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Certifying Career Readiness

To help provide better qualified job candidates, an organization that's worked with high-school students for three decades has joined with 10 companies to create a new certification program that organizers are calling a "true differentiator."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014
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Administrators at the National Academy Foundation, a network of career-themed academies that aims to connect underserved high school students to viable careers, recently announced a new initiative: href >="">NAFTrack Certified Hiring

Founding partners -- AT&T, Cisco, EMC, HP, JPMorgan Chase, Juniper Networks, KPMG LLP, RBC Capital Markets US, Verizon and Xerox -- have committed to give special consideration to job applicants who, as high school graduates, earned a NAFTrack credential. Foundation President JD Hoye says some have gone as far as to offer higher pay to NAFTrack candidates, even when others are equally qualified.

"I think the difference is that we've codified the proficiencies we believe are expected for career-readiness, aligned with college-readiness and built a way to objectively measure those proficiencies and credential it so that a third party knows who's in and who's out," Hoye says.

"I don't know of any other program that has a three-pronged assessment platform tied to the actual credential," she says.

The NAFTrack platform incorporates three levels of learning: foundation curriculum, which is industry-vetted and refreshed every three years, project-based learning which requires students to integrate knowledge in core academics and employer evaluations of an internship. The assessment platform is co-created with the San Francisco-headquartered organization WestEd.

To earn a certification, students must successfully fulfil nine certification system components: four culminating project assessments, four end-of-course proctored exams and a culminating work-based learning experience assessment.

Working professionals from the foundation's career themes -- finance, IT, engineering, health sciences and hospitality and tourism -- participate as subject matter experts for development of every course and update. Industry representatives also recommend and review project and problem-based learning activities and the culminating project in each course."We want NAFTrack to stand for a rigorous set of knowledge and skills that are assessed and measured that employers can count on," Hoye says.

Initiative developers are hoping the certification will help level the opportunities afforded to disadvantaged students, she says.

"What the NAFTrack does is puts blinders on that question and instead looks at proficiencies, not background," Hoye says. "If you look at our data, well over 68 percent are in poverty, so we are talking about socioeconomically challenged households. And if you look at some of our districts, they are as much as 75 to 80 percent children of color, oftentimes first-college-goer students. So, one would say if you connect those dots, yes, they're reaching more disadvantaged populations."

Juniper Networks Senior Vice President and CIO Bask Iyer calls the certification program a "best of breed."

"For me, the differentiators of the NAF program are the clarity of its vision, its very developed and thoughtful program and its scale of impact," he says. "And I know that this is an organization that makes a difference - every day."

The company views its founding role in the initiative as a type of social responsibility effort, Iyer says.

"While this is a very important social responsibility effort -- enabling us to give back to our communities -- it is much more," he says. "This might sound too pragmatic, but programs like this are also good business."

For companies in a talent crunch, such as the tech sector, the initiative goes beyond social responsibility and aims to address a critical and growing shortage of qualified candidates, Iyer says.

"We need to do more to encourage young people of all backgrounds to consider careers in tech," he says. "And programs like (NAFTrack) also enable us to expand the diversity of our teams. We know that diversity is good for innovation and creativity. We need to ensure that socioeconomic background is considered an important factor in diversity profiles."

While certification programs have been gaining momentum worldwide, the NAFTrack initiative goes beyond what some others offer, says Paul Rubenstein, a New York-based partner with Aon Hewitt.

"Certifications have been a growing practice outside the U.S. for a while," he says. "Think about how hiring in India is done. People take certification more and more seriously."

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For hiring managers and recruiters, the concept offers a standard of knowledge -- beyond or exclusive from a four-year degree -- that is accepted across a critical mass of employers, he says.

Rubenstein offers as an example the popularity of < href="">massive open online courses, "the fastest growing segment of the learning community."

"Certainly NAF has been at it for a long time, connecting the needs of real-world business and taking that need for skills and driving that into curriculum for schools," he says. "Public schools aren't necessarily connected to the business community other than vocational schools -- and a lot of those programs have been cut."

The foundation's STEM focus also helps ensure that students are achieving certifications for talent pools that are shallowest.

"It helps having somebody recognized, who has legs in lots of educational institutions and has good partnerships with employers. [NAFTrack] is a step further because of that public-private partnership."

For companies who choose to partner in the new certification program, the move offers more a mutual benefit than solely a corporate social responsibility effort, Rubenstein says.

"On the employee-services side, the partners will coach you on interviewing and do other things to prepare you -- that's part of the social responsibility," he says. "Maybe it's more of an intersection where social responsibility is good business."

Other companies may join the ranks of those founders or find other methods to affect the talent pipeline, Rubenstein says.

"[Certification programs] are definitely making a comeback," he says. "We've seen a gap between the labor created and skills needed. That gap has received more and more attention. You see lots of pockets of this already, where companies are going into communities and taking control of the labor supply by driving course curriculum."

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