For the past decade, labor experts have outlined the need for education beyond high school to compete in nearly every industry. Some careers require years of higher education to earn the advanced degrees needed to work in the field. More typically, other careers rely on workers with associate or bachelor’s degrees. However, job seekers often forget that many careers can be effectively launched with the first step in higher education — the certificate.

Certificates generally relate to a specific occupation and are more focused. This makes certificates an affordable option because most certificates can be completed in under two years, or even less than one year for certain programs. Certificate programs at Waubonsee Community College range from three to 50 credits.Community colleges are particularly adept at offering certificate programs, representing more than half of all credentials awarded. The financial incentive to pursue a certificate is strong. Workers who hold a certificate earn 20 percent more than those with a high school diploma. This represents a lifetime earnings difference of $240,000 for certificate holders.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently highlighted the importance of certificates in our economy in the report, “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees.” Calling certificates “the on-ramp to college education and middle-class jobs,” the report highlighted how certificates have grown from just 6 percent of all postsecondary awards in 1980 to 22 percent today — with more than 1 million awarded each year. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), 55 percent of all academic credentials earned in Illinois that are less than a bachelor’s degree are certificates.

More than just a path to a career, certificates are frequently designed as part of a career ladder that leads to degrees for many students. The Georgetown report found that two of every three workers who hold both a certificate and college degree earned the certificate first. In an evolving economic landscape, many degree holders also turn to certificates as a way to retrain and change careers. For example, students in Waubonsee’s Certificate of Achievement in Addictions Counseling have included those with high school, bachelor’s and graduate degrees.

Waubonsee Community College has long offered certificates in many different disciplines that lead to good jobs throughout the Fox Valley. In recent years, we have seen unprecedented growth in certificates earned by our students. Since 2008-2009, when the college awarded 566 certificates, certificate completion has grown by more than 140 percent to 1,378 awarded in 2011-2012. Last year, the most popular certificates enabled students to pursue careers as certified nurse assistantsemergency medical technicians and automotive technicians

Certificates are an important element of higher education because they can lead to careers that support not just the individual but also their families. In some cases, certificates can even lead to jobs that pay more than many degree paths such as Legal or Health Care InterpreterSurgical TechnologistAuto Body Technician and many more.

With 36 million workers in our country having attended college without completing a degree, certificates are another way to earn a marketable credential. Certificates are playing and will continue to play an important role in state and national college completion goals and in improving the regional, state and national economy in the process.