Learning as an Experience: Innovative Training for the Future of Work

By Alex Swartsel, Anne La, and Stephen Yadzinski – Published June 16, 2021 by Jobs for the FutureSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

In this report, JFFLabs examined over 50 high-quality non-degree training and workforce development organizations to provide an in-depth snapshot of the current alternative education and training market. Further, JFFLabs identifies payment model, wraparound support service, and employer-based training infrastructure trends that will shape the future postsecondary landscape. 

Traditional four-year degree programs are not always successful in connecting students to quality income and labor outcomes. “About 45 million adults currently have student debt – and many of them never finished their programs.” National Student Clearinghouse research shows that only 63% of full-time college students enrolled in 2011 graduated after six years, and there was  a 39% graduation rate of students from for-profit colleges. 

With a limited supply of trained workers, employers have been more likely to fill skill gaps in their workforce by hiring experienced, degreed candidates to temporary positions. Across all U.S. industries from 2005 to 2015, “more than 60 percent of net job growth was for independent contractors, freelancers, and contract workers employed by third-party service providers.” In addition, with the rise of automation, low-wage and middle-skill jobs have begun to disappear. Jobs that require higher-level skills available only through a college degree are becoming increasingly prominent. 

During the economic downturn of the pandemic, learners shifted to alternative education and training models to upskill. For example, the online course platform, Coursera, experienced a 644% increase in enrollment. High demand for shorter-term non-degree learning pathways “has given rise to an opportunity to reimagine training and embrace models that more effectively meet the needs of workers, employers, and society.” 

Employer Investment in Learning and Development
From a March 2021 LinkedIn Learning Report survey, “only 19 percent of L&D professionals said they believed their budgets were at risk of being cut, and 63 percent said they believed L&D was an executive-level priority – up from 24 percent in March 2020.” One reason employers may choose to increase workforce training is turnover costs. According to HR expert Josh Bersin, “the cost of recruiting and onboarding people for technical roles can be up to six times higher than the cost of building talent from within.” 

Based on World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report, employers vary in how they plan to integrate training providers into their education strategy. “43 percent of survey respondents representing U.S. companies said they planned to use internal L&D departments to deliver training services while 22 percent said they planned to use external online training.” 

Types of High-Quality Workforce Training and Development Organizations
To compare and evaluate organizations across the alternative education and training market, JFFLabs organized service providers into six segments: 

  • Prepare: The focus of programs in this segment is to help target populations (e.g., military veterans, formerly incarcerated individuals, refugees) re-enter the workforce through foundational skills training. Providers must ensure learners have access to basic supports and collaborate with employer partners to solidify employment pathways. Examples of high-quality providers are UVA Edge, 180 Skills, Voxy EnGen, and many others.  
  • Shift: Programs offer short-term standardized skill-building experiences that award certificates to help learners signal their qualifications to potential employers. Often, Shift program models are designed as boot-camps that incorporate classroom instruction with hands-on activities. Employers should research Shift providers carefully, as some providers run their programs like assembly lines, accepting large cohorts of participants with a variety of proficiency levels, charging high upfront fees, and setting inflexible schedules. Examples of high-quality providers are freeCodeCamp, CompTIA, Bitwise Industries, edX and many others.  
  • Accelerate: Programs accelerate on-the-job learning by working with employers to design internal training programs that help employees achieve competencies within their current jobs. Through technology-based training resources, providers give workers valuable job-specific experience. For example, tools such as virtual reality can simulate dangerous tasks not conducive to hands-on learning. Examples of high-quality providers are 180 Skills, Augmentir, Embodied Labs, and many others.
  • Recharge: Programs deliver ongoing learning opportunities to employees that help companies adapt to changes in technology, government policies, and the competitive landscape. Also, Recharge programs help learners develop skills that are demanded on the labor market. Examples of high-quality programs are Interplay Learning, Strivir, nextstep, and many others
  • Journey: Programs integrate offerings from other provider segments and combine them into full-service-on-the-job training experiences. Students often learn in apprenticeships or other types of work-based learning and are provided with earn-and-learn or long-term employment opportunities. Two models of Journey programs are: “employer as trainer” and “trainer as employer.” In the employer as trainer model, companies build workforce development into their core business operations by developing and retaining talent. In the trainer as employer model, “companies that provide clients with skilled workers for specialized projects recruit learners and then hire them after they complete their training. Examples of high-quality providers are onramp, i.c.stars, techtonic, and many others
  • Navigate: Tools offered in the navigate segment are designed to help learners and employers explore career pathways and their return on investment. For learners, these tools help them get information about the cost of programs, the earning potential and employment prospects they will have after completing a program, and the careers they might be embarking on. For employers, the search tools help them gather information about programs’ learning outcomes, curricula, and teaching methods, as well as the skills they can expect workers to have after completing a particular program. Examples of high-quality providers are Credential Engine, Forage, FutureFit AI, and many others

See the report’s Innovators to Watch section for a detailed overview of organizations highlighted by JFFLabs.

