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Podcast: Skill Up Somerville


Skill Up Somerville is an example of digital badging applied to civic opportunities. Ben Sommer, Economic Development Specialist for the City of Somerville, MA, manages workforce development programs for the city.

Having identified digital literacy as an important set of skills for residents, Ben has coordinated and grown a badge program to support the initiative.

Listen to the full interview:


Susan Manning:                   Welcome to the Credly podcast where we touch base with our issuers, earners, and partners, and explore themes of interest in digital credentialing. I'm Susan Manning. Today, I'm talking with Ben Sommer who is from Somerville, Massachusetts. And Ben brought a very interesting badging program to us at Credly. It's a community-wide program and it's called SkillUp Somerville. So welcome, Ben.

Ben Sommer:                        Hi, Susan. Thanks for having me.

Susan Manning:                   Tell us a little bit about SkillUp Somerville and your role in this.

Ben Sommer:                        Sure. So to provide a little context, I work in the city of Somerville's economic development office where I manage workforce development programs for the city. Just to give you a little background on Somerville, where we're located, what we're about. We're a small city, about 80,000 people next to Cambridge and Boston just about four square miles with 80,000 people. And because we're in a fantastic region with a great economy, the city has been growing very quickly and we have a lot of plans for new jobs and new companies coming in. And so it's my job to help connect our residents to the companies and to the careers that are making their home in Somerville.

                                                      So we have been expanding our workforce development programs and thinking about what our role as a city and as an office can be in what is a well-developed workforce development regional infrastructure. And we came to the conclusion over a number of years that digital literacy especially is an important set of skills that we can really help our residence gain some knowledge in. And we are using Credly through a program we started called SkillUp Somerville to help coordinate and grow the different digital literacy programs within Somerville, whether it's city-run or non-profit run to help our residence scale up, as it were.

Susan Manning:                   Some of your badge offerings, though, are not what I would consider traditional digital literacy. I mean, you've got laser cutter basics and 3D printing and real hands-on learning that you're recognizing with the digital badges.

Ben Sommer:                        Absolutely. So one of the programs that's city-run and is also very unique we think is Fabville which is a public fabrication laboratory or Fab Lab operating out of our high school, out of our vocational high school. Fab labs are spaces, there're I think over a thousand all over the world that have digital fabrication equipment like 3D printers, like laser cutters, [inaudible 00:03:06] tools like that in which people can learn to design and build products or projects. So we have this space about 3,000 square feet in the high school with a number of the tools. It's used by the students during the day and then after school, it's open to the public for anyone in Somerville and even outside of Somerville to come in to learn tools and then ultimately, to build their own projects. So we have classes, we have open shop and we've been using Credly to help certify people on certain tools so they can use them safely without hurting themselves or the tool as well. And so we've had a number of different classes to that purpose.

Susan Manning:                   Tying this back to your workforce initiative, what are local employers telling you about this?

Ben Sommer:                        Local employers are telling us that, for example, we have an internship program with hardware startups, so companies that are making again, physical objects. They're telling us that they're interns have good academic skills but they don't have a lot of hands-on skills using the equipment that they need them to. So this is an opportunity, it just is one example for us to help interns and students gain those hands-on skills as well using different tools like a [inaudible 00:04:34] or a shopbot.

Susan Manning:                   And then not only do they have the skills but they also have the badge as a tool to help communicate those skills to surface and convey to the employers this is what I'm capable of doing.

Ben Sommer:                        Definitely. And in some cases also, I mean, we have a big maker community in Somerville. That's something that makes our community unique, big artists, a lot of engineers, and a lot of people who work at the convergence of both art and science. And so a lot of people who are coming and using the tools and getting certified are for their own business as well, whether they're a product developer or even carpenters and contractors who need to design something or to make something for their work as well. So that's something they can show with clients that they know how to do this too.

Susan Manning:                   Right. Do you have a sense of how many of your badge earners are full-on adults out of high school versus those who are maybe in high school or shortly thereafter looking to intern?

Ben Sommer:                        The vast majority of the people we've given badges to are adults. The high school, as I said, uses it during the day and they have some after-school program in the space after school hours. But for the most part, it's mostly people who are over 18 in the workforce or trying to enter the workforce who are using the space and using the tools and getting badged.

Susan Manning:                   Your account is set up so that you have a couple different issuers on the account. One is the Fab lab, the other is the Somerville Media Center. Where do you see this growing?

Ben Sommer:                        So the idea for SkillUp Somerville is to help provide a very robust range of programs, digital literacy programs for Somerville residents. Fabville is one program that the city runs. The Somerville Media Center, which is our local access television channel and non-profit who build themselves more so as a media maker space is another issuer. They run a bunch of digital literacy programs as well, such as in they've run introduction to Google Suite, they run Excel training classes. They've run programs on a design to a called [Canaba 00:07:05] just as a couple examples.

                                                      And so we've been working with them to help them get on the Credly SkillUp Somerville platform as well. The goal ultimately is to coordinate among all the organizations who are offering these programs, make sure we are providing the same measurements, templates, align curriculum so we can better coordinate it amongst all of ourselves and certain residents better.

Susan Manning:                   Excellent. So final question and then we'll wrap up. What has surprised you the most about implementing this kind of badging system in your community?

Ben Sommer:                        One thing that has surprised me the most is how big a gap there is in displaying and sharing and recognizing the skills that people are gaining and how ... As I said, we have a number of programs in Somerville who are offering what could be aligned classes, and courses, and skills but nobody is ... and I guess this is the purpose of the badge is to be able to recognize and to share a discrete skill as opposed to a degree.

                                                      So what's surprising to me is there's just this huge gap in talent development in education in workforce development, whatever you want to call it that hasn't been filled. And so we're excited that we have the opportunity through Credly and through SkillUp Somerville to start to fill this gap but it's also a huge challenge but also an opportunity.

Susan Manning:                   Sure. I find it inspiring that it's a city initiative helping your residents develop those skills and then to articulate those. It is definitely workforce ready, but I imagine for those who are earning these skills, it's also just intrinsically motivating. Hey, I learned something new, I can do this now. And that's the purpose of any great education program. So congratulations on the work you're doing and I hope in the future, we're going to hear that the program has grown and you've taken on more issuers and I wish you all the best with it. Thank you.

Ben Sommer:                        Thank you very much.

Susan Manning:                   Thank you, listeners, for joining us. If you'd like to suggest upcoming topics, feel free to write us at