Associations Have the Advantage in the Digital Badges Market

It’s a great time for job-hunting—as long as you have the skills employers need. But, 92 percent of executives believe Americans don’t have the right skills for available jobs. 54 percent of those executives say the education system doesn’t teach the skills needed for today’s workforce.

Colleges and universities can’t adapt their curricula fast enough to meet the demand for new skills—but associations can. Associations are well-positioned to take advantage of the increased employer and learner interest in competency-based learning. You can become the market leader by offering digital badges that focus on the skills required for employment in your industry or profession.

WBT System’s Erin Pavane is presenting a session on digital badges next week at ORGPRO, the Michigan Society of Association Executives’ education and networking convention for professionals in the not-for-profit industry. If you’re attending ORGPRO, this is a session you won’t want to miss.

Why the digital badges business is booming

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, believes people don’t want to spend time or money on master’s degrees. They rather acquire skills they can use right away. The job culture, he said, “is moving to smaller and smaller credentials and continuous education.”

Organizations of all types are responding to this trend with digital credentials (or badges). Colleges and universities, online platforms like edX, companies like Microsoft and IBM, and associations offer competency-based digital credentials that vouch for a person’s mastery of a set of knowledge and skills.

Digital badges reflect a new way of thinking about education: the preference for obtaining an assortment of credentials rather than a degree alone. With digital badges, you learn (and buy) only what you need. This modular consumption habit is everywhere: putting together a playlist instead of buying an album, or an assortment of video streaming services instead of a cable package.

digital badges - modular playlist

Learners of all ages value digital badges

A Pew Research report found that 87 percent of working adults believe it’s either “essential” or “important” to get training to update skills throughout their work lives. Upskilling is mandatory for staying employable and promotable.

Many young professionals are discovering that digital badges are more useful than college degrees. A Rockefeller Foundation survey reported that 49 percent of recent college graduates said they didn’t need to go to college to learn the skills required for their job. 86 percent are learning skills they weren’t taught in college.

Digital badges help mid-career and older workers freshen up their resumes. Retraining is critical for anyone returning to the workforce or shifting into new roles because of the impact of automation or AI.

In this “prove it” economy, digital badges are public evidence of a learner’s accomplishments. Unlike certificates hidden away in file cabinets or hung on office walls, learners can display their digital badges in email signatures, on websites, on LinkedIn profiles, in resumes, or in digital badge backpacks like OpenBadges, Credly, and Badgr.

Embedded in the digital badge is useful meta-data, including its description, issuer, timestamp and expiration, and other supporting evidence of mastery. Digital badges enhance a learner’s professional reputation and showcase their capabilities and achievements.

Digital badges help employers bridge the skills gap

Employers can’t rely upon a degree as a signifier of a person’s abilities, but a digital badge is a market signal for employability. Digital badges make it easy for employers to validate someone’s skills and knowledge, especially when the badge has been issued by a credible and trustworthy organization, like an association.

For digital badges to have market value, you must develop them in collaboration with employers. Don’t make the mistake many colleges made—creating “supply side-driven” credentials. Sean Gallagher, director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University, said, “There are universities and technology firms and even employers piloting new kinds of credentials and new types of certificates, but we don’t have good measurements about where there’s demand for them.”

“It’s like the wild west of credentials, with so many things being offered that employers are losing track of them,” said Harry Holzer, former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor. Create the digital badges and learning pathways that will help employers in your industry bridge the growing skills gap. Your association should be their indispensable partner in employee training.

Besides technical and job-specific skills, companies also need employees with soft skills. For example, many employers struggle to find IT professionals with a high level of soft skills. Because IT professionals have moved from the server room to the conference room, they need communication and leadership skills. Your association can provide training and digital badges in industry-specific soft skills.

digital badges - public display
Photo courtesy of Guides of Canada, National Archives photo collection

What digital badges can do for your association

A report from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business said generations Y and Z are increasingly open to online education and digital certifications. More than a quarter of them said certifications and digital badges could be a useful substitute for a degree. The report also stated: “Certificates and digital certificates provide more attractive options for individuals employed full time and those holding a graduate degree.” Digital badge programs provide education in a modular format that appeals to busy professionals of all ages and career stages.

People who are hesitant to commit to a lengthy online course may prefer to dedicate short bursts of time to a digital badge program. In fact, digital badges may serve as stepping stones to more intensive educational experiences. Overall educational program participation (and revenue) will increase when you add digital badges to your online educational mix.

Digital badges act as marketing tools too. Unlike paper certificates or mysterious abbreviations (designations) behind someone’s name, the digital credentials issued by your association are visible to all. People can click someone’s badge and see what it signifies—the skills and knowledge mastered by the credential holder—and also see who issued the credential.

When people see digital badges on the LinkedIn profiles of people they like and respect, they are likely to want the same. That’s the social identity principle of behavioral science at work. “People like us do things like this:” earn and display digital badges.

Besides the revenue earned from digital badge program registrations, some organizations, like the National Wood Flooring Association, have discovered that members want to develop company-specific badges or sponsor digital badge programs. “Manufacturer members have asked to have private groups created for their crews and customers, and other manufacturer members have asked to support the platform and its development through sponsorships.”

The association advantage for digital badges

In the “wild west” world of credentials, associations have a huge advantage over higher education institutions and for-profit organizations. You already have authority, credibility, trust, and brand recognition in your industry. You already have a relationship with the employers in your industry since many of them are member organizations.

You have the expertise—both staff and volunteers—to develop a digital badge program that meets the needs of employers and employees in your industry. In fact, you most likely already offer educational programs that focus on or relate to those competencies.

Associations are often maligned for not being agile and nimble, but in this case, you can be more nimble than higher education institutions. You can address the needs of employers by developing digital badges that help them bridge skills gaps—and do it much faster than a university can restructure their curriculum.

You have a built-in audience for digital badge programs: members, event attendees, customers, and other people in your database. And, you have the technology in place to offer digital credentials, if you have a learning management system like TopClass.

To dominate the digital badge market in your industry, your program must be unique and highly relevant to your market niche. You need to dedicate resources to branding so employers and learners understand the value your digital badge represents. In the “wild west” digital credentials market, your digital badges must be the ones that stand out amidst the competition.

If you’re in the Midwest next week at ORGPRO, add Erin’s session on digital badges to your schedule—you’ll be one step closer to becoming the digital badge market leader in your industry.

Digital Badges
digital credentials
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