Innovative Payment Models
High tuition costs are a barrier for many people to postsecondary education. Two payment models noted by JFFLabs that can improve access for students to higher education are income share agreements and registered apprenticeships. 

An example of an effective iteration of an income share agreement is Social Finance’s career impact bond. Specifically, the bond allows investors to cover the upfront costs of training and supports and offers students free tuition and gainful job opportunities. Graduates who go on to find meaningful employment repay program costs at a fixed amount of their income. Graduates who are unable to find employment pay nothing.

An example of a high-quality apprenticeship providing learners with well-paying wages is the Industrial Manufacturing Technician Registered Apprenticeship. Entry-level production workers are paid an average of $18.50 per hour over 18 months and employers who have implemented the program earned a 148% return on investment. 

Providers Offering Wraparound Services
JFFLabs noted three programs offering innovative support services: 

  • Childcare: Bitwise Industries’s PodUp online childcare service facilitates network connections of nearby families to share childcare responsibilities. 
  • Peer and Coaching Support: Salesforce’s Climb Hire is a community support program that helps its participants build networks of peers, coaches, and mentors that they can tap for advice, support, and job leads.
  • Access to Technology: Career Karma’s Reskill America provides laptops to individuals who need them for training but cannot afford them. 

Employer Training Initiatives and Coalitions
Employers are becoming increasingly more involved in training and talent development. Major companies like Apple, Salesforce, IBM, and Oracle host online credentialing programs for workers to gain competency in the use of their products. In addition, other businesses are developing partnerships and coalitions to build in-house, branded training organizations or recruitment pipelines:

  • Access to Employment: The OneTen coalition, launched in 2020, consists of a group of executives from major companies and has committed to hire, promote, and train 1 million Black workers in the next decade by facilitating partnerships between employers and talent development organizations. 
  • Career Support for Frontline Workers: The SkillUp coalition offers frontline workers displaced from COVID-19 personalized career assessments, course enrollment, and information about job opportunities at SkillUp partner organizations. 
  • Training in Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics: The Prologis Community Workforce Initiative is committed to training 25,000 people to work in the fields of transportation, distribution and logistics by the end of 2025.
  • Large Scale Internal Programs: Major companies like Amazon are offering broad, in-house training programs to employees that teach foundational and transferable skills. The Amazon Technical Academy and Associate2Tech programs enable workers with no IT experience to qualify for technical job positions. 
  • Distribution of Training Modules: Some companies are making their internal training programs available to the public through third-party channels, such as the new LinkedIn Learning Training Hub, or via business-to-consumer networks like Microsoft Learn.

Technology Shifting Learning, Credentialing, and User Experience
Augmented and virtual reality technologies are increasingly being used by employers to offer immersive learning experiences to workers. For example, “Walmart has distributed millions of VR headsets to its stores for use in training programs.” The headsets are planned to teach employees customer service, compliance, and how to utilize new technologies. 

Blockchain, a digital peer-to-peer ledger system, “can give learners a way to maintain readily accessible records of the training programs they’ve completed and the credentials they’ve earned.” For employers, the technology can verify workers’ competencies and completed programs. 

 IBM’s Your Learning platform uses AI to make personalized recommendations to employees on courses and training programs they can enroll in. “The recommendations are based on analysis of data about users, including role specialization and learning preferences.” 

Mechanisms for Social Engagement
With online courses becoming more utilized, it is necessary to build virtual and physical communities that allow learners to engage with peers, support staff, and faculty. For example, NuCamp, an affordable coding bootcamp provider, transitioned from a face-to-face to a virtual support model during the pandemic that allowed students to receive direct support from instructors and work on group projects. For building in-person networks, COOP Careers, a peer mentoring program, “recruits first-generation college graduates from low-income backgrounds to participate in small groups called Peer Cohorts.” Through the program, the cohorts meet regularly and learn collaboratively to build digital and technology skills.