To install and repair HVAC systems, workers need specific technical abilities, such as reading blueprints and manipulating tools. These are readily taught in technical and vocational programs at community colleges.
But keeping customers happy while updating their air conditioning units also requires a more abstract quality: empathy.
That’s the kind of deeply human attribute employers say they’re looking for in job candidates as companies try to adapt to modern changes in technology and business strategy. To help colleges teach the character traits and interpersonal skills that companies crave, nonprofit Education Design Lab has worked since 2013 to create curriculum and assessments that culminate in students earning digital badges intended to attract hiring managers.
On Wednesday, the nonprofit announced the start of a two-year research project to study how effective these “microcredentials” actually are in helping students from marginalized backgrounds secure employment. Supported by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, the BadgedToHire project will expand skills-training pilot programs at the University of Maine, San Jose State University and Central New Mexico Community College.
Because employer buy-in is essential to the success of such badges, each institution has worked with regional players such as Jaynes Corporation and national companies like Enterprise Holdings to learn exactly what skills they should incorporate into academic courses and career-preparation programs.
“The promise of digital credentials is it can take the focus off of who you know and where you went to school and place it on what you can do,” says Kathleen deLaski, founder and president of Education Design Lab. “The challenge to bring that big idea to reality is to be able to harness what you can do and apply a language to it that has meaning across many employers and hiring markets.”
What Do Employers Want?
Companies want skilled employees, and talented students want jobs. Seems simple enough. Yet members of both parties often struggle to find their perfect partners.
One challenge is making career training accessible to college students—and convincing them to participate. For example, at San Jose State University, many students have family caregiving responsibilities and part-time jobs, leaving them little time to show up for extracurricular professional-development programs.
“We have to prepare students differently for what’s next,” says Catherine Voss Plaxton, interim associate vice president of student services at San Jose State. “How do we make this simple, clear and convenient?”
Another difficulty is discerning exactly what employers are looking for. Research from multiple institutions shows that character and interpersonal skills (also known as soft skills, people skills and non-technical skills) are currently in demand. Written communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills were the ones most-frequently requested among the 172 employers who participated in the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2019 survey.
With curriculum and badges related to eight such qualities, including critical thinking, resilience and intercultural fluency, BadgedToHire aims to help University of Maine, San Jose State University and Central New Mexico Community College serve as more-effective matchmakers for their students and local companies.
For example, the call for more-empathetic HVAC technicians came to Education Design Lab from TLC Plumbing, a company in Albuquerque. That insight prompted Central New Mexico Community College to add the lab’s empathy curricula and assessments to its applied technology program, according to deLaski.
Empathy is one of the harder interpersonal skills to teach, deLaski says. So the program breaks it into four sub-skills that reflect what employers say they want: the abilities to listen actively, provide validation, identify other needs and values, and incorporate diverse perspectives.
Although the BadgedToHire program trains students in timeless skills, it uses modern job search-systems and strategies to help students sell themselves to companies. Digital credentials are designed to be affixed to online job applications or personal profiles on networking websites.
Because recruiters are increasingly turning to online platforms to search for likely job candidates who possess particular skills, earning and displaying digital credentials “makes you digitally discoverable,” she says. “The employer can find you without you having to find them.”