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  • Writer's pictureAmplify HigheR

Tech companies try to retrain the workers they're displacing.

SANDRA UPSON | BUSINESS | 03.16.18 | 07:00 AM

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ON JANUARY 16, a new course launched on the online learning platform Coursera with an unassuming name: The Google IT Support Professional Certificate. It promised to prepare beginners for entry-level jobs in IT in eight to 12 months.

That day, it attracted the largest-ever group of first-time Coursera users, almost half of them people without college degrees. By February, it was Coursera’s second-most-popular offering. More than 18,000 people have enrolled in the $49-a-month program so far, 160 of whom have completed it. “Even as we were building it, even as it was about to launch, I never anticipated the success of it,” says Natalie Van Kleef Conley, Google’s product lead for the program.

Two months later, the six courses required for the certificate continue to get about 1,000 registrants per day. A big reason for its popularity, beyond the certificate and the Google brand, is that upon completing the courses, the newly trained IT support folk can submit their resumes directly to interested employers, including Bank of America, Walmart and Google itself.

Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda says the platform had not previously hosted anything similar; more typical fare includes programming, business and English language classes (along with the popular-among-Canadians Mountains 101). But Maggioncalda and his staff had seen the hunger for onramps to tech careers in the reviews visitors had given earlier courses. “People are saying, I know the jobs are going to be in computers and technology, and it’s great to tell me I should get those jobs. But I don’t know how to do that,” he says. “You tell me how I’m supposed to do that with a family and a mortgage.”

Jobs are changing radically, fueled in part by the tech companies that increasingly dominate the economy. A recent McKinsey report found that half of all current work activities can be automated using existing technology. It also estimated that by 2030, between 75 million and 375 million workers worldwide will likely need to find a new line of workdue to the automation of their old posts—and many will require retraining. At the same time, there are currently 150,000 unfilled IT jobs in the US, according to job-market analytics firm Burning Glass. With the right training, workers now shut out of the tech boom could use these positions as footholds in a shifting economy.

But what does the right training look like? Among those with a stake in that question are big tech companies, which face growing discontent over their impact on public discourse, democracy, and shaping children’s minds. Since the EU imposed a €2.4 billion fine against Google in 2017, antitrust rumblings have grown louder on both sides of the Atlantic. Now these companies are looking to put a positive spin on the next controversial frontier: their effect on jobs.

Facebook has been offering training in a variety of digital skills, including an alliance with a coding school in Michigan that began last fall. On March 26 in St. Louis, it’s launching a training-oriented national tour called Community Boost, part of a broader effort that COO Sheryl Sandberg projectswill have reached 2.5 million people by the end of the year. Microsoft has committed millions to a Colorado nonprofit called Skillful that helps connect people with jobs in IT, advanced manufacturing and healthcare. Amazon’s spin is a little different—it offers to cover 95 percent of the cost of training its own warehouse employees for a variety of careers outside of Amazon.

As Maggioncalda puts it, the future of work and the future of education are converging. But these efforts must overcome a long history of failed training programs. The federal government has poured billions of dollars into job support initiatives that have not yielded a successful model, a troubling fact as training grows more important. “For decades you’d have training courses happening with no connection to whether anyone was going to hire these folks when they’re done,” says Maria Flynn, CEO of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. “As a nation we’ve not done a great job of knowing who has opportunities, how do you get them, how do you stay on that path” of economic advancement.

Historically, the most successful training programs were run by companies themselves, who would teach new hires what they needed before settling recruits into an official role. That approach has died down, says Michelle Weise, a senior vice president at the Strada Education Network, a jobs-oriented nonprofit. “Employers are expecting that perfect workforce experience, where people can come in and start working on day one,” Weise says.The Google IT certificate course represents a middle ground, though most learners have to foot the bill themselves (Google is offering some scholarships). The program grew out of an internal effort to train underprivileged individuals for IT jobs at Google. Because the curriculum on Coursera was based on Google’s own IT needs, enrollees know it has some basis in reality; they also know other companies have pledged to hire graduates.

A more tested example is a well-regarded nonprofit called Per Scholas, which helps prepare underprivileged women and people of color for careers in IT and cybersecurity through free in-person classes and support services. It designs its curricula by working closely with large employers, so that its students emerge prepared for the jobs that exist now. The group says 80 percent of its 7,000 graduates are employed. A randomized controlled trialpublished last year found that the program raised participants’ wages by an average 27 percent.

Even when salaries don’t increase immediately upon graduation, the participants’ new jobs can offer more potential for growth. Blair Hilliard, who finished the 14-week program last summer, says she makes only a little more as an IT support specialist at footwear retailer DSW than she did at the lower-skilled IT job she held prior to Per Scholas. But now she says she has opportunities for promotion and the knowledge she needs to move up, which she didn’t have before.

“Per Scholas is the single best one, it’s a real gem,” says Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown. “What we don’t know is how to scale up.”

The Per Scholas model is expensive—a typical student costs the nonprofit between $6,500 and $8,000. Executive vice president Bridgette Gray says it is now expanding with programs tailored to a specific employer’s needs. The multinational IT firm Cognizant, for example, has long relied heavily on employees in India and holders of H-1B visas for skilled foreigners. In an effort to repatriate some of those jobs, in 2017 it agreed to pay Per Scholas to find and train 650 people, of which Cognizant would hire up to 400. (Per Scholas will help place the remaining 250 elsewhere.)

In Ohio, IBM is working with Per Scholas to train mainframe operators versed in the programming language Cobol, after many of its Cobol-fluent employees retired. Another employer called Gray to ask for support in training workers in robotic process automation, which involves a worker helping software learn how to automate a given business function. “I said, huh, ok what is that? So I go online, do all this research, and thought, wow, I wonder how many businesses use this.” She agreed to do the training.“If we were not as nimble as we are, and adjust our curriculum based on market need and market demand, I don’t think we’d be as effective as we are,” Gray says. She’s thinking ahead to when IT positions themselves are automated. She anticipates a tighter focus on cybersecurity jobs: By 2021, an estimated 3.5 million such openings will exist, according to research firm Cybersecurity Ventures.

Labor and technology experts foresee a time not too far off when workers will need to retrain repeatedly, a trend dubbed “lifelong learning.” Even some of the people learning IT now might find it won’t be enough to complete Coursera’s second most popular course and become a helpdesk expert. They might want to keep going, until they reach safety upon completing the most popular course: AI expert Andrew Ng’s class on machine learning.


  • An innovative program in Camden, New Jersey offers tech training to low-income and homeless youths.

  • A growing number of employers are incorporating virtual reality into recruitment and training programs. But these simulations can offer an unrealistically flattering view of the job.

  • Automation will have a big impact on the workplace, but robots are not going to take all the jobs.

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