U.S. Senator: Certification Benefits Workforce Development

Ron Johnson

For the second year in a row, the U.S. Department of Labor held its 2019 Tech Expo in Washington, D.C. This year, it occurred on May 16, with an emphasis on "How emerging technologies will change the way we live and work."


U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) was on the speaker's podium, and talked about more and better ways to prepare members of (and new entrants to) the U.S. workforce "for IT fields through certification programs," in the words of a recent story at MeriTalk.com.


MeriTalk is a private-public partnership that seeks to "improve the outcomes of government information technology" (About page).


What the Senator Said


The story provides numerous direct quotes and summaries attributed to the Wisconsin lawmaker, which I reproduce verbatim:


"I'm not a big fan of our education system," Sen. Johnson said. "We are in the information age. We have all these technological advancements — the Khan Academy and massive online open courses — and we're not using them."


Johnson said that the United States is still falling victim to using 18th- or 19th-century models of education that don't focus on IT, and advocated for turning people towards a system that offers certifications to learn skills — rather than a mindset of needing a four-year college degree to be hired into the IT workforce.


"I'll tell you how wrong-headed that is — how destructive that is," Johnson said, when speaking of the college system. "A lot of kids don't really want a four-year degree and aren't particularly suited for it. And what are we telling kids that don't have a four-year degree? That they are second-class citizens? Nothing could be further from the truth."


Closing workforce skill gaps, Sen. Johnson argues, will help shrink the national debt and keep America in competition with China when it comes to the IT economy. With human capital and IT resources more firmly in sync, the U.S. can push to new heights in the technology space, the senator said.


What It All Means


For what its worth, I concur with Sen. Johnson, pretty much right down the line, though I do think he's glossing over hiring realities in pooh-poohing the importance of four-, or even two-year college degrees, in the minds of employers hiring for IT workforce participants.


Indeed, I agree that a current, high-value certification can be of great value in qualifying individuals for entry into or participation in the IT workforce. As we all know, however, knowledge bases in the field turn over no more slowly than every 5-7 years (faster in some subfields, especially emerging and potent ones such as Big Data, cybersecurity, and cloud computing).


Employers look to 4 year degrees as evidence that employees have the ability to keep learning over their lifetimes, and the stick-to-it-tiveness to climb on and complete lengthy, complex programs of study (add more "brownie points" for advanced degrees, for those very same reasons).


All that said, Sen. Johnson is right to observe that using 21st century methods can help increase the pool of qualified IT candidates. I find it interesting that he specifically cites Khan Academy and MOOCs (which I take to include the likes of Coursera, EdX, Udacity, Future Learn, iversity, Cognitive Class, and so forth).


Indeed, these sites offer useful, low- and no-cost training materials and labs for those interested in learning IT skills and related tools and technologies. Frankly, I'd like to see the US Government do more to help promote and recognize IT training from such sources as a part of how it identifies and hires IT professionals itself. Doing so would set a clear example for other (private) market sectors to follow, including research, industry, and so forth.


Given that the online training providers can deliver comprehensive, well-rounded educational programs with the same panache and dispatch they already bring to technical topics, and IT workforce development areas, there's no reason why an equivalent to the GED couldn't be developed for equivalents to 2- and 4-year degree plans for aspiring IT professionals.


The same approach could work for individuals who need to retrain to leave industries and marketplaces on the wane, or approaching end-of-life. By frontloading such programs with technical topics, individuals could enter the workforce sooner rather than later in working through such curricula, yet still acquire the general background and broad subject matter coverage that gives university degrees value outside a specific field of study.


As far as I know, that's about as close to "having your cake and eating it too" as workforce preparation can come. It will be interesting to see how educational models evolve and grow to accommodate 21st-century needs using 21st--century tools, platforms, and technologies. Stay tuned!


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About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.