How online education could narrow the global skills gap – Fortune

By | July 20, 2015

It has been widely reported that U.S. employers have a hard time finding skilled talent to fill critical jobs. Rapid developments in digital technology, as well as innovations in science and engineering, have created a gap between need and availability of the skills required across these industries.

Though not limited to any specific age group, the issue particularly affects millennials, who collectively hold more college degrees than any previous generation. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisors’ October 2014 report, 47% of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 had received some form of post-secondary degree (associates, bachelor’s, or graduate). However, a recent global survey from Deloitte found that the overwhelming majority of respondents felt it was on-the-job skills—not what they had learned in college — that got them through their daily workload. The study concluded that there was a significant gap between the skills desired by workplaces and what those polled had actually possessed by graduation.

This gap may even widen in the coming years. The White House study also found that despite the lucrative nature of careers in the computer sciences, the share of millennials choosing computer and information science majors has steadily fallen over time. And, if millennials are considered to be the most computer savvy and connected generation to date, and not enough of them possess the necessary programming skills for today’s business needs, what does that say about Boomers and Gen Xers?


While the primary mission of our colleges and universities should remain focused on education, rather than skills training, many influencers in both higher education and the private sector have acknowledged the skills gap and are experimenting with new approaches—sometimes teaming up on initiatives to augment the college experience. Business leaders and educators alike are turning to new technologies, and skills-based assessment practices, to find and train the workforce needed today.

In the private sector, some companies—especially in technology-based industries—are moving toward hiring practices that place more emphasis on skills and aptitude. Robert Smith, founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, has been vocal about skills-based hiring. His firm relies heavily on an aptitude test for its hiring, as well as an assessment of emotional intelligence quotient and leadership abilities. The company has placed a roofer, a pizza franchise worker, and a retail shelf-stocker into high-level management positions. Vista Equity Partners even took a mailroom employee from one of its own portfolio companies and placed him into a quality assurance role.

Bridges are being developed to cross the chasm that separates a talented but skills-deficient workforce and the glut of lucrative, yet unfilled jobs. LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization that finds hardworking people who lack the traditional credentials to get a job has applied group-based online learning —for example, using HarvardX’s CS50x course on edX—to quickly prepare candidates for tech-related open positions with Fortune 500 companies.

With LaunchCode, immediate HR needs are addressed directly through intensive education, focusing on building skills for today. Previously, untapped workers can gain entry to fields that were once closed to them. Ninety percent of the people entering a LaunchCode program have no previous programming experience. In St. Louis, LaunchCode placed more than 140 people in paid apprenticeships in a little over a year. And, 90% of those were offered full-time employment with their company once their apprenticeships ended.

Although they are not online, skills-focused boot camps like those offered by General Assembly and Hack Reactor are also gaining in popularity. For approximately $15,000, these intensive training programs improve students’ chances for landing competitive, skills-based jobs. San Francisco’s Hack Reactor has publicly shared a 98% job placement rate within 90 days from completion of a 12-week web development program—at an average annual salary of $110,000. New models are also springing up that offer some measure of guarantee: the newly-founded Viking Code School, which offers a 14-week class completely online, does not require students to pay until they land a job with at least a $30,000 annual salary.

The skills gap is a real threat to productivity in the U.S. The education world and the professional world can address this issue by finding ways to work together with the help of online education, opening up more avenues to learners and employees alike based on skill and ability.

Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Neither Agarwal nor edX are investors of the companies mentioned in the article. Launch Code uses HarvardX’s CS50x course on edX.