We all know campus recruiting is broken for employers and students alike, and that academic pedigree does not predict success or fit. In response, we have seen the new solutions emerge—ePortfolios, digital badges, micro-credentials, and gamified assessments just to name a few. And while they claim to provide a crystal ball for employers and level the playing field for college students, they don’t work. They also can’t work for three specific reasons.
Let’s ignore issues around validity, reliability, predictability, and fairness (we’ll get to those in a bit) and focus on the practical aspects of these tools. In short, hiring managers don’t care. Hiring managers are used to seeing candidates with certain academic pedigrees (school, major, GPA) whether it’s a Big 10 marketing major, an Ivy Leaguer with a 3.9, or a literal rocket scientist from CalTech, MIT, Stanford, or CMU. Even if a candidate has a badges suggesting competency in certain areas, it doesn’t matter—hiring managers immediately wonder about the lack of pedigree, and blame HR for not finding the “right” type of candidates.
HR then has two choices: (i) make the case or (ii) don’t bother. Making the case is difficult—even after educating the hiring manager about why a badge is more reliable than academic pedigree, they are putting themselves at risk. If they are ultimately proven correct (measured by a good hire), they get zero credit as it was clearly the great interviewing and training skills of the hiring manager. If the hire does not work out (or is even just a bad interview), HR gets blamed for pushing an unqualified candidate. And given that those responsible for campus recruiting are typically measured on filling the seats versus the retention and long-term performance of new hires, they are incented not to bother.
In fact, trying to push an alternative is perceived as creating work for HR and the hiring managers. Beyond the time debating the issues, leveraging these tools requires a significant commitment. Given that the average resume gets less than 10 seconds of focus, is HR or a hiring manager really going to spend time evaluating the ePortfolios of candidates? Will they invest the time to understand all of the different badges, the competencies assessed, and the quality of proctoring associated with being awarded one?
And while this may seem cynical, I would point to a recent “Exploring Digital Badges” posting within the NACE Community. Of the 30 responses at last count, 100 percent of them were from career centers, and none were from employers even though employers are active in the community. Not one. Even when doing online searches related to digital badges and ePortfolio, the content was focused on those organizations that provide the service (i.e., issue the badges or host the portfolios), offer the content, or otherwise are marketing the service—there was little to nothing about how companies are seeing these tools used to drive recruiting success.
I appreciate the fact that 30 career centers are thinking about innovative ways to support their students and help them stand out to employers as the seek the right jobs and internships, but if employers don’t value these badges, is this just a rabbit hole with a dead end?
Not valid, reliable, or predictive
Unfortunately even if a hiring manager is willing to trust a badge, it’s highly likely that it is not valid or reliable. Having spent way too much time with statisticians, educational psychologists, mathematicians, and other literal geniuses in assessment while at Educational Testing Service, I learned what goes into assuring validity and reliability (and even the difference between the two). For hard or vocational skills, it’s really difficult. For those skills that NACE research highlights are most important to employers (e.g., problem solving, teamwork, communication, and grit), it’s impossible given the models in place by the badging authorities. Is my ability to describe my role on a team a reasonable basis upon which I can earn a teamwork badge? Does making a concept map or “providing one letter of support from a supervisor/faculty/professional…” demonstrate my critical thinking skills? Should I as an employer rely on a badge awarded based upon a 5-6 minute assessment (assuming it’s actually the student taking the test) to judge a candidate’s grit?
While validity and reliability are about if a badge can effectively measure an individual’s competencies, predictability is focused on if those competencies align to success in the role. For example, while my digital badge shows that I am a team player, does being a team player predict if I am the right fit for the job? Herein lies another real world problem: companies do a really bad job defining the competencies required for success in a role for a number of reasons. In some cases, different hiring managers have different needs for the exact same role. In other cases, the competencies of successful hires are less important for new ones. And in both cases there is an assumption that hiring managers are even aware of the real skills required (and for those who suggest that AI will address this, look no further than Amazon’s experience for one example as to why it won’t). By relying on digital badges or micro-credentials as a shortcut to predict a good hire, these issues have real negative consequences.
While badge vendors claim to level the playing field, the reality is that digital badges exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots. First, there is a real cost to earn the badge. While it may be bundled into an academic program, the student still pays directly or indirectly. As an aside, it’s interesting that if one visits the corporate sites of those organizations promoting digital badging, they’re focused on (i) selling the content, (ii) charging for the badge, or (iii) helping other organizations make money doing one or both of the first two. I’m not against for-profit enterprises (and I do have a dog in the fight around how to solve this problem) but given the student debt crisis we need to be especially wary of asking our students to take on additional financial burden especially if the benefits are questionable.
Second, like standardized tests and even resumes, digital badges encourage an arms race that further expands the demographic gaps. Wealthy students can afford the classes and tutors to score well on SATs (or insert snarky Varsity Blues comment). Wealthy students can afford to have their resumes “optimized” for keywords or to accept unpaid internships. In the same way, wealthy students will be the ones who can pay to access the content or classes to earn digital badges.
There is a place for digital badges, especially as related to professional organizations and the specific skills associated with the industry—they’re called certifications, though some have re-branded them or offer lower-stakes versions (as another revenue stream). However, for our students and recent grads they add little value in the job search and can in fact get in the way if they are pursued in lieu of other efforts.
Instead of focusing on earning badges to demonstrate skills to prospective employers, we should provide opportunities for our students to actually demonstrate those skills and for employers to see those skills in action. Not only would students benefit from their ability to highlight real examples of their competencies on their resumes, they could also use these opportunities to explore career paths and build relationships with employers, alumni, and faculty.