Small Successes

A broad local coalition seeks to make tech training pay off for working learners.

A free tech bootcamp from edX taps support from a funder, a community college partner, and wraparound services from nonprofit groups. The big lift for a small number of students could be a model to watch. Also, Miami Dade College and other two-year colleges offer career-focused language learning.

U.S. Space & Rocket Center, in Huntsville, Ala. Photo by Kae Anderson on Unsplash

Free Training With Community Support

Breaking into a tech field without a college degree is an uphill struggle. And even a bootcamp with a high-quality curriculum might not pay off for most lower-income working learners, at least without financial support, wraparound services, social capital assistance, and, ideally, a path to college credits.

A new partnership led by edX hits all these bases. The 2U-owned online platform has pulled together a broad coalition to offer free training in cybersecurity and data analytics to a small group of adult learners in Huntsville, Alabama, a metro area with a booming tech sector.

The bootcamp program taps funding from the Truist Foundation and a higher ed partner in Drake State Technical and Community College. A dozen local groups, including the United Way of Madison County, will help students with childcare, technology, transportation, and employer connections.

“There’s no one organization that can do this alone,” says Patricia Sims, president of Drake State, which is one of six historically Black community colleges in Alabama. She says the community-focused coalition is “supporting training that is relevant to the growth in our region.”

The project draws on edX’s experience with a similar experiment in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The two programs are the first push by the bootcamp provider into the community college sector and are part of a broader effort by edX to create affordable tech training for underserved working learners by connecting colleges with local workforce agencies and funding partners.

Building Confidence: The bootcamp market is opaque, says Angela Jackson, an expert on impact investing and workforce education. “It can be difficult for jobseekers and learners, especially those with the most barriers to employment, to separate the programs that yield tangible labor market outcomes from those that fall short, consuming valuable time,” she says.

By bringing together a wide range of stakeholders in Huntsville, she says edX is being strategic and offering a comprehensive program that serves the needs of students and employers.

“The involvement of Drake State and the United Way, reputable and deeply rooted community partners, adds a layer of credibility,” says Jackson.

The edX approach to partnerships is based on the collective impact model, says Mia Bartlett, 2U’s head of impact for the Americas. “Our partners translate the community’s need for us,” Bartlett says.

She says edX is in Huntsville for the long haul, with a multiyear investment. “We’re not interested in dropping into a market and dropping right out.”

Offering a Safety Net

Financial support from the Truist Foundation will cover the $10K student fee for the bootcamp in Huntsville, which seeks to help women, people of color, and lower-income residents break into tech roles. But free tuition isn’t always enough for lower-income working learners to complete a training program.

“We want to provide a safety net” and to remove the barriers students face, says Daniel Kasambira, president and CEO of the United Way of Madison County.

The local United Way chapter is playing a convening role for community groups to help students. For example, the local YMCA is pitching in with childcare, which Kasambira says is a big need. The United Way also is helping to ensure that bootcamp participants have laptops, and it is arranging transportation through its Ride United program.

Kasambira says the coalition features community-based groups that people around the city know and trust.

“When people see this, they know it’s legit,” he says.

The online training program is six months long and includes nine hours of instruction per week, office hours with instructors, and group projects. The place-based focus means participants are being prepared for local jobs, like technician roles with NASA. After completion, students who want to pursue an associate degree at Drake State will be able to earn prior-learning credit that they can stack into a degree program.

Citing Lightcast data, edX says the Huntsville area had more than 2K job postings for both data analysis and cybersecurity skills during the last six months. Jobs for the Future helped with the market scan and planning, Bartlett says, and will conduct a longitudinal study on the results for learners.

Sims says she’s optimistic that the bootcamp will equip students with the skills needed to land good jobs. “Employers are saying it’s not necessarily about the degree—it’s about people who are trained and who have experience.”

Companies can make sure that happens. As the project shakes out, Jackson says she would like to see an “explicit commitment from employers to onboard” the program’s graduates.

The Huntsville bootcamp sounds like a lot of work and coordination for an experiment with a modest enrollment goal—the program plans to kick off in November with 60 students, seeking to serve roughly 150 learners over the next three years.

Maybe that’s what is needed to get this hard work right, says Sims.

The Kicker: “It has to be a lot of small successes,” she says.

Sponsored By

Catalyze will award 25 grants of up to $250,000 in flexible funding for nonprofits and for-profits to pilot innovations that engage employers and connect students to career opportunities. Apply for funding before September 22, and join a community that is changing education and employment systems across the country!

