IT badges: A new path to better pay?

IT badges: A new path to better pay?

Skills-based mini-certs are gaining traction as a worthwhile way to round out your résumé

If you’re an IT pro looking for a new gig, that old "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" line about not needing no stinking badges may soon no longer apply, thanks to a relatively new credentialing system finding favor with some large companies and a growing number of job applicants.

Take Damian O’Farrill’s experience. His interview with Autodesk was going well until a member of the panel wondered if he could make the transition from his relatively relaxed software job at a nonprofit to the hectic and competitive atmosphere of a major tech company. With the position on the line, O’Farrill pointed to a half-dozen skills badges he earned through’s Trailhead program.

It worked. O’Farrill, who only six years ago was teaching salsa dancing in Mexico City, is now a business analyst and process engineer at Autodesk in San Francisco. “I wouldn’t have the job without the badges,” O’Farrill says.

But what exactly is an IT skills badge, how does one go about getting them, and -- most important -- do they truly hold water in the hiring process? We spoke with applicants, hiring managers, and badge issuers to find out the true importance of this new wrinkle in IT hiring.

Badges: The latest IT bona fides

If you’re a gamer, you’re already familiar with the idea of accumulating badges and using them to bolster your cred in that subculture. That, says David Leaser, senior manager for IBM’s Global Skills Initiative, was the inspiration behind the IT skills badge.

Think of a skills badge as a portable, mini-certification. They’re earned when you complete a course, finish a project, or make a noteworthy contribution to a code repository on GitHub or elsewhere. Once awarded, the badges reside in a digital wallet you can add to your LinkedIn profile or personal website. The badges can only be edited by the issuer, a feature designed to bolster credibility.

Open source organization Mozilla was the first to approach badges in an organized manner, creating the open badge standard. It instituted a backpack metaphor as a repository for badges you earn. Through the open standard, organizations can issue badges that verify your skills, interests, and achievements, attaching that information to the badge image file, thereby “hard-coding the metadata for future access and review,” according to Mozilla’s documentation.

IBM, a major proponent of badges, has issued 20,000 in 18 months, says Leaser. “Badge earners are telling us that badges are connecting them to employers,” he adds.

Pierre Tremblay, HR director for Dupray, a manufacturer of steam-cleaning devices says, “one out of every two [IT] job applicants shows us a badge.”

But badges are hardly a silver bullet for job seekers and aren’t the first item a recruiter looks for. When Autodesk’s head hunters initially contacted O’Farrill, they didn’t mention his badges and may not have known that he had them, O’Farrill says.

“The industry still wants validated proof of a skill,” says James Stanger, who manages the continuing education program for CompTIA, an industry association. “Badges are complementary to certifications, but they aren’t replacing them.”

While conventional certifications have a long history of earning premium pay for job holders, there’s no evidence yet that a badge will give an IT worker a boost in the paycheck.

Certifications: Slow and expensive, but proven

With certifications already well-established as a means of validating IT skills, is another credentialing system even necessary?

IBM’s Leaser believes so. The quickening pace of technological change, particularly in areas like big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, has meant that the fairly lengthy time it takes to develop a new or updated certification is simply too long, says Leaser. “We needed to update faster. In the future, certifications may be limited to skills that have a longer horizon.”

There’s another downside to certifications: They can be expensive for both the employee and the employer, says Kevin Raxter, managing partner at The Centrics Group, an Atlanta-based staffing company. “They can cost several thousand dollars, plus books,” he says.

Even so, survey after survey shows that employers are willing to pay a significant premium for the right certification. The average market value for 395 IT certifications increased for 11 consecutive months through the end of February, according to Foote Partners, which tracks the value of certifications across 2,815 employers. It may be quite some time, if ever, before badges establish a similar track record.

IBM’s Leaser may be right about the future of certifications, but hiring in IT can be a complex process that at times involves more than one company. The Centrics Group’s Raxter says that many of his clients simply insist that companies they contract with have a certain number of employees with specific certifications. Until badges have that level of buy-in, they may not supplant certificates as a proven route to better pay.

In fact, because skills badges are relatively new, hiring managers like Raxter don’t quite know what to make of them. “If I get a résumé that says, ‘I have an IBM cloud strategy badge,’ that tells me nothing; I don’t know what it is,” he says.

Bobby Yates, CEO of Grexo Technology Group, a Texas-based IT services company, says the real value of a skills badge is unclear to him. A few job applicants have presented badges, “but I’m not sure if they are really just a digital version of a certification,” he says. Grexo uses badges internally to a limited extent as a way to keep employees engaged. But ultimately, “I don’t see them as a more valuable hiring tool than certifications,” says Yates.

The lack of certainty about how much work actually goes into a skills badge appears to be the biggest source of skepticism by IT hiring managers. “If an applicant shows me a badge, how do I know he didn’t cheat the test?” asks Dupray’s Tremblay.

The right way to use badges

Despite the cautious reception hiring managers are giving skills badges, the experience of O’Farrill and others indicates that they can be a worthwhile investment for IT workers.

Think of them as a complement to a good résumé, a basket of certifications, and real-world job experience, says CompTIA’s Stanger. Badges are great for continuing your education, he adds.

Even managers who are somewhat skeptical of the skills badge say they are worth showing to a recruiter. “They are a selling point,” says Raxter.

Here are five key tips to help you get the most out of your skills badges, courtesy of Pierre Tremblay:

  1. Do not list badges that are easy to obtain. Anything that takes less than 30 to 40 hours to complete is unworthy of being on your résumé.
  2. Highlight courses that are particularly relevant to the position you are applying for; others can round out your application where applicable, but don’t pad your résumé with irrelevant badges that could distract from suitable accomplishments.
  3. Pair your accomplished badges as a supporting component with real working experience or education.
  4. Do not overemphasize the importance of a badge. Yes, you’ve learned something valuable -- but so can anybody else. Real-world work experience and education still have precedent. 
  5. Know your knowledge will be tested. If you can’t demonstrate what you’ve learned, hiring managers will assume you skimmed through the course to get a certificate for show.

Dozens of IT skills badges are already available for you to earn. To get a sense of some of the possibilities, check out what IBM and Pearson VUE, a global learning company, have partnered to offer. You’ll find a range of options, including badges based on Hadoop, cloud development, big data storage and retrieval, Watson analytics, and IoT, among others.

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