In nearly 25 years in the education sector, I’ve seen a lot of crazy ideas. Online textbook rental by the hour didn’t exactly encourage close reading. There was the tinfoil hat that located and measured brain activity of top-performing employees (as prompted by various stimuli) so patterns could be mapped against brain activity of job applicants; candidates who matched (and who tolerated the tinfoil hat) would be ushered through to final interviews. And there were the ex-Googlers with no background in education who wanted teachers to double as software developers to provide every student with a completely individualized learning experience, starting with a San Francisco Software-as-a-School. Oh wait, that company ended up raising $176M.
Crazy isn’t the sole province of startups. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp famously dropped $1 billion on Amplify, a similar effort to convince teachers they’d be better off replacing themselves with technology. Disney has also tried to open schools. I’ll have seen it all when Disney finally opens High School Musical: The High School, which would probably enroll more students than High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: The High School. Either high school would put on a heck of a musical, although what on earth would they call it?
In education, the simplest solution is often the most successful. Two decades ago, online degree programs made it easier than ever for 40M Americans with some college credits but no degree to earn a valuable credential. A decade ago, online program managers began allowing traditional colleges and universities to compete for those students. In the last few years, tuition benefit programs have provided an additional retention tool to employers with large frontline workforces while holding out hope of, one day, providing career-relevant upskilling.
But none of these are a simple answer to the ultimate question of Education, Employment, and Everything: what product or service can really move the needle on socioeconomic mobility and rekindle the American Dream by providing direct pathways to good first jobs or better jobs for tens of millions of Americans? The answer requires quantum leaps in affordability, time to completion, and employability. But accredited postsecondary institutions aren’t jumping for different models, let alone leaping – they’re happy enough to get back to campus and avoid mask mandate blow-ups. So viable answers are more likely to look like apprenticeships where, in lieu of the current tuition-debt-classroom industrial complex, job seekers are first hired and provided with economic security: “hire first, train later” instead of “train first, then hope to get hired.”
While American apprentices have increased in number over the past generation, as a percentage of the workforce (0.3%) we’re below where we were after World War II and still only one-eighth the level of the UK, Canada, and Australia. (Germany and Switzerland are in a Meister Class: 10-15x better.) The reason is that we’ve done very little to expand apprenticeships beyond their cozy home in the construction and industrial trades.
Why has the U.S. done such a dismal job growing apprenticeships in financial services, energy, healthcare, transportation/logistics, and, of course, tech? There are four main reasons:
1. Government policy: failure to fund the related technical instruction component of apprenticeships;
2. Resistance from unions: dominant in construction and industrial trades and therefore in apprenticeship policy setting – including State Apprenticeship Agencies – and reluctant to agree to new initiatives that might reduce funding or influence;
3. Growing hiring friction: the bar for hiring inexperienced workers is high and getting higher (which explains 10M unfilled jobs), and workers don’t come less experienced than new apprentices;
4. But the biggest reason may be that most good jobs nowadays don’t mesh particularly well with the classic apprenticeship model.
Here's how a U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) is supposed to work:
This model works well in construction and industrial trades. From day one, apprentices accompany skilled workers on the job, observing, assisting, often holding tools. But over the past generation – and particularly over the past year and a half – employers in other sectors have transformed their internal systems, as well as their processes for interacting with customers, suppliers, and employees, from informal and manual to formal software-based processes available remotely. Most good jobs now involve managing some business function through software or software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms.
The rap on RAPs is that SaaS jobs aren’t as big on observing, assisting, and holding tools. Think about digital marketing (i.e., managing campaigns and spend via Google AdWords and Facebook Ads Manager). It’s pretty clear what the RTI would be for a digital marketing apprenticeship (i.e., learning these platforms). It’s not at all clear what the OJT would comprise. Looking over the shoulder of an experienced user is unproductive at best, and probably annoying and creepy.
When it comes to platform skills like Google AdWords, Epic (electronic health records), Workday (HR), Zendesk (customer service), ServiceNow (IT), Hubspot (marketing), Atlassian (product/project management), Xero (accounting), MuleSoft (application development), and Splunk (data analytics), new employees are either competent (at least with certain components/modules), or they’re lost. And they’re not going to find their way by looking over someone’s shoulder four days a week. So what we need is a next-generation apprenticeship model that moves RTI (for platform skills) ahead of OJT. And because that means more time before a new worker can actually work, it requires additional investment by the employer.
Fortunately, digital transformation of the workforce has already produced an answer: the most promising simple answer to the ultimate question of Education, Employment, and Everything. The model is Hire-Train-Deploy or HTD and it could revolutionize how most Americans start their careers or begin to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
The 800-pound gorilla among SaaS platforms is Salesforce, the operating system of American business. And because the Salesforce ecosystem is so well defined (unlike, say, software development, data analytics, or cybersecurity), it’s not only the poster child for America’s skills gap (if not poster child, perhaps milk carton with missing workers), it’s also a great way to understand the evolution of HTD.
