Nary a month goes by without an announcement of some new effort to train displaced coal miners to code. The appeal of mixing coal and code is approaching the once dizzying heights of “green jobs.” After all, what better way to address Appalachia’s many challenges and leapfrog to the 21st century than by transforming tens of thousands of coal miners into coders? So policy makers and social entrepreneurs are parroting lines like “we’re not shipping coal out of here anymore; we’re shipping code.” At this point, there may be more such efforts in West Virginia and Kentucky than hardluck stories in Hillbilly Elegy.
Initiatives like these have progressed to the point that I’m half-expecting a new organization – call it “Code to Coal” – to announce the logical next step. Code to Coal would take the straightest, most direct path to reach miners where they are by setting up coding bootcamps in coalmines. The press release writes itself: “We’re bringing coding to the coalface because we want every last coal miner to have an opportunity to join the digital economy,” said founder Jane Socialentrepreneur. “Code to Coal training goes deeper because our work is too important to leave on the surface… Although it’s a heck of a thing trying to keep coal dust off the keyboards.”
This dirtiest of all coding bootcamps would join the crowded ranks of skills-based workforce initiatives launched in recent years. These new programs have emerged for good reason: because tens of millions of Americans have experienced economic alienation. Their skills are out-of-position relative to what employers are seeking for digital jobs and these displaced Americans have no clear pathway to rejoining the dynamic economy. Economic alienation begat social alienation, which begat political alienation, polarization, and all sorts of unprecedented extreme behavior.
The skills gap is at the root of much of what ails America. Fortunately, thousands of education and workforce entrepreneurs intend to do something about it. But as they launch these new programs and pathways to good jobs, they’d be wise to temper their enthusiasm to reach every last miner. Because while they might end up enrolling more miners, they won’t end with more miners in jobs, and they might end up setting the mine (and their expensive, dusty computers) ablaze.
A few years ago, with support from Senator Joe Manchin, “Mined Minds” launched in West Virginia saying “anyone can have a successful career in the technology industry.” The founder boasted that “every single one [of our students] finds a job” and Mined Minds received glowing national coverage. But when the New York Times investigated earlier this year, “out of the 10 or so people who made it to the final weeks of… [the] class in Beckley [WV], only one formally graduated. He is now delivering takeout.”
Last week Udacity’s new CEO announced 100,000 scholarships for Americans who may be delivering takeout. As he blogged, “returning to my hometown in West Virginia, I see first-hand the hardship caused when entire industries disappear and automation displaces workers. Many repetitive, well-paying manufacturing and coal jobs that used to employ entire communities are now automated or off-shored, leaving smart, hard-working people with very few options to make a living wage.” Udacity’s scholarship program has no prerequisites; the goal is to help as many low-income Americans as possible. But while understandable, this philanthropic impulse may ultimately prove counterproductive.
Recently, I was invited to present to the board of a nonprofit organization. There, I met a board member who connected me with a young social entrepreneur she was mentoring, a woman who had launched a new workforce program. Her focus: developing high-quality, in-demand skills-based curriculum. Her objective: providing this valuable training to candidates in greatest need of a leg up. Her question: how to scale her nascent, open enrollment efforts.
What I shared with her is that few successful workforce programs accept all comers. More typical is a WIOA-funded program recently profiled by the New Hampshire Union-Leader: 120 applicants, 27 accepted. Workforce veterans understand that scale and longevity is a function of employer acceptance of the talent output. In turn, talent output is a function of the training (yes), but also – critically – of talent input, which often precludes the warm, fuzzy embrace of open enrollment.
Another workforce program is Techtonic, the Colorado-based software development shop that was the first U.S. Department of Labor registered apprenticeship program for software (and a University Ventures portfolio company). Local workforce boards refer candidates who may be qualified for the Techtonic apprenticeship. According to founder and CEO Heather Terenzio, “the critical part is conveying to workforce boards and candidates that this isn’t a typical training program; it’s a job from day one. Our apprentices are hired and paid to learn. So they’re not taking any financial risk, and they’re guaranteed a job in software development. That makes us attractive to the most talented and motivated diverse candidates and we receive a lot of applications.”
New pathways like Techtonic prioritize employer acceptance and talent output, and arguably focus more time and energy on optimizing their value proposition to candidates to secure a large pool of applicants and implementing selection criteria than on perfecting curriculum. At this early stage of the workforce development revolution, the following equation seems to hold true:
Value Proposition to Candidates + Selectivity > Training
This means that while the natural tendency of skills gap-focused education and workforce professionals is to prioritize learning via curriculum development and training delivery, sourcing and selectivity actually play a bigger role in gaining market acceptance. As a result, John and Jane Socialentrepreneur should consider focusing more resources – at least at the outset – on business model, value proposition to candidates, and selection technology than on curriculum. It’s not the straightest, most direct route. In fact, it may seem like an unnecessarily long and winding road. But it’s the surest path from coal to code.
If you’re frowning, I get it. I’m advising reining in the philanthropic impulse that is the beating heart of our work. (Plus, business models and selection technology are less fun than learning.) But when it comes to closing the skills gap, an untethered philanthropic impulse leads to a future where it’s all and only about philanthropy, and where continued operation depends on the charitable impulses of donors (i.e., it doesn’t scale or last). The point of our efforts must be to establish new pathways to employment on a basis that is NOT charitable by demonstrating to employers that these new programs and pathways provide valuable, proven, and diverse new talent at a scale and frequency that is sufficiently reliable to adjust current hiring practices (not an easy thing for human resources to do).
By controlling our impulses now, we’ll build new pathways that work for employers and accelerate the workforce revolution. Then we can focus on how to use philanthropy and public dollars to reach the more needy and neediest (and on refining curriculum). Think of it like a workforce marshmallow test. The real reward won’t be immediate. But the results will be more durable and scalable. And in time, we’ll figure out how to reach the last miner, even if it requires training down in the mine.
Building new and better pathways to employment is about much more than education and training. But too often, social entrepreneurs focus primarily or solely on training and give little thought to establishing a deep and wide applicant pool + cohort selection. The critical importance of talent selection in scaling new pathways to employment shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s very familiar to those of us from higher education, for it’s what the preferred pathways to the good jobs of yesteryear – selective colleges and universities – have always done.