Employer Credentials and Community Colleges: A Look Behind Google’s IT...

Opinion | Digital Learning

Employer Credentials and Community Colleges: A Look Behind Google’s IT Support Certificate Program

By Natalie Van Kleef Conley and Sean Gallagher (Columnist)     Jun 25, 2018

Employer Credentials and Community Colleges: A Look Behind Google’s IT Support Certificate Program
Google IT Support staff working at the company's help desk in their NYC office.

Today’s red-hot job market demands new approaches to skill building, and community colleges find themselves on the front lines of this workforce-development challenge.

This is especially true when it comes to the growing share of jobs that are technology related and hinge on rapidly-evolving skillsets—which today make up more than a quarter of all job openings, according to data from Burning Glass Technologies. These tech jobs cut across industry sectors and many of them can be characterized as “middle-skill”—those that require more education and training than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree.

Despite their often limited budgets, the innovative nature and adaptability of community colleges makes them well-positioned to meet the training needs for aspiring tech professionals.

Unfortunately, most employers have difficulty filling middle-skill jobs, and they are more likely to leave vacancies unfilled or hire temporary workers than to collaborate with community colleges or other training providers, according to an Accenture survey

That seems to be changing though, with industry waking up to the need to invest in middle-skills development. Just look at Apple’s partnership with numerous community colleges to integrate its app development tools and frameworks into curriculum, or Facebook’s plan to teach their social media products based on topics like generating leads on social media platforms, monetizing content, and increasing online sales.

Many tech firms are even going directly to professionals with their own certificates and credentials—such as IBM’s digital badge program, Hubspot’s certifications, and long-running programs like Microsoft’s IT certifications.

At Google, one of us works as a product lead for the IT Support Professional Certificate on Coursera—a program designed to take beginner-level learners to IT job readiness in about eight months. Since launch this January, the typically eight-month-long program has enrolled nearly 40,000 learners and has already seen more than 1,200 completers just five months since launch.

The program is philanthropically funded by Google.org, and does not generate any revenue to Google. It has an explicit focus on creating economic opportunity for overlooked groups, with Google funding 10,000 scholarships to support veterans, refugees and low-income learners from select nonprofits. Because community colleges have unparalleled reach in their communities and play a critical role in workforce development, Google is now expanding the program to institutions and systems across seven states in the U.S., including Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, California, and New York.

It’s important that individual employers shift their focus from competing for talent to having a responsibility to jointly develop a pipeline that is needed to build the workforce. Developing and retraining professionals—especially in a dynamic political and funding environment—will require coalitions of employers collaborating to meet mutual interests.

Google’s model involves a consortium of more than 20 companies—including Walmart, Bank of America, and Sprint—dedicated to considering hiring learners who complete the IT Support Professional Certificate. Another key organization in this effort is JFF, a leading non-profit expert in education and workforce development funded by Google.org. They’re working with colleges to integrate the online program into in-person college classes or offer credit for prior learning, and to extend the consortium model to local employers. This focus on regional economies has the reinforcing effect of creating more pathways to academic credit and jobs for learners who complete the certificate.

The future will see even more examples of tighter collaboration between technology companies and colleges, especially as it relates to developing curriculum and industry-validated credentials. For community colleges, continuing to partner with industry is a natural extension of their mission to provide training and pathways to employment. Google’s strategy in this area is potentially instructive: it is driven by meeting a real market need beyond its own commercial interests—and is deeply reflective of a greater social good.

As these types of undertakings continue to proliferate, it will be important for academic leaders and others in the higher education market to learn from and work more closely with employers—and consider how corporate resources can best be deployed and aligned—while appreciating faculty governance, and the mission of nonprofit educational institutions.

In an era in which lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative, there is a growing willingness among those in the higher education sector to recognize that learning happens everywhere. And while it is early, a new ecosystem is emerging of providers and standards that are framed around skills and competencies; leverage prior learning assessment; and allow learners to stack credentials and earn academic credit for work-based learning. Truly realizing the potential of this ecosystem will require thoughtful collaboration across a wide set of players—including policymakers and regulators, who over the last few years have increasingly considered the role of non-institutional providers of education.

As Google’s initiative demonstrates, it is a false dichotomy to pit industry-based credentials against academic learning. Instead, we are in a world of growing collaboration and the blurring of traditional boundaries in the second machine age.

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