Sean Ludwig Editorial Director, Emerging Digital Platforms

Published

November 22, 2021

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Key takeaways

  • The workforce shortage crisis resulting from the lack of properly skilled workers is prompting a reshaping of the educational landscape.
  • To keep pace with digital transformation, tech companies like Amazon, IBM, and others are stepping in to upskill, reskill, and provide educational opportunities to both employees and non-employees..
  • Many businesses have adapted their hiring and advancement practices around skills-based training.

It’s graduation day, but the degree being bestowed isn’t from Harvard or Georgetown, a state university or a two-year community college. Instead, it’s a certificate from Machine Learning University, a flexible but rigorous training program in graduate-level artificial intelligence and machine learning coursework that’s created and taught by Amazon engineers.

Machine Learning University is just one of nine different digitally focused training programs Amazon offers to help upskill and reskill employees. In a bid to keep pace with the rapid acceleration of digital transformation, tech companies like Amazon, IBM, and others are stepping in to provide educational opportunities that have traditionally been the domain of four-year colleges and technical and vocational schools.

“As a nation, we simply aren't producing enough STEM graduates to meet the demand not only for those STEM-specific roles, but also for jobs that sit on the edge where you're requiring more and more technical fluency in HR, law, and finance, for example,” said Ardine Williams, vice president of workforce development at Amazon, during the recent Talent Forward Summit from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Ardine Williams, Vice President, Workforce Development, Amazon

The workforce shortage crisis resulting from the pandemic, coupled with the lack of properly skilled workers to fill open positions that existed before COVID-19, is prompting this reshaping of the educational landscape. Over the last two years, in fact, many businesses have adapted their hiring and advancement practices around skills-based training. Some have even taken it further, offering new technology skills training to non-employees as well. IBM, for example, recently announced a plan to provide 30 million people across the globe with new technology skills. Working with educational providers, governments, and other organizations in 30 countries, the company will attempt this ambitious goal by 2030.

Lydia Logan, vice president of global education and workforce development at IBM, said the idea that a worker must pursue either college or a technical skills program was fundamentally flawed. “It's not an either-or,” Logan said. “People don't learn either at a university or in some other setting. They're doing both these days. And when we talk about people acquiring the skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow — the STEM jobs that we often call new collar jobs at IBM — it's a lifelong learning play.”

Logan said the pandemic intensified the need for companies like IBM to take a more significant role in reskilling and upskilling people, even those who don’t work for IBM.

For its part, Amazon has committed to providing cloud computing training to 29 million people globally by 2025, and last month announced a plan to boost existing education and skills training benefits that it offers U.S. front-line employees. The expansion, enabled through its Career Choice program, represents a $1.2 billion investment through 2025. Hundreds of thousands of employees will be eligible for full college tuition and high school diplomas, GEDs, and English as a Second Language (ESL) proficiency certifications.

Williams said the expansion was fueled in part by Amazon’s belief that access to learning more skills is one of the key attributes of a “good job.” She says the opportunity to add skills to experience is critical “so that people can grow a career, whether that's with Amazon, which we hope it is, or elsewhere.”

Institutions of higher education still have an important role to play, of course, in bringing the skills of the nation’s collective workforce. “My personal belief is that collaboration between institutions of higher education and businesses large and small is what's going to enable us to scale the workforce that we need for the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow,” Williams said.

About the authors

Sean Ludwig

Editorial Director, Emerging Digital Platforms

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