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SIUE’s Digital Tech Badges: Portable, Stackable, but Most Importantly: Employable

Ever since Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), a CAEL member, first began offering digital badges, they have woven them seamlessly into regional workforce trends to maximize their career-furthering impact on adult learners. SIUE, which is located about 20 miles from downtown St. Louis, first deployed digital badges in 2017 as part of a U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) grant. During the grant period, a major steel mill shuttered. Its displaced workers needed short-term training that could get them back into a family-sustaining wage as quickly as possible. Under a Wonderlic Inc. scholarship program, the university developed badges that would demonstrate competencies in key soft skills. These skills had been identified by employers as critical to the bioeconomy’s talent pipeline, a growth sector in the region. This gave the badges particular relevance for their primary targets, which were displaced workers like those from the closed plant, veterans, and adults changing careers in any number of other circumstances.

SIUE’s most recent digital badge program is also a direct product of “real world” workforce demands and helping adult learners meet them. Going a step further, the latest badges seek to fill missing links between employer job descriptions and adult learner resumes. “We think of digital badges as first and foremost being evidence based and portable, and something that helps demonstrate proficiency in a specific skill, particularly one that's sought by employers in the workforce,” says Courtney Breckenridge, specialist of alternative credentials and grant development for SIUE. “Badges are a strong tool for enhancing employment competitiveness and helping demonstrate a student’s or learner’s in-demand skills in the field and how they can progress through an occupation.”

To maximize the new badges’ workforce relevancy, SIUE wanted to identify occupations and competencies that would intersect and even overlap within the program. Diverse career paths oriented toward family-sustaining wages were also a must. To better understand what jobs and industries had the greatest upside for education-driven regional impact, SIUE worked with Emsi, CAEL’s fellow Strada Education Network member. “One of the things that was really helpful was that Emsi provides real-time data from job posters,” says Courtney. “So they're scraping things from job posting sites but then also from the types of applications that employers are receiving from job seekers in terms of workforce profiles.”

Armed with this data, SIUE was able to study the competencies employers were seeking and how trained the talent pipeline was in them. Cross referencing this with wage and labor demand data, the university identified occupational tracks that would fit the badge program’s criteria and amplify its effectiveness through parallel placement within it. The selected tracks were laboratory technician, food science technician, and chemistry technician.

Data confirmed that there was ample room for career advancement within the tracks as workers upskilled and gained experience. New workers were typically earning $28,000-$30,000 annually. The median annual salary was about $46,000 in the St. Louis designated market area (DMA). Demand was healthy, too. There are about 235 annual openings in the DMA.

At the same time, educational on-ramps to these occupations are diverse, a plus for any badging program. Data show that worker completion levels within the occupational tracks range from high school diploma or less to a master’s degree. A substantial portion (20-35 percent) of the workforce had no specialized training, signaling that there would be job openings for badge completers with no other postsecondary credentials.

This is one of several areas where the digital badges’ stacking feature shines. Each of the badges is broken down into specific competencies and skills. Employers can even click on these skills to identify students based on the skill set that they're seeking. In turn, a series of badge “constellations” comprises the industry-aligned credential for each of the three tracks. Several of these constellations are common to all three tracks, an important feature. “The technician badges are intended to align with transferable skills across the technician roles as well as specific needs for each specialization,” explains Courtney. For example, applied chemistry, biology, and math fundamentals form a badge constellation that appears in each track.

There is great flexibility within the individual badges as well. Their learning content is self paced and competency based. Someone proficient in math skills may breeze through math fundamentals or even test for the badge without completing the curriculum. And, even as they combine with other constellations to propel students toward completion of one of the three industry-aligned credentials, these four “base” badges alone make a student competitive in the marketplace in almost any of the targeted track occupations.

