Published On: April 8, 2017By
Learn how associations are bridging the skills gap with digital badges

Associations around the world face a common challenge — how to remain relevant and expand their footprint in their particular domain.  Success depends on the ability to create value for their brand.

In the past, they achieved this in part by selling continuing education content to members, either directly or indirectly through conferences and forums. Before the rise of social media and cloud computing, associations competed to attract new members — but only in a subtle “non-profit” sort of way.

It’s different now.  Associations face fierce competition from academic institutions, for-profit training companies and even individual subject matter experts.  These diverse entities all sell accredited continuing education content — and they’re starting to make a dent in the U.S. “skills gap” problem.  So increasingly, non-profit associations must compete in a “for-profit” manner to win business for their continuing education programs.

What is the “Skills Gap” Problem?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in December 2016 there were 5.6 million open jobs in this country and only 98,000 were added in March 2017.  That includes many notoriously hard-to-fill jobs.  These persistently unfilled positions are attributed to an unfortunate and somewhat ironic phenomenon called the “skills gap.”

Skills gap theorists say that formal education isn’t preparing enough candidates for specialized high-skill, high-growth jobs such as data analysis, user experience design and software programming. Traditional education isn’t producing enough qualified people to support today’s rapidly changing business needs.  And this talent supply problem is only compounded by a decreasing 4.5% unemployment rate.

“Skills Gap” Solutions

Here’s the irony:  While there are millions of open, good-paying jobs employers can’t easily fill, there are also millions of Americans who can’t find rewarding, good-paying jobs because they lack sufficient know-how.

Many solutions have been proposed to address this disconnect, including expansion of apprenticeships and online continuing education.  Regardless, success depends on tying more “agile” education and development opportunities to desirable competencies as they evolve.  It also requires a common, accepted mechanism for potential employees and employers to recognize and track these competencies.

This is where associations and digital badges come in.

What are Digital Badges?

Sometimes called digital credentials or micro-credentials, digital badges are a graphical representation of competencies earned through learning.  Recipients can display these badges on social media, websites, email signatures and online resumes.

Prior to the digital revolution, these credentials were called certificates of completion.  But because they were printed paper documents, they were typically hidden from the world — tucked away in file drawers or framed on office walls.

Unlike a paper-based certification, a digital badge is embedded with relevant “metadata” such as the badge title, description, date earned, issuer, recipient, expiration date and even specific details about the work submitted by the recipient.  With “open badges” lifelong learners can earn credentials from multiple sources and accumulate them in portable digital “backpacks” offered by companies like  MozillaCredly or Acclaim.

Why Look to Associations?

Associations can lead the way and solve the skills gap.
They have natural advantages that other educational content providers do not, including:

  • Membership:  In most associations, members range from new practitioners to season veterans.  In managing member profiles, associations can proactively solicit, track and analyze data to identify missing skills at all levels of professional competence.
  • Competency Models:  To some degree, many associations have already defined skill and competency models for their industry.  Adding new competencies to an existing framework is relatively easy and natural.
  • Training:  Most associations provide training and issue formal continuing education credits, so members are already accustomed to consuming their learning content.
  • Existing Technology:  Between learning management systems (LMSs), association management systems (AMSs) and social media, many associations have a robust technology ecosystem in place to support rapidly changing skills-based training and digital badges.
  • Brand Recognition:  Anybody can sell educational content.  However, many associations have been at the center of their industry, and awarding professional credentials, for 50 years or more.

Educational institutions, commercial training companies and subject matter experts may have some of these advantages.  But associations have them all.

Association Digital Badge Programs in Action

Does all this sound good in theory, but you can’t quite envision how it would work?  Digital badge initiatives are cutting edge, but numerous associations already offer them.  Here are a few strong examples:

American Institute of CPAs

AICPA Digital Badge

The American Institute of Certified Professional Accountants is the world’s largest member association representing the accounting profession.  With more than 412,000 members in 144 countries, the AICPA has served the public interest since 1887.

In support of its Future of Learning initiative, the AICPA launched a digital badge program in April 2016.  This program offers members visible, verifiable and shareable recognition of their significant professional achievements.  Badges recognize program and certificate completion, with badge color based on skill level.  Awarded badges expire annually, unless competencies have not changed.  In this case, the badge automatically renews for one year.

Badging Platform:  Credly


Educause Digital Badge

EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association that supports the community of IT leaders and professionals who are committed to advancing higher education.  Membership is open to U.S. and international institutions of higher education, corporations serving the higher education information technology market, and other related associations and organizations.

