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21st Century Skill Badge Earners Poised to Test the Job Market: 5 Things We’re Learning from Tee Up the Skills

Employers fill out T-Profiles at the University of Maine in Fall 2018

7 schools. 400 students. 20 employers. 40 T-profiles. 14,000 frequent flier miles.

Our #TeeUpTheSkills travels at the end of 2018 were intense. In spite of the ambitious schedule, we traversed the country with enthusiasm. We were confident that putting boots on the ground to lead personalized design sessions with our partner schools and their employers would answer the biggest questions the Lab has about its 21st century skill digital badges.  

  • Will employers care about them?  
  • To what extent will they be valuable signals of skill readiness for hiring managers?
  • At what point(s) in the hiring process are they useful?
  • Can they provide a leg up for historically marginalized student populations?

The early results from employers (including local, national and global companies) provide encouraging answers to these questions and much, much more:

#1  Digital badges, in general, have the potential to be more valuable in the hiring process than a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree

It’s still early days for employers. Very few consistently see applicants with digital badges, but one-third of the employers we interviewed believe digital badges can be as valuable as incumbent degrees and credentials. This is big news! Learners should have multiple, meaningful ways to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to employers. For those who cannot afford a 2-4 year educational experience (either due to finances or time constraints), this is especially big news.  Higher education should see this as an opportunity rather than a threat to incumbent degrees and certifications. Digital badges could help grow your base of learners and enhance the profile of learners you currently serve. If you need to make a case for badging in your environment, it is clear employers are poised to explore their value.

#2 Employers who are just learning about 21st Century Skills Badges, believe they could help assess the skill readiness of recent college grads

According to Hart Research Associates 2018 report, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work, 76% of executives and 87% of hiring managers rate it very important that recent graduates demonstrate the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings, yet only 33% of executives and 39% of hiring managers think that recent graduates are very well prepared in this area.  The Lab surveyed employers familiar with the hiring process and asked them to what extent they agree with the statement, “I am interested in new ways to assess skills of recent college graduates.” 78% strongly agreed and 22% agreed, which means 0% disagreed! They are hungry, if not desperate, for ways to do this. They are willing to experiment. They don’t need a fully-baked solution that has years of testing behind it. But, they do need to be educated.

When employers were able to ask questions and develop a working understanding of our badges (i.e., what they are, how they were developed and what learners experience), they became eager and hopeful that these badges could solve one of their biggest challenges–deciphering whether or not a recent college graduate is equipped with the right combination of “technical” and “21st century skills.” Employers cared more about what learners did to earn these badges and less about the time it took to do it (music to the ears of the competency-based education world). They were most energized by our “proving ground” assessments, which require learners to apply their knowledge of the skills to real-world, workplace experiences. Some employers even felt they could make better hiring decisions just based on the results of the proving ground, further supporting the narrative, “I know it when I see it.”

#3 Job descriptions don’t accurately reflect the 21st century skills employers are seeking

“If I had 50 empathetic applicants with a mechanical aptitude, I would hire them all on the spot.”

There are many reasons for the perceived “skills gap.” And both supply and demand can do more to address it. The Lab has one very simple, but important recommendation for employers. Ask for the skills you want on your job description. The employer quoted saying this is not asking for empathy as part of his job description for HVAC technicians, but acknowledges he could increase his business just by adding more empathetic employees. Awareness is fundamental to solving the skills gap. Employers can accelerate this by openly articulating the combination of technical and 21st century skills they are seeking.

As part of our sessions, we used our T-profile tool and asked employers to identify the most important 21st century and technical skills for their hard to fill, entry-level positions. This brief exercise challenged employers to see potential gaps between their job descriptions and their desires. Enlightening discussions invariably followed with employers admitting surprise and concerns about the disconnect. To complicate things further, some employers from the same company disagreed on which skills were most important. Job seekers use job descriptions as a guidepost, attempting to measure their qualifications against it. College students might use job descriptions as a developmental tool to build their profile. In the coming months, the Lab will be advancing its work on the T-profile and building out its library of Ts to demonstrate the power of skill transparency.

#4 Industry bundles of 21st century skills are emerging

We all know quite a bit about which 21st century skills employers value most. By the way, employers will tell you all of them are important (no argument here). But by urging them to select the most important ones for their hard-to-fill, entry-level roles (as we did during our employer sessions), it is becoming clear that we may not know enough about which skills matter most when we look across sectors and jobs.  

Part of the issue impacting the teaching and acquisition of 21st century skills is the lack of guidance as to where to start. Can industry help learning providers and learners identify which 21st century skills are valuable by sector and job? We believe they can. In fact, we’re seeing it. Trends emerge when you look at the 40 T-profiles we’ve designed with employers representing 30 different roles across multiple sectors. In the coming months, we will continue to build out our “library of Ts” for entry-level jobs and make those available on our website.

#5  Badges can be valuable signals at multiple points in the hiring funnel

We have learned from large employers that badges, at scale, will be most valuable to them when the badge assists them in finding the targeted skills in their keyword searches. This is most important to employers in the screening phase to select candidates to review more closely. When competency-based badges are more commonly used, the learner’s most important role here is to manage and be proactive about your digital footprint. What are employers able to see through your skills and experiences? Do the keywords they use best represent you as they scrape data from around the digital world?

Until badges are more commonly accepted, how can a badge earner use them? Note to badge earners everywhere: it is YOUR job to make sure hiring managers know about your digital badge. YOUR job. You cannot rely on applicant tracking systems or keen-eyed, badge-savvy hiring managers to tease it out of the sea of data points they pull from your resume. Highlight them on your cover letters and resume, on your LinkedIn page, and talk about them during any face-to-face interaction.

What’s Next?

This spring (with the help of Vfairs), we are coordinating a virtual career fair featuring participants who have earned (or are in the process of earning) 21st Century Skills Badges, to further educate employers and test the power of these targeted hiring tools. Stay tuned.

The excitement about digital badges is in part due to what they represent (discrete learning, which can be enticing to employers trying to determine a candidate’s focus or level of expertise) and how accessible they are compared to incumbent credentials (employers can quickly access the meta-data (i.e., learning and artifacts) associated with the badge). The excitement begins to wane, however, when we consider if they simply get lost in the sea of data points hiring managers review. The Lab is working with employers who are very willing to learn about badges, very willing to test them in the hiring process, and who are very excited about their potential to help them find top talent, particularly from historically underrepresented populations. For those of you who are thinking about launching or growing your badging initiative but are hesitant because you’re not sure if employers will care, the time to act is now. Employers care!