The Era of Credentialing

An article in last Friday’s New York Times by Laura Pappano entitled “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s” highlights the fact that the master’s degree is now the fastest growing degree with the number awarded doubling since the 1980’s.  According to the author, nearly 2 people in 25 over the age of 25 now hold a master’s degree and that is the same proportion as the number of people who held a bachelor’s degree in 1960.

Debra W. Stewart, President of the Council of Graduate Schools, is quoted: “Several years ago, it became very clear to us that the master’s degree was moving very rapidly to become the entry degree in many professions.”  She further states that the degrees are not “generic” master’s degrees but are profession specific such as a Master’s degree in Supply Chain Management or a Master’s in Skeletal and Dental Bioarcheology.

Ms. Pappano interviews a number of individuals for their opinions as to whether or not bachelor’s degrees are being devalued or that employers are increasing qualifications.  The opinions seem to support a little of both.

The topic reminds me of an article published in the July/August 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review.  Written by Thomas W. Malone, Robert Laubacher, and Tommy Johns, “The Big Idea: The Age of Hyper-specialization” takes the concept of credentialing one step further by stating that employers in the future will look increasingly for workers who have a very unique specialty.  Knowledge worker jobs will “atomize” into global networks of workers able to perform highly specialized tasks.  The authors provide an example of TopCoder, a software firm, that breaks up clients’ IT projects into small chunks that freelance developers compete for the best design, coding, systems integration, bug fixing, etc.  With a network of 300,000 developers world-wide, TopCoder is able to identify specialists and complete the projects for a fraction of the cost of a firm required to employ generalists and specialists.

Malone, Laubacher, and Johns further state that the ability of companies like TopCoder to increase the specialization of its workers will require that managers will have to increase their level of expertise in order to assign the work, manage the intermediaries, and verify that complex problems have been solved properly.  The authors propose that cultivating communities of specialized workers will likely be the key discipline of managers in the 21st century.

Predicting major changes in the employment base is no easy task and none of the authors of these articles attempt to quantify the impact of the trend that they are predicting.  Improving your qualifications, whether through the completion of a master’s degree or a specialized certificate, would be prudent if you can afford the time and the cost of obtaining those credentials.



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