Licensing and Certification Programs Are Booming, but Women Aren’t Seeing the Benefits

A new study shows women pay more and get less back.

A female electrician working with wires.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and rawpixel on Unsplash.

Electrician Erica Scott clearly remembers the day she gathered with her co-workers for an early morning start at a South Slocan Dam construction site in Canada. Her boss asked if anyone was certified to drive the Zoom Boom, a heavy-duty lift designed to withstand Canada’s winters. Scott says she raised her hand amid a group of silent men, but the assignment went to a young man, barely 19, who was not certified to operate one. She recalls that after he crashed the Zoom Boom into a fence, she threw her hard hat on the ground and demanded that her certified skills in Zoom Boom operation be put to use. The team handed her the keys.

For Scott, who is based in Hawaii and has worked as a journeyman and electrician since 1999, this was just one example of what she characterizes as an unfair work environment in construction. Another is pay. Electricians earn tiered incomes based on their level of experience and have access to more work depending on their level of certification, but Scott found men were often tiered up before women with commensurate experience and certifications—and research shows men are hired more often than women, increasing their earnings. But, she says, “I was a single mom for most of my working career. There was nothing else I could do that would come close to the amount I was paid as an electrician.”

Scott isn’t alone. A new report from my colleagues at the Center for Education and Skills at New America shows that although postsecondary training generally improves worker outcomes like employment and earnings, women pay more and get less out of their nondegree credentials, which include educational certificates, certifications, and licenses. According to the report, both the supply and demand of nondegree credentials has increased, with the number of certificates awarded by postsecondary institutions increasing by nearly 50 percent in the past 15 years and more and more employers requiring proof of additional education. With growth this rapid, understanding where credentials add value and who benefits from them matters more and more.

After digging into the data on adults without bachelor’s degrees from the nationally representative Adult Training and Education Survey, the study’s authors discovered large disparities in worker employment and earnings based on gender, occupation, and nondegree credential attainment.

America’s workforce has strong occupational segregation, particularly among the 60 percent of the U.S. population without bachelor’s degrees. In 10 out of 16 occupational areas the authors examined, either men or women dominated the industry, making up more than 70 percent of the workforce without a bachelor’s degree. And in general, workers in industries dominated by women tend to earn less than workers in industries dominated by men. In a male-dominated field like technology, the study found, obtaining a license or certification was strongly associated with earning higher wages, compared with workers (male or female) in the field without credentials. In female-dominated fields, a much smaller percentage of workers who obtained a license or certification earned more than men or women without a credential. The report also found that, in general, women earn less than men with the same type of nondegree credential. For example, only 10 percent of women with certificates earned more than $50,000 annually, while almost one-third of men with certificates earned more than $50,000 annually.

And even though men and women pursue nondegree certificates at the same rate, women were more likely to pay out of pocket for their training, often at high-cost for-profit institutions for the enrollment availability and flexibility, while men were more likely to pursue and fund their training through their employer or union. In order to improve recruitment, many employers in male-dominated technical fields have gotten rid of degree requirements, instead opting for employer-provided trainings and credentialing programs, such as Google’s suite of certification courses, to hire more workers quickly. In fields such as health care and education—which are dominated by women—more states and counties are requiring nondegree credentials for entry-level workers to professionalize the field, and those courses are often paid for by the workers themselves, costing up to thousands of dollars and taking anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years to complete. For workers looking to change careers, juggling families, and coping with stagnant wages, that can be a major barrier, especially in light of rising expectations that workers obtain more and more certifications to remain competitive.

“I’m a former teacher, so I was alarmed to see that in female-dominated occupations like education and library, it really doesn’t matter if you obtain an educational certificate or a license or certification,” says study co-author Lul Tesfai. She notes that more than 75 percent of workers with a nondegree credential in education and library occupations were earning less than $30,000 a year. That number stands out when compared with the workers in the male-dominated fields of science, engineering, and architecture with similar levels of education—only 4 percent of those workers earned less than $30,000 a year.

So are nondegree credentialing programs making gender inequality worse? The answer isn’t simple. While credentials in majority-female fields like domestic work don’t necessarily guarantee an earnings increase, they offer workers a place to gather, increase their expertise, and learn about their rights to fair wages and hours.

Leydis Muñoz, a full-time nanny and member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in New York, acknowledges that while obtaining certifications doesn’t guarantee employers will pay higher wages in her line of work, it helps domestic workers become confident in their skills and professional worth. “Before getting certified I didn’t know I had laws protecting me. Now that I’m certified, I feel like my job is a career. It helps me say how I want to work, ask for the benefits I need, and know what pay I deserve,” she says.

But as Scott says, “You’re always on the outs when you’re a woman. You can be doing the job as well or better than the guys for 10 years, proving yourself over and over, and they’re still waiting for you to mess up. It’s never enough.” Credentials could help to close that gap, but we need to know where they work and where they don’t. While fields like construction and technology have higher returns on investment after completing nondegree credentials, those returns predominantly serve men. Studies show some workers in women-dominated fields believe certifications improve job quality and security, but those benefits don’t always come with higher wages. And credentialing programs are sprawling and decentralized, so we should further study their impact on gender inequality before moving toward more wholesale funding or professionalization efforts.

Pursuing higher education has often been thought of as a pipeline to success, but stories like Scott’s show that no matter what jobs women choose, no matter what skills they acquire, they contend with additional barriers. The rise of credentials shouldn’t present another.