What do you really need to know? Would a sixth-grade education give you enough basic skills to enable you to use online tools to learn a trade or become a service worker or a knowledge worker? Would you need eighth-grade skills? Tenth-grade? Perhaps a four-year college degree?
How much education do you need to learn to create and configure a new Aurora Serverless DB cluster on AWS? One of our engineers just taught a high-school intern how to do it in a few hours. This particular intern is about 150 hours of training away from being in a position to earn about $90k annually. With what he has learned in the past 50 hours of training, this young man could earn enough during the rest of the summer to pay for his first year of college – which he may not actually need.
But if he doesn’t need to go to college, or even finish high-school, what kind of education does he need? We need to shift the conversation from education to training – and that is precisely what corporate America is starting to do.
The Skilled Labor Shortage and the Skills Gap
It is hard to find skilled knowledge workers. The unemployment rate is below 4%, and companies are struggling to find qualified employees. Retailers like Walmart and Target have begun raising pay to attract more qualified and skilled workers. But a pay raise alone won’t be enough to attract and retain new workers.
There are far more openings for relatively high-paying jobs than there are people in the workforce to fill them. But even if we could convince more people to enter the workforce or figure out how to update our immigration policies to adapt to the very clear trends in the job market, we would still have a significant skills gap because our current system of education simply cannot produce enough scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. And, depending upon the specific job, graduates are often ill-prepared for the workforce (and I’m being kind).
Counterintuitively, there is also a shortage of non-digital workers such as home health care aides, restaurant workers, construction tradespeople, and hotel and hospitality staff. Not surprisingly, America’s corporations are stepping up to solve the problem. After all, they are the organizations that will most benefit from a better trained workforce.
A New Kind of Training for a New Kind of Workforce
Amazon just announced that it would spend upwards of $700 million training and upskilling about 100,000 workers by 2025. While Amazon has offered employee training and continuous professional education for quite some time, its vice president of workforce development, Ardine Williams, said the company is investing more into employee training programs to make Amazon an even more attractive employer for current associates and people looking for a job.
This is awesome for a couple of reasons. First, these new and enhanced training programs demonstrate that Amazon knows many of its workers are operating on 18-month to 3-year timelines. If Amazon is just a stepping stone to someone’s next job, the best way to attract and retain workers is to help them learn enough to get their next job while they add value for Amazon’s shareholders.
Second, these programs highlight Amazon’s strategy to empower people who work for Amazon as part of their compensation packages. You’ll make slightly higher than market wages while working at Amazon, but the real value will be in the training you receive while you are there. Brilliant!
Amazon estimates a cost of roughly $7,000 per worker. This is a big number. According to the Association for Talent Development, the average organization spends about $1,296 per employee annually on training. Big employers (with 10,000 or more workers) tend to spend less – much less.
Amazon said the programs will help its employees “access training to move into highly skilled technical and non-technical roles across the company’s corporate offices, tech hubs, fulfillment centers, retail stores, and transportation network, or pursue career paths outside of Amazon.” Amazon employees, including some former university professors, will teach the classes. Here’s what they are planning:
- Amazon Technical Academy: Equips nontechnical workers with software and engineering skills.
- Associate2Tech: Trains fulfillment center workers to move into technical roles.
- Machine Learning University: Offers employees with tech backgrounds the opportunity to access machine learning skills.
- Amazon Career Choice: A prepaid tuition program that pays 95% of fulfillment center employees’ tuition and fees for certificates and degrees in high-demand fields, including ones Amazon doesn’t employ (such as nursing).
- Amazon Apprenticeship: Offers paid intensive classroom training and on-the-job apprenticeships with Amazon.
- AWS Training and Certification: Offers employees with courses to build AWS Cloud knowledge.
Corporations Doing What Academia Cannot
Many professions require a postgraduate degree. I don’t want my doctor or my lawyer or my accountant or the molecular biologist designing my designer drugs to have learned their craft from YouTube. But there are also many professions where the best education you can get is on-the-job training inside an organization that is dedicated to best practices continuing professional education.
K-12 may no longer be required. Perhaps it’s K-8 or K-10. And maybe we need to be teaching our children how to identify specific problems, use best practices search techniques to get the information they need, and to critically think about solutions as opposed to teaching “to the test.” We can (and should) debate the requirements of baseline skills and how education should evolve for the 4th Industrial Revolution. That said, one thing is very clear. Training has an important role to play in the creation of a productive 21st-century workforce. Kudos to Jeff Bezos and his team for taking the lead.