EDUCAUSE implemented a digital badge program in 2014.  Individuals who meet established criteria have an opportunity to earn digital badges in recognition of their engagement with the association.  The EDUCAUSE badge program includes the following categories of engagement:  Community Service, Leadership Development, Communications, Awards and Subject Matter.

Badging Platform:  Credly

National Wood Flooring Association

nwfa Digital Badge

The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) is a not-for-profit trade association representing all segments of the hardwood flooring industry.  NWFA University uses digital badges to recognize the completion of a series of courses, or a learning path in a certification track for specialization in either Installation or Sales.

Badges serve as prerequisites to hands-on training, which allows more time to develop hands-on skills during on-site training.  Members can purchase badges for individual course completions with discounts for a bulk badge purchase if they become certified in a specific learning path.  NWFA also lets certified members purchase a digital badge if they obtained their certification prior to the NWFA University launch in 2016.

Badging Platform:  Credly

American Occupational Therapy Association

AOTA Digital Badge

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is the national professional association representing the interests and concerns of occupational therapy practitioners and students of occupational therapy.  Established in 1917, AOTA has 60,000 members interested in improving the quality of occupational therapy services.

Digital badges are available to members only.  To earn a badge, members must pass (with a grade of 75% or higher) designated AOTA continuing education courses in a particular practice area.  AOTA offers more than 10 badges on topics like Low Vision, Leadership Development, Autism and Home Modification.  They expire after 5 years, to encourage continuous upskilling and development.  Badges are free for members to claim and AOTA encourages members to share their badges on social media platforms.

Badging Platform:  Acclaim

Young Adult Library Services Association

YALSA_Services_Digital Badge

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) supports library staff in alleviating the challenges teens face and putting all teens ‒ especially those with greatest need ‒ on the path to successful and fulfilling lives.  Founded in 1957 and headquartered in Chicago with more than 5,100 members, YALSA is a division of the American Library Association.

To ensure that librarians and library workers have the skills needed to engage, educate and support teens, YALSA offers a wealth of continuing education activities, including e-learning and a biennial symposium.  YALSA’s digital badges were developed under a grant from HASTAC, Mozilla, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  They link to YALSA’s Competencies for Librarians Serving Youth.

Badging Platform:  OpenBadges

National Science Teachers Association

NSTA Digital Badge

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) was founded in 1944.  With a membership of 55,000, NSTA is the largest organization in the world committed to promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Professional development impact for teachers is often measured by “seat time” and with little documentation of knowledge gain beyond teacher perception surveys at the end of training.  The NSTA digital badge platform and strategies drive professional development through a micro-credentialing system that affirms gains in knowledge, participation in learning communities and change in classroom practice.  The system is scalable to support the 2 million science teachers across the U.S.

Badging Platform:  OpenBadges


The learning community has been seeking a serious use for LMS gamification.  Digital badges are it.  They can be earned whenever people successfully complete training content and used as proof of competence when badge holders pursue a new job.

However, for a digital badge to be truly valuable, learners and employers alike must recognize and trust the source.  In addition, they must agree that it ties directly to desirable professional skills.

Associations are in an ideal position to issue digital badges.  Digital credentials can leverage an association’s brand identity, history, membership base, educational expertise and training technologies.  Plus, an association understands the requirements for real-life, on-the-job, career success in the industry it serves.

Is your association ready to compete?  Do you already offer digital badges?  Tell us about it!

Thanks for reading!

Webinar Replay:
Using Digital Badges to Close the Skills Gap

Today’s workforce is caught in a relentless skills gap that grows wider each year.  How can associations help turn the tide?  Join Talented Learning CEO and Lead Analyst, John Leh, and WBT Systems CTO, Linda Bowers, as they explore seven digital badge fundamentals. You’ll learn:

  • The current state of the “skills gap”
  • How to distinguish between traditional credentials, digital credentials, digital badges and open badges
  • Why open badges are rapidly gaining momentum in education
  • How associations can benefit from offering digital badges
  • Key elements of a viable badge-based learning strategy
  • What kind of technology infrastructure is needed to support open badges
  • How some associations are already succeeding with digital badge programs

Check the webinar replay!


Linda is CTO of WBT Systems, an association LMS provider, where she is responsible for all technical aspects of product planning, development, testing and delivery. Previously, she served as VP of Services and Support, VP of Customer Services, and Director of Solution Delivery, combining strong experience in sales, implementation, support, and development with an executive perspective. Linda excels at solving precise business and education challenges and managing complex implementation projects for the company’s largest clients.


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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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