How Indianapolis High Schools Are Using ‘Badges’ to Help Students Demonstrate Skills — and Land Jobs

The 6 credentials, spotlighting “soft skills” like professionalism, effective communication & time management, help show students can succeed at work.

A graphic showing the 6 badges students can earn — mindsets, self-management, learning strategies, social skills, workplace skills, launch a career
The six digital “badges” developed in Indianapolis help students show businesses they have the so-called soft skills to succeed in jobs. (EmployIndy)

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Indiana high school principal Stacey Brewer faces a challenge schools nationwide share as they struggle to connect their students to jobs: Teaching the “soft skills” of the workplace.

Brewer, who leads Yorktown High School an hour northeast of Indianapolis, is grappling with the trouble many young people have with basic job rules: The need to be on time, taking initiative and speaking with customers. And without a standard class for schools to teach these skills there’s no way to prove to employers that students have learned them.

“If you’re going to be workforce ready in a plethora of possible industries, what are the things that you need in order to be a successful employee?” said Brewer, whose school of 800 students will join a growing number of schools and community organizations in the Indianapolis area using a new set of career skills “badges” that standardize what young people need to know. “Here’s a way that we can solidify some additional training that is going to be marketable.” 

Brewer has made the badges the core of a pilot graduation track for students who want to work right out of high school, one of several new, innovative graduation pathways starting in the state. Students will complete all six badges as part of that track.

Like a digital version of Boy Scout merit badges, the six Job Ready Indy badges — Mindsets, Self-Management, Learning Strategies, Social Skills, Workplace Skills and Launch a Career — verify what students have learned and serve as soft skills credentials in the local job market.

Within those categories, students are taught about professionalism, time management and attention to detail. Since launching in 2018, more than 3,400 young people, mostly high school juniors and seniors in the Indianapolis area, have earned at least one badge.

“When a young person completes the badges…when they apply to a job…it’s a way for them (businesses)  to have confidence,” said Austin Jenness, a spokesman for EmployIndy, which helped develop the badges. “What are their communication skills? What are their interpersonal communication skills? Are they ready for this, even entry level position?”

Indianapolis isn’t alone in trying to create so-called “soft skills credentials” that can take hold like technical and industry credentials have over the years. Community colleges in California have used a soft skills curriculum and badges for a decade. There is also a national movement away from using high school or college diplomas as the main credential in hiring toward “skills-based hiring” — using smaller credentials certifying specific skills.

But soft skills credentials are rare for high school students. And as MDRC, a national nonprofit organization that researches economic policy, noted last fall, credentials like these remain novel or unknown.

“If these credentials become widespread enough, possessing them could provide job candidates with a distinct advantage,” an MDRC commentary said.

Among the biggest challenges is making sure they come from reliable organizations that have status, something Indianapolis has in hand.

Victory College Prep, a K-12 school of about 900 students in Indianapolis, requires them for all students before starting mandatory internships in 11th grade.

“Folks are familiar enough that when we talk about the students completing the badges…it does give prospective partners a degree of confidence about 17 and 18 year olds that could be quite a gamble in terms of readiness and temperament,” said Andrew Hayenga, the school’s chief development officer. 

EmployIndy created the badges and a curriculum to teach them in 2018 by combining the state’s 36 “employability skills benchmarks,” skills and talents that apply across all jobs and industries. It then developed lessons to teach them over 30 hours of in-person classes that schools and community organizations could pull off the shelf and teach.

Along with schools, EmployIndy reported some summer programs run by community groups use the training as part of their sessions, with classes expanding now that they are online and the pandemic has eased.

Though use of Job Ready Indy badges slowed during the pandemic, it is exceeding old levels now, with classes online. (EmployIndy)

But beyond the increase in the number of people earning badges, EmployIndy has no real data to show success. Asked to name companies that use the badges in its hiring process, EmployIndy couldn’t. And it’s not yet collecting employment data for completers, but is about to start a series of focus groups to update the lessons.

“Our world has rapidly changed in the last couple of years, so how we do work has changed,” Downey said. “We anticipate almost yearly kind of refreshes of the content, not complete deep dive changes, but just to ensure that we’re staying up to date.”

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