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Show me your badges

Corporate badge programs are helping companies fill skill gaps

By Howard Rabinowitz

  • Recruiters are increasingly looking for documented skills
  • Badges are an emerging way to show that candidates have the right skills
  • Not all badges are created equal

The world’s earliest known résumé listed nothing about previous work experience, job titles, or education. Instead it was an elaborate enumeration of 11 skills, including weaponry design, water hydraulics, architecture, sculpture, and a bit of painting.

Having worked only as an art apprentice at the time, Leonardo da Vinci might have been accused of padding his CV, but it’s tough to argue with the result. It landed him a job with Ludovico Sforza, Regent of Milan, which lasted 17 years and produced The Last Supper, among other masterpieces.

Recruiters today have a similar focus on job skills over education or work experience, but for very different reasons. Skyrocketing education costs and widening “skills gaps” in the workforce are forcing employers to rethink talent strategy.

Despite record‑low unemployment, openings for skilled workers in the U.S. currently outnumber qualified candidates by 4.4 million, according to a 2018 study by Burning Glass. The shortages are especially acute in healthcare, finance, and technology.

Colleges and universities, meanwhile, have been coming up short with corporate recruiters in recent years. Recent college grads lack relevant job skills in critical thinking, use of technology, and interpersonal communications, according to a recent survey of employers by the Martin Center for Academic Renewal.



“The education system is misaligned with the needs of society,” says Joe McClary, CEO of the International Association of Continuing Education and Training. “With the cost of college going higher and higher, people are finding that not everybody needs a college education.”

These factors are contributing to a move towards skill‑based hiring, with recruiters focusing more on the specific types of work candidates can perform than on advanced degrees or pedigrees.

A growing number of companies are also using skills badges—digital records of documented skills, acquired through coursework or on‑the‑job training—to develop and mobilize talent where it’s most needed.

Introduced in 2010 as a concept called “Open Badges” by Mozilla, Peer 2 Peer University and the MacArthur Foundation, badges play dual roles. Job seekers display them on LinkedIn or other social media profiles, or embed them in websites or digital signatures to advertise their skill sets. Employers are using them as part of training and re‑skilling programs.

One in five learning institutions now offer digital skill badges, according to a 2018 report by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. A small number of large companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Salesforce and EY, have also launched in‑house badge programs.

New-collar hiring

Job seekers today can earn skill badges through online education platforms like Udacity, uDemy, Coursera and edX at a fraction of the cost of a B.A.

If they have an entry‑level job at a company with a strong learning platform, they can also reskill or upskill on an internal learning management system on the company’s dime and time. Badges are available at every educational level, through informal and self‑directed learning, internships, projects and even quickie seminars.

In 2017, Ernst & Young announced the launch of EY Badges, a program to build skill proficiencies in several in‑demand disciplines, including data visualization, AI, and “information strategy.”

At IBM, more than 200,000 employees have earned 650,000 skill badges since 2016. The average worker completes 60 hours of training per year. Today, 80% of IBM employees have advanced digital skills—associated with AI, analytics, cloud computing, IoT and cyber‑security—compared to just 30% in 2013.

That’s not all: At some IBM offices, as many as one‑third of employees don’t have a four‑year college degree. And the number of so‑called “new collar” job candidates without degrees accounted for 15% of all IBM hiring in 2017.

Badge standards

Skill badges aren’t yet widespread. While the original concept pioneered by Mozilla (and taken over by the IMS Global Learning Consortium in 2017) establishes specifications for the visual and data format of a badge, it doesn’t include protocols to verify a badge holder’s level of competence.

Big companies like IBM often issue and verify badges through their own learning programs. Smaller firms must either use their own verification methods or experiment with emerging, and largely unproven, badge platforms.

“We’ve found that there are great badges and there are badges that lack integrity and quality,” McClary says. “Did I show up to an event and get a badge for it, or did I complete 300 hours of coursework and pass tests to prove my competency?”

E‑learning companies like Degreed, Credly and Accredible have developed verifiable standards through skill assessment. To assess a badge holder’s skills, Degreed reviews educational criteria, collects evidence from endorsers and enlists peers with the same skill certification to provide anonymous evaluations. Then it awards the badge holder a skill ranking from 1 (beginner) to 8 (expert).



“We're trying to move towards a standardized way to talk about skills so that it makes sense within and across industries,” says Kelly Palmer, chief learning officer at Degreed and co‑author of The Expertise Economy.

Until those standards are widely adopted, however, many companies are approaching badges with caution.

“Can accreditation be measured by a badge? Yes,” says McClary. “But that's like asking if people will go to hospitals to treat an illness. Of course they will, if the hospital meets certain standards. But they're not going to go to a shack on the side of the road just because it says ‘hospital.’”

To win widespread adoption, digital badges must become as universally accepted as the Boy Scout merit badges that inspired Mozilla’s original concept.  At a glance, anyone should be able to see what skill the badge holder has mastered, be it’s fire safety, knot‑tying—or advanced data analytics.

Howard Rabinowitz is a Miami‑based business and technology journalist.

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