As to our initial mission, we wanted to understand how „people distant to the labour market“ could benefit from digital credentials, as a way to better represent their skills and competencies, to make them accessible and findable; and to provide a way of motivating them to further improve and develop their competencies; and thus to increase their entry chances into the labour market, or to keep their job.
We defined the following segments, to represent this heterogenous group:
- Migrants with (some) formal education, but facing challenges in getting recognition for them; or understanding the demands of the labour market.
- Employed persons requiring upskilling to stay employed (typically 45+ years old)
- Unemployed or those in a vulnerable economic situation – requiring reskilling – possibly with handicap, often self-employed or in volatile employment over a long time, without full access to social systems.
- School-dropouts (NEETS) with motivation to find employment, but lacking formal credentials to meet requirements or entry criteria.
While this list is unequivocably incomplete, we selected these segments because we believe they represent a wide spectrum of our larger group, that they could potentially benefit from Digital Credentials, and that insights into their perspectives, knowledge, situation, resources and motivation could help us to generalise towards other segments of the target group.
A note on terminology
As indicated in our project mission, we became aware of a varied terminology used around digital credentialing, with many of the terms being used synonymously. As our project progressed through the interview stages, we began to understand the confusion caused by the different appellations, and the need for a universal alignment of terms and a shared taxonomy. We came to understand that “credentialing” or “digital credentialing” is the label which is applied to the concept of giving credit for skills or achievements, whilst “badging” pertains to the technology behind digital credentialing. In all of our interviews we referred to and presented “Digital Badges,” as we were particularly interested in researching digital credentialing of informal skills, experiences and competencies, rather than formal competencies for which a “micro-credential” may be awarded. In the next stages of our project, we will adhere to the generally accepted terms of “credentialing” and “badging” as described above, however we felt it important to note the distinction here with reference to our Learner and Stakeholder interviews.
From these 4 groups, we recruited and interviewed a minimum of 16 learners in each country; Norway, The Netherlands and Germany. The interviews were conducted as one-on-one interviews, based on a semi-structured localised questionnaire.
The main themes covered were:
- Evaluation of the current situation with regard to recognition of their competencies, skills, capabilities.
- Past and current qualifications (formal, non-formal, informal), learning and training situations and habits.
- Motivation to learn and qualify.
- Communication of competencies (e.g. in the process of applications, upskilling, social media etc.).
- Delta between subjective qualification and formal recognition („proof“).
- Practical management of certificates etc.
- Knowledge and experience with digital credentials
- (After showing a demo of OpenBadges:) Relevancy and perceived benefits of Digital Credentials for their situation; blockers.
The participants were recruited through multiple channels, including personal networks, referrals through involved NGOs, or external recruiting facilities. Some of the interview participants were paid an incentive as an expense allowance.
The interviews were conducted in August and September 2021.
The interviews provided extensive insights into many aspects of people struggling to find recognition for their past and current qualifications and competencies. From our results, we try to compile a list of the most relevant answers to our main research question: How can Digital Credentials help improve the situation of our target group?
With the exception of some of the formally educated migrants, we realised that most of the participants had a low self-esteem with regard to their qualifications or „worthiness“. This often results from unfinished formal education, and unsuccessful applications for jobs. We also realised that they did not have a mental collection of their competencies. In fact, the interview situation tended to become a form of investigation into the competencies, digging into the past, and finding qualifications that the interview participant forgot to mention, or considered irrelevant to do so. In many cases, the first question about current and past qualifications resulted in a slim response, but at the end of the interview many more came to the surface. This was especially the case when the participants did not finish their basic or higher education, thus mentally labelled learning as a „failure“, and reluctant to reveal it.
During the interviews, we often heard that only formally documented skills and qualifications are considered relevant and valuable, and everything else, for example qualifications from non-formal and informal learning, or uncompleted education, were ignored. As our target group typically has few formal qualifications, they perceive themselves as unqualified and – in many cases – incompetent.
With respect to our main mission, we therefore needed to further ask: Can Digital Credentials lead to a broader representation of skills and competencies, even if they do not represent a formal qualification?
No collection of competencies and guidance
Participants often had problems laying out their qualifications and competencies, especially if they had no formal representation / credential to prove it. Almost none of the participants had a document or other form of visualisation of their skills and competencies. In total, only about one third of the participants had a somewhat current CV, the others not. If they had applied for governmental unemployment funding in the past, they had to go through a laborious process with a staff member from the agency to capture their competency profile, but neither was this considered a positive or relevant experience, nor did they express that they own it in a sense that they could take it away for their own purposes.
Almost all participants had their formal credentials (education) in a known and safe place, typically both in a physical and in a digital form (pdf on USB drive). But as stated before, this consisted only of the completed and formal ones. Very few participants had proof of skills, qualifications and competencies that do not have a formal representation – unless in the form of a CV, or a LinkedIn profile (see below).
Consequently, the participants had at best an incomplete (mental) representation of their actual qualifications, because “you are what you can prove”. The informal ones (including soft skills), which could be relevant for further training, or even for an application, only came to the surface in the course of the interview and with the help of a moderator.
