As companies step up to train workers in rapidly changing technologies, can universities keep up?
Apple's co-founder joins growing pool of tech wonks launching independent programs to fill skills gap.
Steve “Woz" Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple, has joined a growing pool of business leaders looking to take matters to upgrade higher education to meet the needs of today’s tech industries into his own hands.
As businesses — including those outside of Silicon Valley — require employees with specialized computer, engineering and tech skills, alternative education programs are popping up to provide training for 21st century jobs some say traditional colleges, mired in 19th century teaching styles, aren’t prepared to meet.
Wozniak recently announced the launch of Woz U, which will start as an online learning platform focused on both STEM students and the companies that will eventually hire those students. A proposed Woz U accelerator would provide space for the best and the brightest students to collaborate and work on startup companies or product creation.
Google is also getting into the act, with a new online training program to prepare students to become IT specialists hoping to give them the skills necessary to work at help desks or in cyber security.
“The problem is technology changes faster than colleges can keep up,” said Kevin Mills, head of corporate partnerships and businesses development at Coursera, who partnered with Google for the new IT program. “Institutions aren’t built for quick change, and these programs can step in to fill that need.”
And companies may be feeling a pinch college administrators aren’t aware of. A 2014 Gallup poll found that although 96% of chief academic officers at higher education institutions said they were effectively preparing students for work, only 1% of business leaders strongly agreed.
That gap could grow unless universities look at specialized programming. Mills noted there are 150,000 unfilled IT specialist jobs in the U.S., which come with starting salaries in the range of $52,000. To meet those demands, Google decided to work with Coursera, reinventing its internal training program for use at other companies, organizations or for individual students.
The program launched a few weeks ago, and Mills said interest is high.
A longer-standing program, New York-based General Assembly, began in 2011 as a co-working space before growing into a global learning operation with campuses in 20 cities and more than 35,000 graduates worldwide.
GA offers everything from short boot camps companies might request to train workers to 12-week coding programs. The school’s immersion programs are meant to train students in skill sets such as web development, user experience or data science, according to Tom Ogletree, GA's social impact director.
He said more than 95% of those who graduate will find jobs within six months of finishing a program. And despite some skepticism about the actual value of boot camp programs and whether employers value these credentials, a recent survey of Indeed.com users, 80% of companies have hired a boot camp graduate.
Arizona-based Woz U, meanwhile, launched as a computer application but could branch out into physical facilities throughout the world, according to Woz U Board President Brent Richardson. For now, the curriculum focuses on training for computer support specialists and software cybersecurity, mobile apps or data science.
The plan is to expand to multiple platforms over time, including Woz U Enterprise for tech companies seeking to recruit and train directly through subscription-based curriculum or on-site programs. There will be a K-12 component for school districts aimed at encouraging young students to pursue a career in the tech industry.
In addition, there will be a Woz U Academy that would provide one-on-one instruction and a Woz U Accelerator program set for 2019 to help hone students’ skills.
Richardson said he doesn’t see the initiative as competition for traditional colleges because he expects participants still will obtain at least a bachelor’s degree before seeking additional training or retraining for specific career goals. In fact, most employers prefer boot-camps as an add-on to traditional higher education, not something which would supplant the need for a degree.
“The thing about Woz U is that stuff changes rapidly,” he said. “That’s why it’s hard in traditional colleges to keep up, or for schools to find instructors. The tech industry changes quickly, and we can provide that extra piece of training.”
Woz U will also provide the newest technology, he noted.
The accelerator would be a place for the top Woz U Academy students to incubate business ideas, something that traditional universities might not have the space or funding to do.
“Many of these students, especially the really exceptional ones, they’re not really interested in going to work for a traditional business,” he said. “They’re interested in teaming up with someone to create a game or create an app. There’s a real hunger for this. A lot of groups want to get involved, they are asking if they can be at the school location.”
However, Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, expects more of these alternative programs to launch as people seek shorter routes to acquiring in-demand skills than traditional two- of four-year colleges or universities might provide.
Because these programs often are not accredited, they aren’t regulated and are not eligible for federal funding, both for the schools or the students, he noted. But this could change with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is expected to increase the number of alternative credentialing providers that can access federal funding — and the new Forever GI Bill signed into law by President Trump August 2017 provides $75 million to experiment with allowing nontraditional credentialers — including boot camps — to train veterans for tech careers. Universities could get into the game by offering non-credit classes or adult learning programs that don’t come with degrees, but would train folks in needed skills.
“I think universities really need to look at is this trend real or is it a passing fad?” Carnevale said. “Traditional universities aren’t really built for quick change. They can’t just hire a new faculty each year; much of their faculty is tenured. So administrators should really take a look at what future skills needs are and whether it makes sense to launch programs in those areas.
"On the other hand, I think the skills gap is why so many small-bite certificates and non-degree training programs are growing like crazy,” he said.