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Upskilling Asia

Micro-credentials: Opening the door to an inclusive future of work in the digital age

A new way of valuing workers’ skills could change the lives of millions in underserved communities

“Micro-credentialing” is a new way of recognizing the knowledge and expertise that workers acquire through on-the-job experience and training. And, it could be key to bridging massive digital skills gaps around the world.

It could also create unprecedented opportunities for millions of people who might otherwise be left behind by the 4th industrial revolution.

Micro-credentialing is an alternative method of understanding the value of skills as we move toward an inclusive future of work. It goes beyond the formal qualifications that someone may, or may not, hold – especially people in underserved communities where educational opportunities are few.

Kate Behncken, Vice President, Microsoft Philanthropies.
Kate Behncken, Vice President, Microsoft Philanthropies.

Kate Behncken leads Microsoft Philanthropies, which has a global mission of empowering communities and nonprofits to realize the promise and potential of technology. It seeks to advance a future where everyone has the skills, knowledge, and opportunity to participate and succeed in the digital economy.

The Philanthropies team enthusiastically advocates micro-credentialing through a wide range of programs and partnerships that are changing lives for the better across our region.

Micro-credentialing empowers employees to regularly upskill. That means they can meet new workplace demands that arise as organizations restructure and business models change with digital transformation.

It also gives job seekers, particularly from disadvantaged circumstances, a real chance to pursue rewarding careers. Others also get a leg-up, including mothers who want to return to work, along with anyone ready to re-train and make a new start.

Skill shortages often hold back economic growth and national development. And some big-picture research suggests micro-credentialing programs could ease a few structural headaches for governments.

For example, a recent Korn Ferry study predicts a labor shortage of almost 50 million workers in Asia by 2030, with an annual opportunity cost of more than US$4 trillion annually.

A recently published Microsoft Asia report foresees micro-credentialing coming into its own with the advent of artificial intelligence technologies in many sectors. And Behncken believes workers, enterprises, and governments can all benefit.

“We advocate for a focus on the skills and experience somebody has,” she says. “This enables more flexibility in the labor market, including more flexibility for people to re-train or re-enter the workforce.”

Careers are no longer ladders. They are more like vines in a rainforest. You can swing on one and then grab another.

In an interview during a recent visit to Singapore, Behncken pointed to changes in attitudes toward education and employment, such as a growing recognition that life-long learning is essential to work in the digital age.

“Traditionally, education has focused on infancy, early childhood, and young adults, followed by a long period of work when most people don’t get any additional formal education. It is important that this model shifts,” she says. “Why? Because the pace of technology is moving rapidly, people will constantly need to get new skills to keep their jobs or to get new ones.”

A micro-credentialing approach to education and training brings new flexibility to this reality.

ALSO READ: Grabbing opportunities for growth through reskilling in Asia Pacific

In the past, a worker might have regarded his or her career as akin to climbing a ladder. “But careers are no longer ladders. They are more like vines in a rainforest. You can swing on one and then grab another. People go in and out of roles. They switch jobs. Micro-credentialing allows for this sort of change to happen through someone’s working life.”

Governments and other authorities across the region are also starting to embrace change. For instance, Behncken is impressed by the success of Malaysia’s “Recognition of Prior Learningprogram. It issues ‘Malaysian Skills Certificates’ to workers who do not have formal educational qualifications but who have obtained relevant knowledge, experience, and skills in the workplace to enhance their career prospects.

A man in a hardhat types on a laptop next to some factory equipment.
Micro-credentialing helps workers change jobs as they acquire skills through the life of their careers.

“It is helping a lot of people without formal qualifications to get recognized credentials or certifications based on the work experience they’ve had, and the skills they’ve gained. Having that makes them so much more valuable in the market. And, it enhances their career prospects.”

To push change further, Microsoft Philanthropies has acted as “a testbed” for its own initiatives.

“For example, we worked with 1,000 women with low incomes from underserved communities in India attending Industrial Technology Institutes (ITIs). We helped them attain the Computer Operator and Programmer Associate certification, as well as the other essential skills that are needed to get a job today. It has been very successful. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in India is now looking at taking that on more broadly.”

In Japan, a Microsoft Philanthropies-piloted “Empowered Women” initiative saw 200 mothers gain the in-demand skills they needed to return to the workforce. The government is considering expanding it. “We ran this program and proved that it can be done,” Behncken says.

There are also efforts to help companies and organizations reform their long-held hiring practices and processes.

“We suggest employers think about how they recruit for roles and be more skills-focused,” she says. “They can do simple things like writing job descriptions in ways that are more inclusive so as to bring in a wider field of job candidates.”

Daiana Beitler, who leads Microsoft Asia Philanthropies, says her team “helps people from under-represented backgrounds get micro-credentials for the skills we know are in-demand in the region.

“We then encourage partners and customers in our Microsoft ecosystem to hire them. These employers are searching for talent. We let them know that we have a pool of people from under-represented backgrounds with the right skill-sets. We say: Come and recruit them but look at their micro-credentials rather than whether they have a formal four-year bachelor’s degree.” 

Behncken stresses that traditional diplomas and degrees remain valuable assets in many professions: “But we also know that micro-credentials can offer additional options for people across experiences. It is not a matter of having one or the other. Additional pathways for people to follow creates more opportunities.”

Sometimes gaining a set of micro-credentials can open the door to higher education.

“In the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia we are partnered with Passarelles Numeriques, which is an organization that works with underserved communities,” she says. “Its students earn certifications in various skills over two or so years. If they want, they can have these counted as credits towards a bachelor’s degree.

“Without microcredits, it is likely most would never have a chance of going to college or university.”

READ more about Microsoft Philanthropies Asia.