Perhaps it was Donald Trump refusing to ever admit he was wrong (about President Obama’s birthplace, immigrants, crowd size, weather maps, Russia, Kim Jong-un, climate change, Covid, voter fraud, infrastructure week – it’s a long list), but like avoiding certain things (orange skin, drinking bleach, committing treason), publicly admitting error has suddenly become fashionable. The New York Times recently featured eight “I Was Wrong” columns by pundits like Thomas Friedman, Michelle Goldberg, and Paul Krugman admitting they were wrong about Trump voters, Facebook, Al Franken, Chinese censorship, protests, capitalism, inflation, and Mitt Romney (and his dog). It was fun reading these admissions, although they all followed the same formula: I may have been wrong about this specific issue, but I was still right about the big picture! I only regret the Times wasn’t able to solicit a contribution from Susan Collins.
In this spirit, I have my own admission. Two summers ago – back when Susan Collins was more than a punchline and overt treason was just a gleam in Donnie’s eye – Microsoft and Google announced efforts to calm America’s troubled streets (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor) with free online programs to close the digital skills gap. Microsoft announced new curriculum from LinkedIn Learning and the GitHub Learning Lab and lowered the cost of certifications to bring digital skills to an additional 25M Americans. In Google’s case, it was 100,000 scholarships for new online certificates (data analyst, project manager, UX designer). In a Gap Letter titled The False Allure of Online Training, I lampooned the tech giants, saying “when the problems include racial injustice and generational damage, online training is biting off more than it can chew.” I went on to highlight the fact that neither company planned to actually hire any of the newly trained talent. “Microsoft and Google: if they’re not good enough for you, why should another employer want them?”
So allow me join the ranks of penitent pundits by acknowledging I was wrong to castigate Microsoft and Google for launching online courses (although right as rain about the big picture – skills gap, lack of clear pathways to socioeconomic mobility, death of the American Dream). Doing so violated a principle I hold dear: not letting the best be the enemy of the good. Sure, it would be great if Microsoft and Google could singlehandedly wrench America’s workforce into alignment with employer needs. But that’s asking too much, even for businesses that collectively generate over $200B in annual profit.
I now recognize that casting aspersions on Microsoft and Google is like blaming McGraw-Hill and HMH for what ails K-12 education. Actually worse, because Microsoft and Google have better curriculum. And it’s not just these two. AWS, Salesforce, VMware, Cisco, Oracle, Pega, Appian, Workday, Facebook, Adobe, CompTIA, SAP, Snowflake, and lots of other tech leaders have built out high-quality, skills-based online courses leading to certification exams for the most in-demand digital skills. Besides addressing skills employers want but can’t find, these courses have something else in common. They’re all 100% asynchronous.
In this era of digital transformation, self-paced online courses are just like textbooks: necessary but insufficient. Learners and job seekers who can successfully complete these courses on their own probably don’t need much help getting a good job. They’re not the ones we should be worried about. And for those who don’t yet have a good job – struggling frontline and gig workers without the necessary motivation, aptitude, and preparation to progress on their own (and where life is likely to get in the way even if they hit that trifecta) – I’d bet completion rates on asynchronous tech credentials are below the education equivalent of the Mendoza Line (the MOOC Line i.e., 5%).
Microsoft, Google and the rest can’t be expected to solve this problem. They’re not schools or training companies and will never be (principally because they turn up their noses at low gross margins). But they can recognize the problem. And so kudos to Google, which back in February announced $100M of funding for wraparound services, specifically funding Year Up and Merit America to provide synchronous engagement for job seekers. Wraparound services include instruction (i.e., classes), coaching, and interview prep. And while they have their attention, Year Up and Merit America will also work on soft skills like teamwork and communication. Google’s goal is 20,000 additional (low-income, underrepresented) certificate completers, or $5K per life transformed.
Deploying wraparound services to mine America’s newly discovered motherlode of tech training courseware for the benefit of tens of millions who’ve been shut out of the digital economy also has the potential to fix our broken workforce system. I’ve written previously about state and local workforce boards, which prioritize speed-to-placement and counseling over human capital development and therefore find themselves in a vicious circle of attracting only the lowest skill jobs and job seekers. Now a new service provider is seeking to play the role of Year Up for workforce boards. ShiftUp is delivering similar wraparound services for in-demand tech credentials, dramatically elevating 5% completion rates; ShiftUp is currently over 75% for these in-demand credentials. ShiftUp is now supporting workforce boards in New Jersey, Michigan, and Washington DC. Again, the price tag is in the neighborhood of $5K per life transformed.