With respect to Digital Credentials, this raises the question: Can this be a tool to give a better and more complete representation of the qualifications of a person?
Fear of exposure, controllability and digital illiteracy
Of the 48+ participants we interviewed, only about 1/4 had a LinkedIn, or other digital professional profile. Discussing the reason, it became clear that fear of exposure to an unknown and potentially not benevolent public is leading the way. Aside from that, participants did not see value in creating such a profile if they are not in a current application process to a particular job. They often expressed fears that a public profile could be used against them, or that it may reveal vulnerabilities. This was amplified if they lacked the digital competency, not convincingly knowing or understanding „who can see what“. To quote a 43 year-old nurse: „It’s all on my USB drive, so nobody can see it“.
In the case of migrants, we also learnt that having a public profile or showing qualifications and skills can potentially make them identifiable, which might not be desired. This was notably the case for the interviewees in Germany – one example – a promising-but unemployed- lawyer from Argentina is afraid that exposing his supposedly high-paying professional background will call for kidnapping and a ransom request from his impoverished family.
This finding very much affects the benefit and relevancy of Digital Credentials. An analogue profile (CV) and physical credentials (work records, certificates etc.) were considered to be controllable. Those that are looking for a job, and have not resigned, typically have some of the documents as PDF on their computer and / or a USB drive. This is where they „live“. In case of need, they are accessed, or even updated, and sent as attachments via email, or uploaded, or printed out and delivered otherwise.
Everything that is digital or cloud-based was often considered as loss of control. As long as Digital Credentials cannot be fully understood, they are suspicious of revealing something about the owner that cannot be foreseen or controlled. Most of the participants were lacking digital competencies that allowed them to judge the consequences of exposing personal information on the internet. Though they often and frequently used e.g. Facebook, they were rather careful and afraid of making mistakes in public.
This is accompanied by a lack of knowledge on how to market themselves digitally, paired with generally low self-esteem, lacking valuable formal credentials, and having no concise and positive collection of their qualifications.
Consequently, we are convinced that both understanding of access and its control are important requirements for the acceptance of Digital Credentials in our target group.
Limited knowledge of the market
One of the most striking insights from the interviews was that, besides those currently and actively looking for a job, the participants did not know what qualifications were in demand in the labour market. This could be observed both for migrants who could not transfer the requirements from their initial labour market to Europe, but also for those who were not currently getting feedback through a recent application process (and the rejections). One example to illustrate this: A migrant from Syria currently in a trainee program at a Non-Profit organisation with a non-finished degree in law, did not reveal that he also has 9 years of wholesale experience as a side-income during his studies. He did not mention it because he thought it was irrelevant for an application (no degree, no certificate, no attestation), and that this kind of work experience would not be sought after by a potential employer. To our knowledge, this practical experience would be quite relevant for many positions, and mentioning it could likely improve the chances of an invitation to an interview.
Connecting this to Digital Badges, we come to see that one of their potentials is to give expression and visibility to informally acquired qualifications and competencies. In most cases, formal credentials are the interface between people and the job market. However, skill bearers still require guidance on what is relevant (to show their competency profile or market need) to document the skills.
No experiences or perceived value
None of the participants had seen or been asked to provide a Digital Credential (other than a pdf document of a physical certificate) before our interviews. When we introduced the concept to the participants, we had to go at great length to explain the theoretical differences to PDFs (being machine readable, structured and trusted information). We also showed a mobile credential / badge wallet, to make it more concrete and tangible how this could look like in practice. Still, almost none of the participants was enthusiastic or saw how it could benefit them right away. This can be seen in the light of the aforementioned observations and influencing factors: partially limited digital skills, fear of exposure or unclear access, only formal qualifications considered valuable. But what we see further: because they have never seen a Digital Credential, they do not see there can be a demand, and thus do not think that it would change anything for them.
As a further question that came up in the interviews: How should old qualifications be transferred into Digital Credentials? They did not expect an easy way, and thus only future learnings and qualifications could be represented in that way.
What becomes apparent here is that our target group does not belong to the Early Adopters and requires an established eco-system to trust in the value of that “currency”.
Being asked about the motivation to learn and acquire new skills, we heard a wide spectrum of answers, ranging from the desire to learn new things, to improve their current professional knowledge or application chances, to being required to upskill in their current employment. As stated before, those who did not know what is in demand in the labour market, would also not readily know what to learn or where to upskill (regardless of the given resources).
When asked if a digital credential would be an additional motivation to learn, or to acquire new skills and competencies, the participants typically denied it, for two reasons: for those that learn because of intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, a credential is an add-on, but there would be no advantage of a digital over an analogue one. For those that learn for a credential, it would have to be analogue or digitalized (as PDF) anyway, as this is what the employer can deal with.
With some participants, we discussed how they would welcome training or upskilling suggestions based on their current or past qualifications. While this was considered „imaginable“, having never seen something similar, and paired with fears of exposition or loss of control, this is nothing they would actively seek, but rather wait until is widely established.
Country specific insights
Whilst many of the findings from the learner interviews were comparable between countries, and similar demographic groups raised the same issues, there were some differences which became apparent.
