It can be difficult for veterans to explain the skills and training they received in the military to potential employers. A new website attempts to bridge that gap by giving veterans digital “badges” that recognize their skills.
When it goes live next month, BadgesforVets.org will be a résumé translation and job search service. The extensive project, which includes badges representing training in more than 1,000 military jobs, is also a particularly promising foray into digital badging -- a much-hyped, although still nascent, form of alternative credentialing that could conceivably undermine higher education's role as a primary way of signaling skills to employers.
The badge concept is inspired by patches Boy and Girl Scouts earn for mastering skills and conquering challenges. The digital version for adults, which is has gotten its biggest boost from the Mozilla Foundation, an open-source tech pioneer, is a way to display talents ranging from the practical (proficiency in a computer program) to the academic (demonstrated competency in a subject area).
A Purdue University professor has used badges in addition to conventional grading, while the university has created a badging platform. And Peer to Peer University (P2PU) is working with Mozilla to award badges for its free peer-to-peer coursework.
Anyone can issue a badge, which some say is a quality-control problem. Mozilla has created a system where badge earners can put their digital badges in a “backpack,” which can then be displayed on résumés or, perhaps more fruitfully, on LinkedIn.
NASA, the National Manufacturing Institute and Disney-Pixar are among those working on badging systems with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation after winning a contest that was administered by HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.
Also getting the nod was a project plan submitted by Robert Sparkman and Eric Burg, both of whom are St. Louis-based employees of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Sparkman and Burg’s website has several distinctive features compared to other badging efforts, said Sheryl Grant, director of social networking for HASTAC.
For one thing, it’s not gamification – the hot concept of tapping into people's innate desire to prove their mettle and advance to a next level or earn a reward. The veterans who register with the site will take no tests to earn their badges.
“It’s totally divorced from assessment,” said Grant. “They are strictly credentials.”
Veterans will qualify for badges because of the training they received from the military, which is widely considered to have some of the most standardized, verifiable and quality training programs around.
“It’s training that’s structured,” Sparkman said. “There’s very little variance.”
For example, all soldiers who are qualified by the U.S. Army as diesel mechanics or hydraulic service operators receive the same instruction, said Sparkman. And that designation should count for something in the private sector. Among the well over 1,000 available badges are ones that recognize expertise in supply/logistics, transportation, civil affairs, engineering and communications, with detailed descriptions of specific skills accompanying each badge.
The website’s goal is to help veterans leverage their training, Sparkman said, and to make the process user-friendly. The two-step registration takes only a few minutes. A veteran clicks on his or her job classifications and then receives an e-mail with a link to the badges. The link is designed for easy embedding in a résumé or for use on Facebook or LinkedIn.
As with any form of credentialing, employers will have to use the website for the project to work. So Sparkman and Burg designed the site to cater to employers just as much as to veterans. Employers can search for potential employees with a function that enables a geographic search, based on ZIP codes, which can get as local as a five-mile radius. And they can contact veteran job seekers directly, via e-mail.
Another plus is that Badges for Vets won’t face any pressure to make money.
“Nobody pays. It’s free to register,” said Sparkman. “There is no middleman here.”
Lost in Translation?
The website’s creators say the goal is not to replace a college education with badges. They hope veterans will use the service as an add-on to other, more established forms of credentialing, including college-issued degrees and certificates.
The degree is still the coin of the realm. But badges, if proven viable, will raise questions about how to measure skill and learning, and who gets to decide what counts for competency.
Louis Soares is a fellow with the Center for American Progress and an expert on alternative credentialing. He said the new site marks an encouraging evolution in the badges movement. The military will be a good test for the idea, he said, because of its emphasis on specific learning outcomes through standardized training.
“In terms of content, process and demonstration of knowledge this should be something fairly easy to badge,” Soares said in an e-mail.
The key will be whether employers accept the badges, he said, with success likely coming in “tight fits” like matching an Army veteran who worked in an automotive repair pool with a job repairing trucks for UPS.
The American Council on Education (ACE) has been assessing military training programs for college credit recommendations for a long time. As a result, the council's military credit recommendations were an early proving ground for prior learning assessment, the process of granting college credit for learning and knowledge gained outside of the classroom. This isn’t a coincidence – ACE also started with military training because of its verifiable, standardized approach.
Cathy Sandeen is the incoming vice president for education attainment and innovation for ACE. She said Badges for Veterans looks like a worthwhile effort. “I see this innovation as a positive thing,” said Sandeen, who is currently dean for continuing education at the University of California at Los Angeles.
While Sandeen said badges are not a substitute for a degree, they might be able to help veterans find jobs. “It’s not clear which of these ideas are going to stick,” she said of alternative credentials, adding that she doesn’t see a downside for trying out badges.
Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion’s national economic division, agreed that the attempt at innovation is welcome. But he worries that Badges for Veterans, if not properly described and presented to employers, could create some confusion.
Several observers said the new website may sink or swim on how well it translates military skills to something nonveterans can understand. Sparkman agreed, and he acknowledged that the site needed more work on that front.
Sparkman, himself an Air Force veteran, and his team have tried to take language about “direct fire and the mortars” out of badge descriptions. But that’s not always easy, particularly for veterans who served in combat roles.
“Some of the military job descriptions do not translate well,” he said.
There are, of course, plenty of skills that an infantryman can bring to the private sector, ranging from technical skill with equipment to leadership skills. Being able to stay cool under fire (literally) can be a plus in plenty of jobs.
With help from HASTAC, Sparkman has reached out to colleges to recruit graduate students who can fine-tune wording for the badges. Indiana University at Bloomington is likely to pitch in, he said, with others hopefully on the way. The trick will be to come up with descriptions that resonate for both veterans and civilian employers.
Grant is optimistic that the site could work. And the need is clear, given disproportionately high unemployment rates for veterans.
“This is serious,” she said. “This really has implications for these soldiers.”