I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the whole concept of credentials as gatekeepers. I am doing this because I continue to run into situations where I’m reminded of the futility of the four year college as a solution for the workforce.
Most recently I had a conversation with a senior administrator of a college. This is a brilliant guy who’s spent his entire life educating people. One of the points of the commentary was how he was now advising students they to be effective they had to choose between two directions for an education that leads to a job. His words were something like “go for the trade credential, or don’t stop until you got to the masters”. Obviously I have some thoughts about the longer term viability of the Master’s Degree but he’s right in his observations. After I had my “I’m glad it’s not just me who sees this” moment, I reflected a bit. I realized that as the Masters becomes more irrelevant like the bachelors of old it’s only someone who possesses the both a gatekeeper credential and an advanced degree who is generally open to a well-paid job in the disappearing middle of the org charts. As you know, to get to the top you have to go through the middle.
A traditional credential, sometimes referred to as a stackable credential is one where you have to have the credential to do the job safely and securely. A gatekeeper credential is something different, it’s when a trade credential or other credential is inappropriately used to keep professionals from securing a job. This is done to simplify the HR process or it can be done for other more nefarious i.e. monopoly control of a job market reasons. More about that in a bit.
First, I should better define what I’m talking about when I use the word credential. It is some formal license or certificate that is somewhat difficult to obtain. Good examples would be a certified electrician license, teaching license, a Project Management certification, or even a license or registration that requires a specific type of degree that is followed up with a licensure like nursing. Credentialing, a little like guns, can be either a good thing or it can be a bad thing depending on how it’s used.
When the credential is a good thing.
The formal or stackable credential is a wonderful thing when it comes to the trades. The best example that comes to mind is the electrician. If an electrician doesn’t know their stuff, then the work doesn’t pass inspection and the project doesn’t move forward. Even if the lights or the machine does technically turn on, if the inspection doesn’t pass then the delay has huge costs for the project. This is true in the industrial sector as well as for the non-industrial applications. In a factory the really expensive machine may not work, or it may not get back to work quickly. In those situations you may hear the plant manager say something soothing like “I want that #$@! Press Break back online right this &^%# Instant!!!”. In situations where the electrician is serving a homeowner, if they don’t know what they are doing the problem may never get fixed and the household annoyance will continue in perpetuity.
There is even a worse fate than not meeting production goals or a light socket that burns out bulbs every other day. In certain instances, if the electrician doesn’t know their jobs, then you could lose your life. The electrician is again the most notable example, but there are many trades that fit this bill. The bottom line is that credentials and certifications got started because there was a real need to make sure the person doing the job actually knew what they were doing.
When the credential is a bad thing, when it becomes a gatekeeper credential.
So if life and liberty are at stake, then it’s best if you know that the worker knows how to do their job. The real challenge to the gatekeeper credential is when it’s used not because it’s necessary to give the right person the job, but when it’s to keep as many people away from the job as possible. There are a couple of ways this is done.
When the credential attainment is overly onerous.
The best example of this is the physician credential. The MD. Throughout all of history doctors have fought tooth and nail to retain the right for price discrimination. It’s why they fought Blue Cross and countered with Blue Shield, it’s why they lobbied for preferential legislation, and it’s why over a hundred years ago they got together and closed many of the medical schools. Less medical schools had the intended effect of getting rid of the quacks, shrinking the market and creating many many barriers to entry.
I have a personal experience with this process in that I was close to an aspiring med school student when I was younger. It was clear to anyone within about twelve seconds that this candidate had the work ethic, the desire, and the cognitive ability to be a doctor. To be fair many people do. The difference was the hoops my friend was willing to jump through to get into medical school. They were insane and completely unreasonable for most people. First, there were very few medical schools so the application quantity received by each was crazy. Secondly, no matter what my friend did to make the application look better more was always asked. Ultimately it required multiple years of applying, getting menial jobs in the field to show ‘experience’, and actually moving to a different state for a year or two to finally get the acceptance letter. Most people don’t have that level of dedication to put their life on hold for years for a chance that something may happen. The question is: Is that level of dedication actually necessary to provide the amount and quality of services that doctors provide? If you have ever met a competent nurse, then you know the answer is no. Over the years I’ve had the benefit of knowing many medical professionals and I’ve discovered that half a brain and a few years operating in a practice will get you 90% of the way there.
