The person who builds or programs your self-driving car may never step foot in a classroom for a higher degree, and some education and industry professionals are totally OK with that.
The tech labor shortage persists and the number of unfilled jobs in the U.S. has remained high. As of June 2021, job openings had increased to a high of 10.1 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With an increasing need for highly-skilled tech workers, organizations are utilizing ed-tech programs to reduce attrition and fill job openings faster. The old model of waiting for students to matriculate from specialized master's and Ph.D. programs has changed.
In Eightfold AI's March 2021 survey of over 200 manager-level employees, almost 50% said their top management goal for the year is to cross-train and upskill their employees, while almost 30% said their goal is to reduce turnover rates.
"Upskilling and reskilling is very critical. There aren't enough data scientists, there aren't enough people with those digital skills," said Kamal Ahluwalia, president of Eightfold AI. He told Protocol that the talent platform has partnered with companies spanning over 18 industries to help train employees for new roles using its own AI software. It partners with education technology companies to provide the necessary courses for workers to reskill.
One of the companies still helping to bridge that gap is Udacity. Many in the industry are familiar with its nano-degrees, ranging from cloud computing to programming. And while in the past an employee might have enrolled themselves individually and taken on the cost alone, Udacity has its share of corporate partners. Udacity founder and executive chairman Sebastian Thrun, who also founded Google's self-driving project, told Protocol that corporations are frequently picking up the tab for employees enrolled in a program. Udacity has partnered with Bertelsmann, AT&T and Google for additional scholarship opportunities. Without help from a corporation, a typical graduate might spend about $1,500, he said — a cost that could prompt some employees to move on to other companies that would be more willing to invest in their development and enable them to move into a new role.
"I firmly believe that the future of education has to be lifelong," Thrun told Protocol. "I really believe this very deeply. And I contrast this with the model that we have so far — you go to college, [and] once you get your degree you're done. The model is going to kind of fail going forward, because you can find really amazing engineers in their 40s that by nature could not have learned about self-driving cars in college."
Thrun told Protocol that the program's target remains reskilling and upskilling tech workers in the age bracket of 24 to 65. Though he makes it clear that Udacity is still not trying to replace traditional universities. He predicts that in 20 years the nano-degrees offered by Udacity will become a reputable degree in addition to those offered by academic institutions.
"I think we're never going to replace the Stanford degree," he told Protocol. "Our strategy has been to push this credential and say, 'This is something that is guaranteed by industry, it meets quality standards without conflicting with universities.' We're never trying to replace existing degrees."
Fusemachines Inc. also does not see itself as a competitor to traditional master's and Ph.D. programs, but rather a way to upskill employees to a point. The ed-tech company differs from Udacity in that its classes are more of a hybrid model, held partially online and on-site with instructors and TAs. It focuses primarily on AI courses for workers both in and outside of the U.S. The goal for its corporate partners is to stop the drain of talent, said Fusemachines founder and CEO Sameer Maskey.
Martial Hebert, dean of the School of Computer Science and a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, said he does not see the rising number of ed-tech companies as competitors. "There's room for many different ways of doing this,'' he told Protocol. "It's not that one is better than another. It serves different populations, with different goals."
He has seen firsthand the voracity with which companies in and outside of tech are looking for qualified tech workers. Currently, Hebert and his colleagues are thinking about how it can reformat its own master's for professionals so they can reach out to broader populations that don't have to be in residence. They are working on AI education offerings for upskilling and reskilling as well. Right now their classes range from machine learning to robotics. The challenge, he said, is maintaining a level of direct experience while also making programs more accessible to prospective students who may be less willing to leave their jobs to attend classes in person.
"All of this is very much a work in progress," said Hebert, who recognizes the accelerating demand for educating professionals. The old model for educating employees is no longer realistic for rapidly changing fields.