Digital badges are an unknown concept in Norway, something which was reflected as a concern for all learners interviewed. There are currently no major organisations offering badges, so learners we interviewed had no experience to draw from, and were therefore hesitant to see the value of digital badges, considering there is currently no eco-system for them. Most learner interviews were conducted with migrants or those over 40 years, whose qualifications were outdated, placing the individuals in a precarious position in the job market.
From the migrant interviews we soon recognised a clear division between work migrants with high education and migrants with little education from their own countries of origin.
To be considered for a job in Norway, language skills are essential. This must be well-documented and is often a key to getting a job offer. For some types of education, one must follow the Norwegian system, and therefore some work migrants need to start all over again. Formal education is usually a requirement for most positions.
Migrants we interviewed with high formal education felt that they had papers to prove their knowledge and competencies in a good enough way to be considered for the job market. Their challenges were more related to lack of language skills, and it is difficult to see how digital badges can be used to overcome this barrier to work. Formal proof of language ability is required in the form of an official language test.
For migrants without high formal education, digital badges theoretically present the opportunity to give testament to work internships or course participation in Norway, which may be the only documentation they would be able to produce to a potential employer, other than a reference.
Jobseekers / Upskillers 40+
As with the Dutch participants, Interviewees in the over 40s group presented two main blockers to using digital badges; competence and motivation to use unknown technology and an inability to collect digital credentials retrospectively. The first blocker was surprising considering the high level of digital literacy in Scandinavia, however despite being digitally competent on computers and mobiles, a new concept seemed daunting to interviewees. The second issue raised, the difficulty of back-dating badges, pertains to all countries, though was very prominent in the Norwegian interviewees. For this group, a dual system of documentation would need to be maintained in order to account for long experience which cannot be digitally tracked or awarded retrospectively.
Similar to the other two countries, migrants with a completed formal education were mostly confronted with language skill requirements to enter the German job market. Then their main concern was to get recognition for their formal degree.
If they had not completed their studies, or could not get recognition due to professional reasons (e.g. law degree from overseas is not applicable as it does not compare to German law) , they often had to start-over, which meant both studying and generating income to support their family – an impossible challenge to most, impeding staying bound to low-skilled jobs.
Compared to Norway and the Netherlands, migrants seem to be more careful with exposing themselves online or in social media, and therefore the idea of a digital outlet of their qualifications through Digital Credentials seems less appalling.
Self-employed (e.g. Freelancers), accounting for 3% of the employable population in Germany, were hit the hardest by Covid-19, as demand disappeared or shortened in a moment’s notice. This was amplified if they were single mothers. They expressed that they could access less public support compared to employed persons, mostly lacked formal qualifications and relied generally on private informal networks to find jobs or employment. While permanent upskilling was considered part of their profession, and they were open to the idea – they would see limited benefit in Digital Credentials, as informal networks work mostly on word-of-mouth, and less on credentials. The biggest challenge they face is ‘what happens when the network contacts run out?’ Lack of knowledge in digital marketing and no orientation on what is the right direction for upskilling hinders people from this target group from finding a way forward.
Youngsters (potential) drop-outs / in search of education or employment
This age-group defined themselves as highly digital, but the interviewees do not use social media such as LinkedIn to showcase their knowledge and skills. Most of them haven’t heard of Digital Badges or Credentials before, except in gaming. They were open to the concept of digital badges and found them a good idea; badges could help to motivate learning as they could make it fun like in a game. They can also give overview of what they know and their skills, giving a more complete picture of who they are. Badges could further help them to realise what kind of skills they already have, so they can be proud instead of feeling like failures in the learning system.
This age-group described themselves as not digital and preferably will not use social media to find a job. Lower educated, generally having gained knowledge and skills on the job, rather than by studying, they have found themselves being the ‘first ones out’ when cuts had to be made in organisations. Looking at Digital Credentials they would have liked it if they had gained them throughout their working career, but find themselves too old now. Digital Credentials could have worked for them as a form of appreciation from their manager. They do see potential for younger people who still have their career before them.
Migrants with a background of studying in their home country often see that not all of their prior education is acknowledged in the Netherlands. Having a diploma is seen as status, so this is an important thing to acquire. The idea that skills and competencies gained outside the formal education are of value and can be recognized with Digital Badges is completely new to them. When soaking in on this new thought during the interviews, the concept seemed rather appealing. For those who do not speak Dutch (well), learning the language is the first priority, without proper Dutch less options in society are open for them. Some of them noticed that they would need help to start using badges; help in how to gain them technically as well as guidance in how to use this in society.
For this group, who are mostly ‘self-made’ and innovative, but vulnerable to changing market demands, the phrase ‘I am more than my diploma’ applies. They use different communication platforms and social media to showcase their portfolio. The interviewees had never come across Digital Badges before, but think they could be very helpful if they become accepted in their networks.
In all interviews with learners we noticed a positive growing interest in Digital Badges and their usefulness and potential during the conversation. According to the learners Digital Badges should be easy to use, clear in when you can earn them and what their value is, the concept of badges should be well known throughout society.
To further illustrate the types of users represented in the interviews, their characteristics and their specific needs towards Digital Credentials, we developed the following personas: