The traditional resume is on its way out, and that’s a good thing. It’s no secret that the information a resume offers can muddle—instead of articulate—the author’s strengths. For example, there is usually a long list of relevant skills; corroborated by whom, exactly?

The traditional resume makes it difficult for hiring managers to discern who would be the best fit for open positions, which often leads to unnecessary and time-wasting interviews in which the applicants’ actual competencies (or lack thereof) eventually come out. On the other hand, job seekers are stuck in a perpetual state of tweaking resumes to match the desired skills in job descriptions and struggle to express all their capabilities in a single document.

The problems with the resume are not new. But we’re in an age where social media and online identities are picking up the slack and offering employers a more complete picture of applicants. We’ve all heard about how HR pros scour social media sites to screen applicants. But smart recruiters can now go even further to find potential candidates and evaluate their qualifications using online evidence of their specific characteristics and competencies.

While in college, savvy students are using Twitter, LinkedIn, even Facebook, to build a digital representation of their professional identities. They’re listing current and past jobs and internships. They’re connecting with professors, coworkers, and supervisors and displaying recommendations and endorsements right on their profile page. They’re listing their skills and competencies. Basically everything a hiring manager would look for on a traditional resume—and more—is now available online.

The latest addition to the online professional footprint is a powerful new tool called digital badges. Badges are gaining traction with employers, students, and education institutions alike as a new currency in competencies. Badges are helping usher in a new era in which employers have more evidence to validate capabilities to assess whether or not applicants’ skills match job requirements, leaving traditional paper resumes—with all their shortcomings—in the filing cabinet where they belong.

What are badges, anyway?

Digital badges are flexible, open, and portable symbols of an accomplishment, skill, competency, or interest. Learners earn badges from many different types of providers—often via blended or fully online courses—when they complete specific criteria designed to show competency in a given area. Badge achievements can be added to online resumes, social media profiles, personal websites, and even job sites so that the knowledge learners have acquired can become—literally and visibly—part of their identities.

Theoretically, there is no subject too narrow to warrant a badge if competency is demonstrated. Badges can be granted for anything from proficiency in a computer program, to fluency in a language, to soft skills like critical thinking or conflict resolution.

To prepare their students for the workforce, higher education institutions are beginning to define and issue badges that represent valuable job skills that are in high demand by employers. And because badges can be granted in very specific subjects, employers and other “badge consumers” are recognizing the value of the detailed information and evidence of skills that badges provide. This is in stark contrast to the opaque, rudimentary information provided in resumes and transcripts.

But badging is more than just a shiny new tool for recruiters. There is currently a plethora of unfilled high-paying jobs in the U.S., even while unemployment rates remain high. In its 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, the Manpower Group cites “a lack of available skilled talent as a continuing drag on business performance”.

To bridge this gap, higher education institutions need to prepare students with in-demand skills, and applicants need to better demonstrate proficiency in these skills to employers. Badges, and the competency-based learning framework they represent, have the potential to solve this dilemma by more efficiently connecting skilled workers to talent-hungry employers.

Why badges, why now?

It’s no secret that education is transforming. Students have more opportunities than ever to acquire knowledge from a variety of sources. They are taking classes from multiple colleges, dabbling in massive open online courses (MOOCs), and polishing their skill sets with professional development courses and workplace training. Badges offer the potential for a “common currency” that transcends multiple learning venues and allows students to display their mastery in skills no matter where they were acquired.   

Badges also are an important part of an ongoing national discourse on competency-based learning. The Lumina Foundation, one of numerous research and non-profit organizations that have recently argued for fundamental changes in the delivery of education, has a strategy for “new systems of quality credentials and credits defined by learning and competencies rather than time.” Since badges represent mastery of a subject verified by badge providers—not simply showing up for a class and getting credit without any engagement—their role in replacing “seat time” for proven competency can only be expected to grow.

Here a badge, there a badge

Badges are gaining momentum in a number of fields, including computing and robotics. Intel, Microsoft, and Disney-Pixar have all launched badge initiatives, and the Information Technology Industry Council recently announced its commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative badge challenge. Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, stated:

“Open Badges is a great opportunity for our nation: American workers and businesses alike. Whether self-taught, acquired through work experience, or learned from science, technology, engineering, and math classroom programs, Open Badges is a way to demonstrate tangible skills that have direct relevance to careers today and in the years to come.”

Badge initiatives are maturing quickly in many arenas: within for-credit and not-for-credit courses (including MOOCs), internships, work experience, military experience, and other learning contexts. These initiatives provide a structure where mentors and experts help learners understand and evaluate their progress toward achieving specific badges, creating a “connected learning ecology.”

Mozilla’s framework for badges

While there are numerous types of badging technologies, the Mozilla Open Badges for Lifelong Learning Initiative has established a framework for the scalable, stable, growth of badge ecosystems. In this open, non-proprietary framework, learning providers define badges that represent specific achievements, often based on industry standard competencies. The learning providers then issue badges after verifying that learners have mastered the competency defined in the badge.

Learners benefit from a more granular understanding of their learning accomplishments and the ability to map their competency badges to the skills required by employers. They can collect badges from multiple sources and organize them to address targeted needs, like a job search. 

A growing number of employers are also using badges to define the skills they are looking for. Companies are endorsing badges created by learning providers to make them even more valuable and reputable. 

In this ecosystem, badge issuers (learning providers), badge earners (learners), and badge consumers (employers) all benefit from the ability to capture and convey evidence of learning that is far more targeted and concrete than traditional grades on transcripts and lists of skills on resumes.

The badges movement holds tremendous potential to bridge the gap between higher education and the workforce and match job-seekers who have proficiency in the skills employers need with unfilled positions. By embracing badges as more accurate, relevant validators of job candidates’ ability than traditional resumes, employers can save time and money and find the candidates with the skills needed to make the highest impact on the job.

Originally published in Training Industry Quarterly

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