Learning English for the Workplace

Last year I wrote about EnGen, a language-learning platform that offers online and career-aligned English instruction, with both industry-specific and general workplace inclusion courses. The company was intriguing to me in part because Amazon had selected it to be an education provider for the company’s Career Choice program.

EnGen has landed more big-ticket partners in recent months. For example, Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment has tapped the company to develop a statewide virtual program in career-aligned English as a second language. State agencies in Michigan and Maine also are working with EnGen.

Colorado has ambitious goals and is investing in outreach, says Katie Brown, EnGen’s founder and CEO. “The Colorado program is unique in that we can reach learners directly, who often hear about us via immigrant-serving organizations as well as employers,” she says.

Brown, who holds a Ph.D. in second-language acquisition, previously worked as an instructor in English as a second language at a community college. She’s a critic of the sector’s typical approach to ESL programs, which she compares to remedial education, saying most teach “English for academic purposes.”

In recent months, several community colleges have partnered with EnGen, including Dallas College, Austin Community College, and Miami Dade College. ACC is specifically interested in EnGen’s manufacturing, TOEFL prep, and Internationally Trained Professionals courses. For MDC, the company designed custom courses for English in AI, cloud computing, and cybersecurity—booming fields in Miami. The college is adding credentials, courses, and training to meet that demand.

“It would take a lot of time and expertise to develop this content from scratch,” Brown says. “We've enabled colleges to use our content to build these programs at scale.”

Malou Harrison, MDC’s executive vice president and provost, was trained in teaching English to speakers of other languages. She says EnGen’s “workforce-related learning” is a good fit with the language programs at a community college that serves a “mosaic of cultures, that comes with a mosaic of languages,” and where three-quarters of students hold at least one job.

MDC also is offering EnGen courses to its employees to help some of them level up their English proficiency.

“It’s really been a complement to the academic learning in the classroom,” says Harrison. “Our students have to work to be able to support themselves and their families. And to be able to work, they need to speak English.”

Open Tabs

Degree Requirements
The overall change in the hiring of workers without college degrees is far less dramatic than a 36% rise in job postings that don’t require at least a four-year degree, according to new data from LinkedIn. While some industries are following through on hiring candidates without degrees, the tech, information, and media industries have seen nondegree hires grow by just 3%, compared to a 240% growth rate in job postings without degree requirements.

Google Certs
Short-term certificate programs too often fall short of their promise, largely because students and employers lack ways of “distinguishing credible programs from scammy dreck,” Anne Kim writes in Washington Monthly. Kim “hacked” a Google Career Certificate (earning it in 2.5 weeks), writing that it failed to open any doors with employers. “The value of a certificate, even when backed by a behemoth like Google, remains iffy, if not downright suspect.”

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education will make Google Career Certificates available to students and the public, announced Josh Shapiro, the state’s Democratic governor. Undergraduates will be able to earn the certificates for credit while pursuing degrees, while the state universities can offer them to residents through noncredit courses and workshops. Completers can access Google’s employer consortium.

Childcare and Jobs
A childcare cliff is looming, with 3M kids projected to lose their slots as federal pandemic subsidies run dry in September. The “cascading crisis” could affect all sectors of the economy, Catherine Rampell writes in The Washington Post. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish is offering mothers free childcare at the same location where they can receive on-the-job training, reports Kimberly Singletary for

Credential Transparency
Colorado identifies and incentivizes stackable credentials using state funds, according to a new policy brief from the Education Commission of the States. The report, which is based on recommendations from a small group of experts, includes state-level examples to highlight data capacity, governance, and funding as key policy areas that states, systems, and practitioners can use to develop credential transparency.

AI and Economic Mobility
The GitLab Foundation and OpenAI will award $2M+ to nonprofits that are using AI to try to increase economic opportunity for workers and learners. The grants will support the exploration, development, testing, or use of AI-enabled tools to boost economic mobility. The two groups also will award up to two $100K social impact prize grants.

Job Moves
Strada Education Foundation announced three hires:

  • Katherine Valle-Palacios as senior vice president of public policy. Valle-Palacios currently works at the White House as special assistant to the president on education.

  • Mark Rigdon as senior vice president of state government relations. Rigdon is deputy director of state and local government relations at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

  • Travis Reindl as chief communications officer. Reindl is senior vice president for communications at Helios Education Foundation.

Jill Buban will be the chief growth officer for Arizona State University’s EdPlus, an enterprise unit focused on the design and scalable delivery of digital teaching and learning models. Buban leaves her role as vice president and general manager of EdAssist by Bright Horizons.

George Siemens is working with Southern New Hampshire University on a project to pursue a “coordinated and (I think) visionary response to the role of AI in education and learning.” Siemens has left his role as a professor of practice at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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