What Universities Can Learn from Udacity’s ‘Gig Economy’ Service

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Two weeks ago, Udacity launched a program to connect graduates from its programs with short-term work from potential employers. Called Blitz, the service lets companies propose a project, and then Udacity provides a cost estimate and puts together a team of alumni engineers to complete it. Once the project is finished, companies have the option to hire “Blitzers” full-time.

The offering is one way to help Udacity deliver on its job-placement promises. The company offers a money-back guarantee to students who complete its nanodegree programs—bundles of classes in app and web development and engineering. Students are ensured a job within six months of graduating or Udacity will refund their tuition. (The company defines “job” as full- or part-time and freelance work.)

The idea of matching students with gigs in their field of study goes beyond any one platform or employer. Universities, too, are experimenting with new ways to help students gain real-world work experience through short-term projects with companies.

“We’ll see more and more institutions gravitating toward this type of opportunity,” says Charles Kilfoye, who runs Northeastern University’s Experiential Network, a program that matches graduate and professional studies students with six-week projects at sponsor companies. “It really just mirrors the gig economy that’s happening out there.”

Will part-time piecework replace traditional internships?

Workers are increasingly gravitating toward flexible employment options. Economists at Princeton estimate the number of U.S. workers in “alternative work arrangements”—temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers—rose from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015.

“The current state of the globalization and liberal workforce requirements scene is one that prefers outsourcing, 'flexible' and temporary employment solutions, than hosting seasoned in-house teams,” says Nikos Vaggalis, a software developer based in Athens and a columnist for online magazine I Programmer. As higher education evolves to serve students who are older, working part-time and supporting families, connecting them with flexible work options fits into those broader workforce and economic trends.

Northeastern launched the Experiential Network (XN) in September 2015, and it’s delivered more than 600 projects to more than 500 sponsoring companies. The university doesn’t call them employers because they don’t pay anything for students’ services. Companies get free labor; students get practical experience. Each project is about a 25-30 hour commitment over six weeks. Students work remotely with sponsors, typically spending five to six hours a week, and they can opt to receive credit.

“This is an intentionally designed project experience,” Kilfoye says. “We try to ensure that experiences are well aligned with academic outcomes and expectations of students.”

Projects so far have included developing an HR strategy for a Fortune 500 company, producing a strategic report for a social-media marketing firm, and building multimedia content for community colleges to use in teaching.

Kervin T. Leonidas, who received his master’s degree from Northeastern’s Online Leadership program in spring 2015, completed two XN projects as a student. Now he’s a career counselor at Bottom Line, a nonprofit that supports low-income and first generations students throughout their college experiences, and says he draws on his XN work often in his current job.

“The experience taught me how nonprofits work and how to advertise and set things up—and find what works with students,” says Leonidas, who worked on communications for the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs and worked on an internal XN project for his two experiences. The work has come full-circle: Now Leonidas advises college students to pursue similar real-world projects to complement their education.

Northeastern is well-known for its career-development opportunities, including its Co-op program where students rotate between studies and six-month jobs related to their majors. These opportunities work well for full-time undergrads, but graduate and professional studies students often don’t have the time or resources to work full-time—unpaid—for that long, Kilfoye says.

Kilfoye and his staff of student success managers and employer relationships managers serve as the connector between learners, professors and sponsoring companies. They meet with department chairs to understand what students are studying and what the desired outcomes for the program are. They work with sponsors to create projects that align with academic objectives. And they evaluate student applications to give them a list of three to five projects they can accept. The XN staff helps introduce the students and sponsors then steps aside and let’s the two parties work out details around communication, scheduling and deliverables.

Several universities in the UK have taken a different approach. They offer “sandwich courses” where students work in industry for a year, receiving a salary, in between their studies. At Staffordshire University, for example, 25 percent of computer science undergrads who completed a placement year were offered a job by that company after graduation. Brunel University and the University of Wolverhampton have similar programs.

“The notion at the sandwich's core is that a student that has completed his placement will return to finish his studies as more mature, and equipped with newly found knowledge and skills that he can blend in with his studies to squeeze out the maximum potential possible,” Vaggalis says.

He argues that job experience during college is more valuable than opportunities after the fact, such as what Udacity’s Blitz offering provides, because it sets students up for long-term employment options.

Vaggalis has experienced both sides of the gig economy: He completes one-off projects in addition to his day job, and he’s worked with freelance developers who write code for his employer. He says the gig economy throws off the employer-worker relationship, almost always giving the employer the upper hand. “What I would like to wholeheartedly see is a big percentage of people finding full time jobs through Udacity's Blitz, something that would also benefit businesses in the long term.”

At Northeastern, the Experiential Network is available to students in 30 programs and growing, Kilfoye says. “Students are building confidence and curating their professional network. It’s something that a lot of graduate and professional studies students could benefit from.”

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