In the end my friend became an MD, and all the other hundreds of applicants who had the ability and skills didn’t become MD’s. The net macro result is a skew in the supply / demand ratio for licensed physicians. It’s the license requiring the educational component that makes it a gatekeeper credential. You can’t prescribe drugs or be hired to practice medicine without a license, and you can’t get a license without graduating from an accredited medical school. Schools are accredited in large part by doctors who teach at other schools. Doctors don’t allow allot of medical schools, and you can see where this leads. We have to schedule an appointment weeks in advance and deal with ever escalating insurance complexity and cost because there isn’t enough competition in the supply of doctors to keep costs down and services up to reasonable levels.
When the gatekeeper credential is nefarious, and when it becomes a problem for professionals.
When it comes to doctors, you could say that human life is at stake and that’s why you need the best of the best to oversee a medical practice. You could argue that it’s a highly specialized skill. The most nefarious types of gatekeeper credentials are the ones where you have to have the credential even though it has little to do with the position, and any competent professional can do the job. Think teaching license. I know many people who are very well suited for teaching. They have the right temperament, the passion, and the ability. But they may have gotten a generic communication degree, a philosophy degree or something similar. Maybe they never finished college. Finishing college isn’t really all that important once there are several years of professional experience under your belt depending on your profession. But to have a teaching license, it requires not only a degree, but it also requires a license. Teacher shortage or no. If you want to tell kids about geography, or history, or social studies using canned lessons plans and you don’t have that teaching license. well, as my family from New York says, aaaah fuggedaboud it!
But there are ways around this I’m told. For example, in North Carolina there is lateral entry programs for teachers. These programs allow someone who doesn’t have a teaching license to go in and start teaching while they work on their license. So it’s an easy process, right? Again, I have personal experience in this. First, it’s an onerous process. Second, even the highly incompetent applicant who holds the license gets the job — by law. This makes the point nearly mute unless there literally is no one available. In one instance I personally know a candidate who was disqualified from a job teaching computers to high school students. The candidate had amassed an entire career selling and servicing every type of information technology solution there was. The selected individual was a relatively recent graduate who held the teaching license in a different subject. In this case the non-licensed experienced PIC was dying to get into the field and contribute back to society with the incredible level of knowledge they had amassed over the decades. The licensed social studies teacher who did get the job quit after six months. The school system lost out, the kids lost out, the candidate lost out. All of this because the requirement for the credential was designed to provide a barrier to entry. If you’re not in the club, you don’t get the job.
I have another example in the medical field. In this case it’s a coordinator position working for government providing medical services. The job is 99% about system organization and people management. The position requires registered nurses certification and it’s recommended that the candidate have a Master’s degree. I want to say that again, the job is 99% not about medical issues. It’s about policy, and customer service, and organization.
It’s not just the public sector. The public sector is more intransigent because of all the political realities and how hard it is to get requirements changed. The private sector, especially as organizations get larger can be just as bad. In the case of the private sector it has more to do with trying to funnel out the tremendous numbers of applications. Employment tenures continue to be volatile not the least of which is because organizations over compensate with staff expansion and contraction in reaction to the quarterly earnings call. Typically, as an organization grows, they do more with less so there are less actual employees. It’s why when some actual hiring manager has an opening to fill, they send a req to HR looking for the purple squirrel. The request would be something like a Masters degree holder with a certification in MIG and TIG Welding and also a Registered Nurse. You know for that open coordinator of OSHA compliance position. Hey they are a manufacturer with a bunch of welders on staff.
So what did we learn people?
There are two best practices and takeaways. The first is that understanding what the gatekeeper credential happens to be in any sector is really important for anyone looking to make a decent living and actually get selected for an interview and secure the position. The earlier you know this the better. It doesn’t matter how many Masters degrees you have or how much they cost, if you don’t have the gatekeeper credential: The RN, the Teaching Licenses, The PhD, etc.. then you don’t get considered for the promotion or job.
The second thing to consider is that the gatekeeper credential seems to be a combination of both the technical and the advanced scholastic degree.
- Teacher = Subject matter degree AND teaching license prior to applying
- Medical Coordinator = Subject master degree AND Registered Nurse
- Regional Manager = Master’s Degree in subject are AND MBA AND licensure in some important area of business.
The gatekeeper credential is a challenge for the job seeker, the employer, and the professional. It’s a great thing if you are part of the club and want to keep your positions secure and limit the number of applicants and competition. It stinks if you’re trying to fill a hard to fill position or if you’re a job seeker who can do the job but doesn’t have the credential. It really stinks if you’re already deep in your career and you want to get ahead for either more pay or that highly desirable and very rare middle management position that actually leads to a decent wage. That means you have to figure out a way to get that additional credential while you do little things like work a full time job, raise a family, and work your side business that you started to help make life a bit easier.
It’s pretty easy to see why so many professionals just wind up saying #$@! This!.