With nonprofits and workforce boards taking the lead on making tech credentials accessible and meaningful for displaced and underserved Americans, where are colleges and universities in this pixelated picture? Largely nowhere. Sure, hundreds of schools have signed up for AWS Academy and Pathstream is helping over 30 colleges and universities deliver certifications from Facebook, Salesforce, Tableau, and Asana. But all told, well under 5% of accredited institutions are pairing instruction with any off-the-shelf online courses from tech leaders to create faster + cheaper pathways to good jobs.
Why are colleges missing the boat? First, there are dozens of tech companies. Developing a comprehensive tech credential offering would require going company-by-company. And within a university, who’s set up to do this?
I came to the answer two weeks ago during a tech tête-à-tête with a dean at a Midwestern university. The e-mail discussion involved this very subject: how her university could begin to offer these wondrous new tech credentials. I suggested she’d need to add synchronous instruction in order to make them work for students. Her response:
Synchronous is not quality online education. It is something else but not ONLINE. It is a hybrid and I am not sure why anyone would think that is the way to go. On demand, on your own time is imperative for today’s consumer. Like MOOCs this will not last.
Why she cited MOOCs – a model that failed primarily due to lack of synchronous engagement – to make her point is a door I opted not to walk through. But I suggested that if she wanted to reach those seeking to land a good first job, she might take a different view, and cited Google’s $100M investment.
I have been in the business a long time, this is the flavor of the month like MOOCs which I knew were not going to last (and a lot more than 100M got spent on MOOCs). We would be happy to create asynchronous versions for our [hundreds of] corporate partners.
And with that clarifying statement, I pinpointed my correspondent: dean of a continuing education division with a mandate to serve corporate partners, make money, and contribute that money back to the core university. She’s serving customers and her customers’ employees are different in many ways from the typical Merit America participant: early 30s with a decade or more working in restaurants and retail. One way in particular they’re different: they’re much more likely to have the motivation, aptitude, and preparation to complete asynchronous online courses unaided.
Unfortunately, if you talk to a college or university about Microsoft, Google, AWS, Salesforce and the like, this is where you end up: the periphery, a borderland known as continuing education. There’s little sense that these remarkable new educational resources could be useful for full-time students or help the institution fulfill its mission. And that’s a shame.
Which leads me to a third reason for university inaction on tech credentials. As Postsecondary Analytics’ Nate Johnson said on last week’s Inside Higher Education (The Key) podcast, amidst enrollment wreckage, there are bright spots in student demand: areas like technology. “But those are the most costly fields for… instruction… You have to hire people who have those skills.”
So even if colleges could figure out how to gather these credentials and somehow activate the core instead of continuing education, they’d still have to find instructors. And where are colleges going to find people to teach AWS, Pega, Snowflake, and Workday? Not from Ph.D programs! Experts are out there, but they’re scarce (hence skills gap). And they’ll be hard for colleges to recruit: they’re practitioners, not career educators, and they’re already making a much better living than career educators. Colleges would have to appeal to their better angels. And to do that, they’ll probably have to figure out how to serve students who really need the leg up these programs can provide.
In response to these challenges, Hire-Train-Deploy leader SkillStorm — an Achieve Partners portfolio company — came up with an answer. SkillStorm entered into agreements with AWS, Pega, Salesforce, Appian, and CompTIA and is setting up white-label tech cert programs for university partners. What SkillStorm calls its Accelerator program solves problems #1 and #3: the first one-stop shop for the most in-demand tech certifications with a large bench of qualified instructors. Then SkillStorm runs synchronous programs (one hour per day, five days per week). By working with multiple colleges and aggregating enrollments, SkillStorm is able to launch cohorts weekly. (The one problem SkillStorm hasn’t solved yet is continuing education; that’s where SkillStorm is plugging in.)
With partners like Pathstream and SkillStorm Accelerator, colleges and universities have no excuse for avoiding Microsoft, Google, and the other companies leading digital transformation. And while higher education will instinctively push these programs to continuing ed, as soon as these programs come online, the appeal for students who’ve paid for longer and more expensive degree bundles will become obvious. As these last-mile skills could not be more meaningful for landing good jobs, core students will find them and either force schools to include them in degree programs or perhaps convince colleges to situate them as building blocks in stackable credentials (e.g., upside-down degrees).
Come to think of it, after unjustly accusing them two years ago, the only one with an excuse for avoiding Microsoft and Google is me.