Can Digital ‘Badges’ and ‘Nanodegrees’ Protect Job Seekers From a First-Round Knockout?

November 25, 2014

Hiring managers look at each résumé for an average of six seconds, according to a 2012 study by TheLadders, a job-hunting website.

In those six seconds, the recruiter looks at the applicant’s name, information about current and previous jobs, and education. Then a quick yes or no, and it’s on to the next one.

The study, which enjoyed another round of publicity last month, after Business Insider made a video about its findings, raised the question about how much candidates’ education—that is, what they learned, rather than where they went—matters when it comes to making it past the early rounds of vetting.

Critics have argued that a college degree does not say much about a candidate’s abilities apart from the ability to get into, and graduate from, a particular college. Employers themselves complain that a college degree doesn’t predict whether a graduate will make a good employee. Purveyors of alternative credentials have rushed to fill the gap, designing "badges" and "nanodegrees" that are more specific about what skills applicants actually possess.

And yet—how much more information can applicants really hope to get across if a recruiter is spending only a few seconds sizing them up?

Snap Judgments

Alternative credentials can be valuable to a hiring manager who is looking closely at a small pool of candidates, says Sheryl Grant, director of badge research at Hastac, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, a group that has advocated for alternative credentials. Anybody can write on a résumé that he or she knows the programming language HTML5, says Ms. Grant. Faking an HTML5 badge from the Mozilla Foundation is harder.

But the early part of the application process, when résumés are sorted based on snap judgments rather than studied comparisons, might be tougher to crack.

At some large companies, those first snap judgments are made by robots. Human-resources software sorts résumés according to keywords, years of experience, education level, and other metrics. The key to avoiding the early cull has gone from impressing a busy human being to gaming an exacting algorithm. In either scenario, it is not clear whether having a nontraditional credential gives an applicant an advantage.

For those who want to make alternative credentials count in the early stages of the screening process, a big hurdle may be getting the vendors of human-resources software to integrate the new credentials into their algorithms.

"An HR platform," Ms. Grant says, "could conceivably be designed to grab metadata from badges, which seems like a far more information-rich way to screen applicants than cutting potential candidates out of the pool because the platform can’t locate keywords in their cover letter."

That integration probably won’t happen, she says, until the companies using those platforms start seeing alternative credentials as legitimate—winning over the "human systems" that dictate to the technological ones.

A Long Way to Go

Udacity, the online education company, has been trying to win over companies one at a time, developing its "nanodegrees" with input from tech-industry heavyweights such as Google and AT&T. When Udacity announced the new credential, in June, it said AT&T would make up to 100 paid internships available to "top students who complete nanodegrees."

Still, nanodegree holders applying elsewhere might not enjoy any advantage. A user on Quora, the online question-and-answer forum, recently asked hiring managers if Udacity’s nanodegrees were seen as valuable. A response came from a user identifying himself as Allan Hui, a vice president at Weather Underground, a commercial service that analyzes data from thousands of weather stations.

Mr. Hui said the value of nanodegrees in the application process probably depended on whether a company had established formal guidelines for counting them. If not, the credential might simply be ignored.

"Some companies will have very stringent guidelines that even hiring managers might not be able to bypass," he wrote, though he added that start-ups might be more receptive.

Alexander Halavais, an associate professor of social and behavioral studies at Arizona State University, has been researching how employers perceive badges. He says alternative credentials have a long way to go.

"Outside of IT, there is a lot of resistance to badges," said Mr. Halavais in an email interview. "I know that for my students, based on folks we have talked to so far, I would never recommend that they use badges within a traditional hiring process—e.g., on a résumé."

Correction (11/25/2014, 6:27 p.m.): This article originally misstated the size of AT&T's commitment to make paid internships available to "top students who complete nanodegrees." AT&T said it would offer "up to 100" internships, not 100 internships. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.