The three industry-aligned credentials fall under Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)-eligible training, meaning students can participate at no cost. To offer the credentials, SIUE works with the Madison County Employment and Training Department, (MCET), the WIOA grantee for a four-county area in southwestern Illinois, which includes Edwardsville. MCET, a longtime partner of SIUE, is tasked with providing a trained workforce for area businesses. Because projects funded through workforce dollars are evaluated not on a student's graduation, but on their placement into an occupation, the badges are a natural fit. Their mix-and-match stackability and overlap in skills boost students’ workplace options. “We wanted to sort of stack the deck, so to speak, and ensure that anyone who's coming out of this project is going to be very competitive not just for one type of occupation but across different fields,” says Courtney.

To ensure badge curricula were optimally aligned with employer needs, SIUE used the quantitative data it had amassed to draw out important qualitative information from employers. A gap analysis had revealed disconnects between the skills employers were seeking and those that candidates were presenting with. In other cases, an overbroad concept of a competency might overlook incremental skills within an occupation — the very bailiwick of badges. For example, high performance liquid chromatography is an analytical technique used in many lab-oriented occupations. However, there is a range of skill levels and responsibilities within that description, from loading samples to providing results to interpretation and analysis. Consulting with employers helped SIUE gauge employment and training needs as well as the transferability of these and other skills within the tracks.

Most phases of the badge curricula are virtual, beginning with initial online training. Given the aforementioned competency-based approach of the program, it is important that the proficiencies of incoming students be well understood. Students complete a proficiency exam that covers adult basic education and helps determine what track is ideal for them and where they should start in the curriculum. The university partners with JoVE and Khan Academy to offer supplemental videos around biology, chemistry, and math. Training includes tests and assignments to ensure students are mastering the curricula.

Following initial online training, students participate in the first of several phases of hands-on learning. They are issued equipment so they can practice real techniques within a virtual learning environment. To further augment the virtual learning experience, graduate assistants, under the supervision of faculty, wear head-mounted cameras to document lab procedures. Offered on an asynchronous basis, this phase of instruction helps ingrain students not just with procedural information but the thought processes behind them. Students get to test their mastery of these thought processes in the next phase, which is synchronous and again partners them with a teaching assistant. At this point, the students lead the procedure, dictating to the teaching assistant each action to be completed.

These innovations bring the best of the real and virtual worlds together in a way that is effective and convenient for adult learners. They support the digital badge program’s emphasis on mastering work-relevant techniques, instruments, and equipment at each learner’s pace. But physical time in the laboratory remains critical, and the curriculum concludes with in-person work with the teaching assistant in the university lab. This reinforces the competency and rigor within the badge program, as students demonstrate their abilities through a practical exam.

The final phase of the program is an exemplar of experiential learning. Through the digital badge program’s skills-based hiring partnerships, students receive on-the-job training with an area employer that is positioned within their chosen track. This not only continues their learning experience but provides them a salary. Depending on their level of incoming proficiency, students can begin on-the-job training 4-12 weeks after entering the program. Full-time employment in an occupation that is not only aligned with an educational program but part of its training places the students in a prime position to continue their careers as permanent employees.

SIUE’s use of badging programs illustrate how linking learning and work can further universities’ commitment to supporting the economic viability of their communities. But workforce training programs have traditionally been relegated to “trade schools.” Doing so may overlook advantages present at many universities. For example, another SIUE-MCET partnership involves an apprenticeship program with the National Corn Ethanol Research Center, which is part of SIUE campus. The program trains workers for the biofuel industry and is on its second cohort of participants. Assets like research centers and laboratories position four-year institutions, their faculty, and their students to meet workforce needs at every point of a credential continuum or career pathway.

But there are obstacles that are likely hindering the growth of badge programs. Developing badges typically aren’t part of tenure and promotion. Badge earners aren’t included in enrollment headcount. And they aren’t eligible for traditional financial aid. But digital badges are aligned to the skills and knowledge directly tied to the workplace, which is essential for adult learner success. They create on-ramps between educators and employers that are vital to meeting students where they are in the “60-year curriculum.” From high school to graduate school, digital badges should be recognized among the building blocks that can strengthen the foundations of lifelong learning and rewarding careers. 

 
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