill that is most lacking among recent college graduates.

So, while a liberal arts degree may still be critical to helping graduates prepare for careers, is it enough? According to Burning Glass, the following minor training, in supplement to a college degree, can double a liberal arts graduate’s job prospects:

  • IT Networking and Support
  • Sales
  • General business
  • Marketing
  • Graphic design
  • Computer programming
  • Data analysis and management
  • Social media

Acquiring certifications can validate those skills, but only a few of those have currency with employers. Burning Glass suggests that colleges could help their graduates by reorienting academic programs and adding specializations. Rather than creating entirely new programs, colleges should look for ways to integrate the skills listed above into regular coursework. Another approach might be to add a few classes to augment current academic programming.

Entry-level digital skills (such as Microsoft Word and Excel) could easily be implemented into class work. While many people have used Microsoft Word for personal tasks, many college students are less experienced with Excel. Since so many office jobs now rely on spreadsheets to help manage daily work, why not get students acquainted with the tool before they graduate? As the Burning Glass report points out: “to a large extent, a job seeker without the ability to use this software won’t even get in the door.”

Burning Glass goes on to relay the following statistics:

  • 82 percent of middle-skill jobs require digital skills (a 4 percent increase since 2014).
  • Digitally intensive middle-skill jobs pay more than non-digital middle-skill jobs. (Overall, middle-skill jobs that demand digital skills average $20 per hour; while those with advanced digital skills such as IT networking or CRM software can command salaries at or above $28/hour.)
  • Digital skills provide a career pathway into middle- and high-skill jobs.
  • Digital middle-skill jobs represent roughly 38 percent of overall job postings.

Whether your college is ready to blend some academic programs in order to better align with workforce needs, or augment current programs, micro-credentials could be a low-investment, big-return strategy for colleges that want to add value. Since many types of micro-credentials could be integrated into current programs with but a small investment of time and effort, they could go a long way toward narrowing the gap between college offerings and workforce needs. The key will be to continually monitor workforce needs and align accordingly.