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Small academic steps lead to life-changing results 

Some call it up-skilling. Others speak of re-skilling. The biggest employment and academic buzzword right now might well be microcredentials, also called microcourses. There are myriad names for this trend of stackable credentials, but these short courses in a specific field such as Spanish or app development all involve education, job preparation and lifelong learning.

Think of each course as a Lego. Each one fits together with others, enabling people to build skills and academic credit one course at a time and snap them together to create the qualifications needed for a desired job or a better life.

The Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) and other schools call these certificates. At Northern Kentucky University, Professor Amanda Kilmer, program coordinator for organizational leadership, says microcredentials there are not quite a certificate, but similar. 

“The purpose is to provide individuals with an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge in a specific area or discipline,” she says.

NKU offers a variety of microcredentials that can be taken as stand-alone classes, a group of courses combined under one subject, just for fun or as an addition to a major. So do the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky. Other Kentucky schools are adding them in different ways.

Microcredentials reach further than one career field. They can offer a taste of a variety of subjects and provide basic skills. Certificates are a direct path to a possible job; added together, they can produce or enhance a degree. There is also simply the sheer joy of learning something new. 

Retiring, then retraining

Russ French is a good example of how a microcredential can create immediate change. Looking back, French says, “I was 57 and looking for a different job after retiring early. I did a lot of research and noticed that trucking needed people. I signed up for the first CDL (commercial driver’s license) course at Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College. 

“I started at Charles Deweese Construction (served by Warren RECC) in Franklin two weeks after finishing the course. The class took four weeks, and we all earned our CDLs.”

Time was really a factor in choosing this route, he says: “I was blown away at how I started a brand new career in 16 days.”

In March, he will celebrate one year as fleet manager and four years total with the company, overseeing drivers for 60 dump trucks as well as drivers for the paving equipment trucks.

“I enjoy seeing and helping people who want to learn and progress at the company,” he says.

The father of three and grandfather of two adds that he gets to have dinner at home every night with his family, a perk most road drivers do not have.

Brad Holland, Scottsville, left, is also a graduate of the CDL program at SKCTC. Photo: Joe Imel
Dylan Kirker earned his CDL from Maysville Community & Technical College. Photo: Mary E. Morris

Steady (and more) income

Dylan Kirker followed a similar path and had a job three days after earning his CDL through a program at Maysville Community & Technical College.

“I was making $16 an hour or $500 to $600 a week,” Kirker says. “I was doing a little farm work, a little mechanical work and working in construction.”

He doubled his income after the monthlong class and is now making $1,200 to $1,300 a week after buying a truck of his own.

“I am making more money and bettering myself,” he says. “It is now completely different. It is much easier to support my family. Taking that course was one of best decisions I have ever made in my life.”

Teacher training

Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a consortium of 22 mostly rural Kentucky school districts, said in Education Week that in more rural communities, microcredentials are a way for teachers to expand their professional knowledge.

“The closest community college is an hour away,” he said. “The closest university is 30 minutes further. Your school district is strapped for cash, and your salary isn’t large enough for you to comfortably pay for a graduate course. How do you get high quality, personalized professional learning? Microcredentials might be one solution.” 

Lauren Ammerman added a microcredential on top of her required courses at Northern Kentucky University. The extra boost helped her land a job before graduation. Photo: Lauren Ammerman

Expanding a skill set

One of Kilmer’s former students at NKU, Lauren Ammerman, wanted to stand out to potential employers while searching for a job. Ammerman, who grew up in Sadieville, majored in organizational leadership and psychology. She added a microcredential in leadership development that was not mandatory for her major.

“The microcredentials were very positive for me,” says Ammerman. “I really enjoyed the courses because they provided me an expanded format to understand intercultural communication. That is essential to leadership. So much of the work of leadership is working with others. If you can create a vision to work toward and everyone brings multiple ideas to the table, what you end up with is better than what you would create alone.”

Ammerman secured a job even before graduating from NKU and now works as a registered behavior technician.

“The short-term credit provides the opportunity to advance in their career,” says Kilmer. “(The courses) help students get to the next level while working full time and going through school part-time. Microcredentials represent progress on a career ladder as well as an academic level. 

“The question is ‘do you want to go to college or to work?’ The answer should be yes. Microcredentials allow you to do both.”

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