While the Salesforce skills gap is massive and growing (300-400K open jobs in the U.S., another 9.3M globally in the next five years), colleges and universities are barely lifting a finger. Achieve searched course catalogs across all U.S. four-year colleges and universities and found only 15 offering courses including Salesforce. But don’t blame Salesforce. Four of the 15 colleges are HBCUs working with Salesforce via the HBCUforce program. Beyond HBCUforce, the company has demonstrated a willingness to work with any interested institution (e.g., helping Dallas College embed a Salesforce certificate into a project management course) and has done more than any other platform to develop and distribute relevant last-mile training (e.g., Trailhead and Pathfinder programs).
So like many labor market participants, Salesforce is no longer pinning its talent hopes on colleges and universities. This is partly due to classic higher education inattention, disinterest, and inertia. It’s also a result of hiring friction; few employers are interested in hiring candidates who’ve just completed a training program, even if they have a Trailhead certificate. They’re looking for relevant work experience.
Salesforce solutions firms like K2 and Bitwise – i.e., companies that configure and manage Salesforce implementations for clients – have tried to solve this problem by linking work experience to training. Both firms offer tuition-based online training, although Bitwise scholarships students who can’t pay. High performing students are invited to participate in an apprenticeship where they’re hired and then receive Salesforce training and work experience on client projects. According to Bitwise co-founder and CEO Jake Soberal, since launching its Salesforce track two years ago, Bitwise has hired over 400 apprentices, the majority of whom are underrepresented minorities.
This model (effectively, Train-Hire-Train-Deploy) is reflected in Salesforce’s partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring our Heroes program. In May 2020, Salesforce began providing free training and certifications to veterans and military spouses. Then, befitting its name, Hiring our Heroes hired heroes and arranged for relevant work experience via employer partners. Salesforce funded this Military Fellowship – including hero salaries – through a grant. According to Ann Weeby, Salesforce’s VP of Workforce Innovation and Head of Military, so far 120 veterans and milspouses – about half underrepresented minorities – have received fellowships. 92% have received job offers from employer partners. Salesforce’s first $1M grant produced $4.5M in annual salaries. Readers of this column will be gobsmacked to learn there appears to be no difference in outcomes between fellows with degrees and without.
K2, Bitwise, and Salesforce’s Military Fellowship are important milestones because they elimate all four impediments to apprenticeship expansion. They don’t rely on public funding or unions. They solve hiring friction by building work experience into a training program. And they move RTI ahead of OJT.
An even simpler version is Hire-Train-Deploy. Whether or not candidates are asked to pay tuition, asking them to spend dozens of hours training before being hired creates uncertainty and may discourage qualified candidates, or candidates who can’t forego income in order to train. Hire-Train-Deploy simply: (1) hires high potential talent without platform skills; (2) last-mile trains on platform skills; (3) delivers relevant work experience through deployments on client projects. Salesforce is building on the Military Fellowship’s success by partnering with K2 on a new Talent Alliance Fellowship where apprentices are hired upfront, then trained, then deployed on client projects.
The power of Hire-Train-Deploy has been evident in the rapid growth of Revature, which started with software development and has moved into Salesforce and other tech stacks.For several years now, Revature has been hiring, training, and deploying new Salesforce administrators and developers to clients, launching nearly 700 new Salesforce careers. And because Hire-Train-Deploy truly levels the playing field for talent, HTD cohorts are often majority underrepresented minorities. By leveraging HTD, Bitwise and Revature have changed more lives for the better than all but a handful of much better known nonprofits operating at the intersection of education and employment.
Salesforce is now welcoming Cloud for Good, a new Achieve portfolio company, to the HTD party. Cloud for Good provides Salesforce solutions to dozens of clients, primarily in the nonprofit and higher education sectors, and is launching Talent for Good, a new HTD pathway that provides an additional advantage: newly trained Salesforce professionals work on Cloud for Good project teams for as long as necessary until clients want to hire and mangage them directly. According to Cloud for Good CEO Tal Frankfurt, “what we’re trying to do with Talent for Good is eliminate friction for both job seekers and employers. Talent for Good apprentices are hired and paid a market salary and benefits, then trained on Salesforce and industry-specific skills, then deployed on client projects as part of Cloud for Good teams. From talking with them, I can tell you that Cloud for Good clients are pretty excited about the opportunity to access good new talent – particularly diverse new Salesforce talent – especially since they’ll be able to see their work before making a hiring decision.”
If you’d asked me about HTD five years ago, I’d have guessed you were talking about Howard the Duck. Unquestionably the worst film of my childhood and one of costliest box office flops of all time, Howard is an incredibly irritating animatronic duck from outer space who is accidentally beamed to Cleveland where he meets a girl, manages a rock band, and fights the Dark Overlord of the Universe. The film was universally panned for being dumb, hard to watch, and completely inappropriate given its PG rating. Roger Ebert said making the movie was “insane.” Mel Brooks may have been HTD’s only fan, promising “anybody who’s in Howard the Duck can be in [Spaceballs].”
If the old HTD was crazy, the new HTD – Hire-Train-Deploy – is anything but. Thanks to the HTD revolution, apprenticeships are on their way to becoming a standard point of entry to Salesforce and many other sectors, providing freer and clearer pathways to good jobs. Many of America’s next great education companies will be HTD, producing millions of next-generation apprentices and dwarfing the current Registered Apprenticeship Program unless the government provides companies with a good reason to register. Given its simplicity and scalability, HTD may be the least crazy education idea you’ll hear for some time.