They are called digital badges, and Hank Wikle has one.
In essence, they are a potential answer to the reality that four years — or even one or two years — of schoolwork often takes too long to get a person into a high-tech job.
The four- to six-week answer to the problem? Digital badges — quick certifications for a single skill in advanced manufacturing, such as 3D printing. The idea is to teach tech workers specific proficiencies, the kind often sought out by firms looking to hire.
Sarah Boisvert calls the jobs that digital badges can land “new collar jobs” — a step beyond traditional white-collar and blue-collar jobs. This is the next-generation “voc-ed [vocational education].”
Boisvert heads the Fab Lab Hub, an independent, woman-owned digital fabrication company based at Santa Fe Community College with a second location at the Santa Fe Business Incubator. She owns two of more than 1,600 Fab Labs operating around the world, all stemming from the Center for Bits & Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Our mission is workforce training for new-collar jobs,” Boisvert said.
Obtaining a digital badge is the foundation for this workforce training, and fab labs, or fabrication laboratories, provide hands-on learning experiences with tools that seem as if they are from science fiction, Boisvert said.
Hank Wikle, who received his digital badge in 3D printing, took advantage of the opportunity.
The badge “proves I have skills in the area,” he said.
Those abilities and training could very well land Wikle and others jobs for the long-term. Proponents see the concept as a way to recognize a would-be worker has a specific — and desirable — skill set in the modern economy.
Los Alamos National Laboratory has not implemented digital badges yet but is interested the concept, said Ross Muenchausen, research and development scientist at the Los Alamos Feynman Center for Innovation.
“The thing that makes it innovative is that retaining millennials is a challenge,” Muenchausen said. “What I got excited about is the badges are giving employees more choice about how they are going to develop their career on the job. It allows them to prioritize their choices. It makes for more efficient forming of teams. You can hand select teams to partition skills you need for a project.”
Muenchausen said he wants to propose a pilot program at Los Alamos in hopes of determining which organizations at the lab could be an ideal fit for digital badges.
“Having a digital badge will help employees determine more meaningful goals,” he said. “What’s unique about the training is it can be customized to a specific organization.”
Boisvert literally wrote the book on the new-collar workforce — called, predictably enough, The New Collar Workforce.
In the book, she outlined changes that are coming to manufacturers as technology takes hold. “Blue-collar jobs have becomes digital. Robots are collaborators. We still need somebody to design, program, operate and repair robots,” she summed up in Part One of her treatise, “This is not Your Father’s Factory Floor.”
The second part tackles new technologies demanding different skills.
“Technology is changing so quickly,” Boisvert said. “Even welding machines are driven by CAD [computer aided design]. You have to understand more auxiliary functions of the machine. There are more materials out there.”
She shifts to “innovative training programs” in Part Three, focusing on digital manufacturers’ needs for “workers with specific skills.”
Boisvert launched her Fab Lab Hub in January 2018 with all the equipment donated by manufacturers. The hub, in part, is a classroom for the community college’s continuing education courses in 3D printing. It also serves as a 3D manufacturing business for real-world customers, such as Vista Therapeutics at the Santa Fe Business Incubator.
Becoming an MIT-sanctioned Fab Lab requires a facility to have five types of digital fabrication tools: an advanced version of the 3D printer familiar to schools and libraries; a laser cutter; a computer numerical control machine; a vinyl cutter to make printed circuit boards; and a microelectronic work station, a new way to solder metals.
“With those five tools, you can make almost anything,” Boisvert said.
3D printing has become the ground floor of the future. At many local libraries and increasingly even in homes, users can make a wide variety of items with a 3D printer, things hardly anyone could have created for themselves just a few years ago.
“I was not even aware people could do 3D printing at that scale,” said Spencer Farr, co-founder and chief scientific officer at Vista Therapeutics. “It was a matter of serendipity. We needed to make something very tiny with specific shapes. I came across Fab Lab Hub. It was their ability to make tiny particles, tiny designs, that’s their strength we took advantage of.”
Fab Lab Hub started contract manufacturing for outside companies like Vista Therapeutics in August. Boisvert has brought in about 10 customers.
On the education side, the Fab Lab currently hosts two continuing education courses at Santa Fe Community College that offer digital badges upon completion: a four-week Beginning Design for 3D Printing course, and a six-week Design for 3D Printing course.
“She’s teaching a very practical skill that a lot of people want — artists, but also people working at Los Alamos,” said Kris Swedin, continuing education and contract training director at the college. “It’s a skill people need going forward. You can fit it into your schedule.”
Hank Wikle now has a paid student internship in Boisvert’s Fab Lab Hub. He sets up and runs the 3D printer and also does research for Boisvert’s New Collar Jobs workforce training program. But Wikle said he believes the badge will help him get jobs off campus, too, and Boisvert is confident prospective employees with digital badges will be in demand.
“Employers will take as many people as I can turn out,” Boisvert said. “I see badges as expanding the reach of community colleges. It’s for people who need ‘reskilling’ or people who haven’t thought of college. Badges are a great pathway to becoming engineers and scientists.”