At its peak, 2017 Black Friday spending exceeded $1 million per minute. Online sales grew by double digits over the prior year. The unsung hero of this growth? Standardization. Technical specifications and schema worked behind the scenes to facilitate online transactions, help consumers find products, and compare prices. They enabled retailers to track inventory, manage supply chains, and ensure consumer confidence in online transactions.
It’s a familiar trend at the intersection of emerging technologies and economic growth. Standardization of currencies fueled economic expansion by providing greater transparency into cross-border transactions. Standardization of railways and shipping containers enabled efficient transport of goods. More recently, languages like the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) or Really Simple Syndication (RSS) have improved availability and efficiency of sharing information online.
These examples, and others like them, reflect the potential for standardization to upend market inefficiencies caused by communication failures. And today’s labor market is a prime example. Employers today are struggling to fill open jobs, yet 6.5 million Americans remain unemployed. LinkedIn reports that hiring rates have increased by double digits, even as the number of available jobs remains flat.
These data signal churn in the labor force and a disconnect between in-demand skills and the capabilities of individuals. But they also highlight a communications gap between job seekers and employers. Skills gaps may be less about skills scarcity and abundance, and more about how key participants in the labor market communicate with one another.
It is a challenge exacerbated by the ways that employers search for talent, education and training programs tell the world what their graduates know, and individuals discover job opportunities: labor market transactions rooted in self-reported data and paper (sometimes digitized) resumes rife with inconsistent or inaccurate descriptions of similar skills and experiences.
It is a system that can reward savvy keyword-users over high achievers, and that sustains equity gaps through a reliance on degrees and other proxies that offer precious little insight into the potential of would-be employees. It is a challenge that is accelerating as technology transforms the world of work while the shelf life of skills contracts.
But that may soon change. A cadre of credential “issuers” are now collaborating on the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL), a common credentialing language that aims to transform the way students, workers, education institutions, and employers describe and share credentialing information. By organizing the metadata embedded within digital credentials into a consistent format, the CTDL enables the publishing of credentials to the web in a standardized format that will enable the development of applications to perform automated searches and comparisons. Imagine students comparing education opportunities linked to new skills and jobs -- or employers comparing candidates with similar skills.
The CTDL is on its way to becoming an accepted standard for searching and comparing credentials online. And the timing is good: labor market demand for tech skills has given rise to a multiplicity of new education and assessment providers designed to help job seekers learn or demonstrate skills like data science or coding. Colleges and universities are also experimenting with cheaper, faster alternatives to the degree. The result is an explosion of continuing education credentials, certificates, and micro-masters degrees.
Current data indicates that there are over 330,000 distinct credentials available nationally. And usage of these is on the rise: Certificates alone have seen a 300% increase since 1994, with over one million certificates awarded in 2010. At the same time, the applicant tracking systems used by large employers are often reliant on keywords and Boolean search strings -- ill-equipped to compare, say, college graduates to job seekers that have similar skills but less impressive academic credentials.
Over time, the adoption of skill definitions in machine-readable, standard formats will transform the hiring process. It will recalibrate our expectations for education and training. Just as the standards that facilitate online shopping support both buyers and sellers, the CTDL will empower both sides of the digital credential market: providing credential issuers with a consistent way to publish credentials and helping credential consumers make better informed decisions about the credentials that matter to them. By providing more structured, transparent data on credentials, the CTDL allows comparison of like goods -- the educational and professional achievements of individuals -- and in so doing, has the power to improve labor market outcomes for all involved.
Scott Cheney is the executive director of Credential Engine, the non-profit organization that developed the CTDL and is dedicated to the mission of bringing transparency and literacy to the credential marketplace.
Jonathan Finkelstein is the founder and CEO of Credly, the leading provider of software and services that help organizations issue, manage and track digital credentials.