Urban Wire How cities are expanding access to college and careers in the digital age
Don Baylor
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Entering the labor market can be difficult for anyone, but some young people—especially low-income youth and youth of color—face challenges that make it even harder to launch their careers. At the same time, some employers are struggling to identify skills and competencies of entry-level candidates. Could digital badges—online, skill-based microcredentials—transform the way youth learn and employers hire?

Typical résumés that include work history and college degrees fail to convey details about marketable skills that could provide a more complete picture of an applicant’s qualifications. Digital badges could fill that gap by capturing competencies built during job programs and other learning opportunities, including soft skills that demonstrate work readiness or hard skills that indicate more technical capabilities.

Increasing opportunities for youth through digital badging

Through the work of LRNG, a national initiative to support digital badging efforts in several local labor markets, some cities are leveraging their existing platforms to enable young people to document their out-of-school learning experiences and build skills to succeed in college and careers. 

In Dallas, city leaders are harnessing assets such as the Dallas Love Field airport and the Dallas Public Library to engage youth in meaningful experiences that open educational and career possibilities. Local library programs, such as the Mayor’s Summer Reading Club (an initiative available in many other cities), enable students to earn digital badges to track progress toward literacy and comprehension goals.

And through Pittsburgh’s 2015 summer youth employment initiative Learn & Earn, about 1,900 youth logged over 17,000 work hours, earning over $1.3 million in wages from roughly 300 regional employers. Participants could earn 10 different types of badges, including a “career designer” or “financial literacy” badge, to recognize their experiences and skill development. Overall, about 650 participating youth earned nearly 3,500 badges across 11 employment providers. 

Going forward, the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board seeks to turn badges into “electronic résumés” that display skills and capabilities “in a way that business and companies around Pittsburgh can respect,” as the board wrote in a recent report.

Expanding the reach of digital badges

Last week, we released a report offering lessons for how local stakeholders such as nonprofits, cities, and workforce development agencies can use digital badging to meet the needs of employers and job seekers.
We also convened experts from nonprofits, higher education, and the private and public sectors to get their perspectives on incorporating badging into programs and strategies. Key recommendations include the following:

  • Engaging employers in digital badge design
  • Ensuring badges capture both hard (e.g. , software coding) and soft (e.g., persistence) skills
  • Coordinating with local partners to build badge value in postsecondary education and employment sectors

The digital badge movement is just beginning to tap into these local public sector programs that link to employment and training. In addition to the approaches adopted in Dallas and Pittsburgh, cities and local areas can leverage other programs and institutions (e.g., community colleges, workforce development boards, and municipal agencies) to create an ecosystem that expands access to out-of-school learning, documents skills, and builds bridges to college and careers for urban youth.

As digital badges continue to take hold in cities, we look forward to assessing their effectiveness in building skills and empowering young learners to achieve success in their careers.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Children and youth
Tags Employment
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab