In January 2020, about seven months after graduating from McMaster University with a business degree, Nero Yalaju was working a full-time internship in customer relations and analytics at Porsche Cars Canada when she decided to explore roles that spoke to her interest in design. The feedback she had about the job market boiled down to: “If you’re not a doctor or lawyer or an accountant—like, girl, do something,” she says. After reaching out to a few people on LinkedIn for advice, she enrolled in two ten-week, part-time online courses in UX and UI design (short for user experience and user interface) with BrainStation, a company offering tech courses and coding bootcamps in fields such as digital marketing, data science, and design.

Yalaju qualified for a 50 percent discount as a new graduate. Her parents agreed to cover the $3,000 course fees in total. Each course had weekly three-hour sessions, where she learned the fundamentals of the field while developing a portfolio. Four months after completing the courses, with some contract work under her belt, Yalaju landed a full-time role as a UX/UI designer. In January 2023, after a few more moves, she started as a product designer at the CBC.

BrainStation launched in 2012 and has since expanded to include five physical campuses in Canada, the US, and the UK. (Courses are largely accessible online from anywhere.) BrainStation is just one company offering microcredentials—flexible, often part-time, and online courses that can be completed over several weeks, months, or even days. Many are designed to upskill workers for high-demand or highly skilled jobs in sectors like tech, financial services, and health care. Another prominent player, Coursera, partners with universities and companies alike to offer more than 5,800 massive open online courses (MOOCs), degrees, and professional certificates to “[s]tart, switch, or advance your career.”

A growing number of Canadian universities and colleges now offer short courses in everything from leadership to digital marketing, for which Ontario offers student loans. In February, the Canadian government announced it is investing $46.5 million in a new project that fully funds microcredentials for workers in sectors like agriculture, clean tech, and transportation. Ultimately, technology is advancing at a faster pace than what the workforce can keep up with, and microcredentials supposedly help workers meet the demands of a changing economy. Are they enough to bridge the gap?

Rafael Gomez, a professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto, says the long-term trend of employers scaling back on-the-job training and skills development helped create a market for microcredentials. In the 1970s, corporations like IBM, for example, would train their employees to prepare them for promotions. This would ensure job stability for them and reduce the cost of training for the company. In a seminal 1970 study, the eminent labour economists Michael J. Piore and Peter Doeringer tracked the workings of what’s called the internal labour market. “You almost replicate the labour market of the external world inside these large firms,” Gomez says. “The rise of the internal labour market created a parallel set of incentives inside the firm hierarchy. . . . It was reinterpreted as an efficient way to keep workers attached to your firm so that they don’t leave voluntarily, and you recoup back the investments you’ve made in those workers because they see a path within the firm.”

Rising inequality and the decline of trade unions in the 1980s ushered in the slow death of the internal labour market, destabilizing the prospect of lifelong employment at a single firm. At the time, companies like IBM prided themselves on never laying people off. That changed in the late 1980s and, in Canada, the early 1990s. “They began laying off people and reverting to a different form of employment within the firm, which was more like the external world [where] you had short-term contracts and you were kind of evaluated by your performance,” says Gomez. According to the research of Peter Cappelli, director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources, in 1979, young workers got an average of two and a half weeks of training a year. By 1995, several surveys found that number had fallen to about eleven hours—and focused mostly on workplace safety—and employers today are seeking out workers they don’t have to train.

If companies rely on the external labour market to equip workers with the skills they need, the onus to prepare prospective employees now falls on colleges and universities. Colleges in Canada are generally geared toward vocational study. But in today’s job market, is a bachelor’s degree enough?

Probably not. That’s likely why universities around the world now offer professional certificates alongside their continuing-education courses. “There was obviously a sense [from universities] that there was a market for this, and there was demand from students that wanted these credentials,” says Gomez. “And it seemed that that was being prompted by the demands made on workers to show that they had certain skills.” Within the past decade or so, more universities in North America and Europe have begun offering interdisciplinary degrees, with a practical or industry focus, that sometimes require an internship to complete. The New School in Manhattan offers a graduate degree in media management with a curriculum tailored to job seekers in an ever-changing media industry, from production to marketing. Starting this fall, the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York will be offering a new master’s degree in AI. In London, UK, Central Saint Martins offers a graduate program in innovation management, where students learn to use creative thinking to address social and cultural change.

The value of these graduate degrees can be difficult to determine; individual alumni success stories aren’t an accurate measure. Gomez says that even after completing expensive MBA degrees, it’s not a good thing that “you need to add on the microcredential to make yourself even more appropriate to the firms that are hiring.” According to Matias Cortes, an associate professor at York University specializing in labour economics, research is divided about the extent to which university degrees confer new skills or whether they’re just a signal to employers of the skills the degree holder already possesses. “We think it’s a bit of a combination of both,” says Cortes. The same goes for microcredentials.

Technological change, automation, and globalization have eroded middle-wage occupations like manufacturing and polarized the labour market into so-called high-skill, high-wage jobs in sectors like tech and finance and so-called low-skill, low-wage service jobs. And even in relatively high-paying occupations, the tasks required by employers keep changing. In the absence of in-house training, companies will often cover the cost of these short courses to upskill their employees. “We see that there [are] kind of changes in what employers expect workers to be doing, the type of skills that they’re expected to have, or the tasks that they’re expected to perform,” says Cortes. Sometimes, he says, employees will take a short course not to switch jobs but to acquire new skills to stay in their current role.

Sandrine Somé, for example, says the brand strategy bootcamp that she completed through Miami Ad School was invaluable in landing a job in advertising. No university offered brand strategy courses this targeted when she was considering it, she says. Somé is now a freelance creative strategist based in Toronto with a global client base. Her employer at the time covered the nearly $8,000 cost of the program in lieu of the on-the-job training. “I don’t even know what path other than Miami Ad School I could’ve taken to do that other than staying at a company for, like, four or five years and then saying, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in this and I’m not sure how to get there,’ and then maybe they would teach me the ropes, but it really takes the right company to do that.”

Microcredentials, especially one-off courses, can supplement a post-secondary degree, which remains a requirement for many entry-level jobs in Canada. But many companies still require post-secondary degrees for jobs that previously didn’t require one. Cortes says, to some extent, this practice may have led to degree inflation, where candidates’ credentials are valued more than their actual competencies. In the US alone, degree inflation, or credentialism, has shut more than 70 million people out of the job market, including a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic people, who are less likely to hold bachelor’s degrees than white and Asian American people. To tap into that qualified talent pool in a tight labour market, a growing number of companies, including IBM, Google, and Delta, no longer require the applicants for several positions to have post-secondary degrees. Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania, removed the requirement of a four-year degree for most jobs in state government following similar changes in Maryland and Utah. A recent survey of 510 US employers found that, despite some difficulty in evaluating the quality of certain microcredentials, 71 percent of respondents said their company is becoming more accepting of them in lieu of a four-year degree. “Expanding the terms for who can get hired is a change that would reverberate far beyond individual jobs and job seekers,” writes the New York Times editorial board in a recent op-ed calling for open hiring requirements. “It would bring a greater degree of openness and fairness into the labor market and send a message about government’s ability to adapt and respond to the concerns of its citizens.”

Canada has the most educated workforce among G7 countries, with a higher share of our population having college or university degrees. Over the past twenty years, “we’ve become a credential-based economy,” says Michael French, the national director of client solutions at the Canadian arm of the recruitment agency Robert Half. “It used to be just, you know, go to the office, do your work, and you go home, you have a job for life.” Now, he says, companies are struggling to find talent. How can a candidate have possibly mastered a new software the company has just adopted? “We’re seeing companies now say, okay, if we are going to hire, what do we need for the future versus what do I need now?” says French. A LinkedIn Learning course in generative AI tools or a Coursera certificate in Google SEO fundamentals offers transferable skills that make candidates more marketable. Racking up credentials isn’t just about acquiring applicable skills: it’s also about demonstrating to your employer that you’re committed to lifelong learning. But French also says you should manage your expectations about the value of a one-off course: “There is never a bad reason to upgrade your skills. But at the same time, if you’re thinking by taking this one course you are going to end up changing your current trajectory, you may be misled.”

Yalaju wonders whether taking the full-time UX design bootcamp would have accelerated her career trajectory more than the two part-time courses she completed. The bootcamp’s tuition fee for the full-time program, according to BrainStation’s website, totaled $16,500, or roughly two years of undergraduate university fees at most Canadian universities. It offered students the time to refine their ideas and present them to companies. But, she says, you can learn only so much in ten weeks—especially on top of working full time. “It was hard to find the time to get everything done,” she says. She also says that employers were looking for designers with more experience than she had after BrainStation and thinks perhaps she could have strengthened her portfolio given more time but was spread a little bit thin between full-time work and part-time study. (She completed her courses in March 2020, when many companies temporarily froze hiring.)

So was it worth it? Though it took a few contract positions to get there, she says, “I still got a job!”

Microcredentials alone are not a solution to credentialism or labour polarization. Their value varies depending on the types of classes and the worker’s goals: one or two short courses in digital marketing won’t necessarily make you an expert and may not immediately land you a new job in the field. On the other hand, a time-intensive bootcamp may well launch your new career without the investment in a degree, which often requires a leave from work and fees in the tens of thousands. And while a post-secondary education is still a world-expanding privilege, a degree is increasingly—and perhaps unfortunately—required for jobs that didn’t require one.

While microcredentials can certainly fill gaps in employees’ skill sets and are therefore valuable to both workers and organizations, they can’t replace the “emergent knowledge” that a degree provides, Gomez says, illustrating the tension in the labour market. He notes that even technical colleges, which are designed to prepare students for employment, offer a mix of practical and theoretical courses for well-rounded learning. There’s a danger, he says, in fragmenting education and recruiting candidates based only on their specific technical skill sets.

“It’s a reductionist approach. The whole point of knowledge is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

Josh Greenblatt
Josh Greenblatt is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto. His features and essays have been published in GQ, the Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, and more.