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From Workforce 2021 Guide

Stacking the Deck

Push for training drives innovative programs in higher education, creates opportunity for Americans.

Higher Education
Googleplex Campus in Seattle
Courtesy of Google


While older generations of Americans may have been able to find gainful employment with a high school education, that isn’t the case for today’s workers. As jobs become more reliant on technology and require higher-level skills, workers will need to find training programs that fit their lifestyles. Whether through college degrees, workforce certificates, industry certifications or other credentials, more students will need to enroll in programs beyond high school to keep up with employer demands.

According to the Lumina Foundation, 60% of Americans need to have a credential beyond high school by 2025 to maintain the country’s workforce. The Indianapolis-based independent, private foundation is on a mission to make learning opportunities beyond high school available to all. It’s 2019 “A Stronger Nation” report revealed that only about half of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 hold a credential beyond high school.

Since 2008, when Lumina began tracking its data, that figure has increased by 10 percentage points. Though attainment rates vary across the U.S., the data shows each state will need to improve in the coming years to maintain economic growth and opportunity. Fortunately, innovators in educators, industry and government are working together to bridge the gap between higher education and opportunity.

Stackable Degrees and Microcredentials

In recent years, stackable certifications and micro-credentials have become an innovative offering at higher education institutions across the country.

In January 2020, edX, a platform for education and learning founded by Harvard and MIT, announced the launch of its MicroBachelors™ Programs. Created in partnership with top universities and Fortune 1000 corporations, MicroBachelors programs deliver immediately transferable skills to meet employers’ real-world needs while providing a pathway to earning a complete Bachelor’s degree.

MicroBachelors programs are designed for adults without a college degree who believe they need additional education to advance their careers. Additionally, the rate at which technological change affects the global workforce means that adults need immediately transferable skills earned in months, not years.

“Technologies such as AI are increasingly changing the workforce, so the nature of education will have to evolve accordingly.”
— Guillermo Miranda, vice president and head of IBM Corporate Social Responsibility

MicroBachelors programs are priced between $500 and $1,500 (roughly $166 per credit) and can be completed entirely online, allowing working adults to complete the coursework on their schedule. The programs are independently valuable as academic institutions create rigorous content with input from industry leaders to deliver immediately transferable workplace skills. Also, since the programs are backed by credit, once earned, learners can elect to apply for credit from one of edX’s university credit partners toward a full Bachelor’s degree. MicroBachelors programs fit into edX’s vision to transform the delivery of education in a modular, stackable way.

“These programs are a significant step towards making a key academic milestone — the Bachelor’s degree — accessible and doing so in a way that positively impacts the members of our workforce most at risk to be displaced by automation and other changes in the workplace,” said edX Founder and CEO Anant Agarwal. “We are thrilled to be able to collaborate with our academic and industry partners to offer these programs that enable continuous, lifelong learning and promise immediately applicable skills and knowledge with a valuable credit-backed credential.”

The first MicroBachelors programs are IT Career Framework from Western Governors University (WGU), which is recognized for credit by WGU and Computer Science Fundamentals from New York University (NYU), which is pending recognition for credit by Thomas Edison State University (TESU). Additionally, Arizona State University will be offering Professional Writing, with more to come in the future.

Funding for the development of programs is supported by Boeing, Lumina Foundation, Truist Foundation, Walmart, Jeremy M. and Joyce E. Wertheimer Foundation and Yidan Prize Foundation.

Corporations like IBM see value in new kinds of programs such as these to meet workplace upskilling and employability needs.

“Technologies such as AI are increasingly changing the workforce, so the nature of education will have to evolve accordingly,” said Guillermo Miranda, vice president and head of IBM Corporate Social Responsibility. “To give people the right skills and credentials for in-demand positions, and to meet employees where they are, stakeholders now need to offer a spectrum of resources for online and in-person instruction, as well as immersive, experiential learning. MicroBachelors programs are innovative as they can play a valuable role in these offerings.”

Google Searches for an Alternative

In 2017, a Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program analysis took into account the shifting technological requirements of more than 500 occupations. It concluded that learning digital skills is a prerequisite for economic success.

The report, “Digitalization and the American workforce,” provided a detailed analysis of changes in the digital content of 545 occupations representing 90% of the workforce in all industries since 2001. While virtually all jobs’ digital requirements increased (the average digital score across all fields rose 57% from 2002 to 2016), occupations in the middle and lower end of the digital skill spectrum have increased most dramatically. Since 2010, nearly two-thirds of all new jobs created require either high-level or medium-level digital skills.


To help meet the company’s own hiring needs and expand opportunities for workers entering tech fields, tech giant Google has taken its digital certifications a step further.

In July 2020, Google announced a new suite of Google Career Certificates to help Americans earn qualifications in some of the country’s best-paying, high-growth careers ­ without requiring a college degree.

Three new Google Career Certificates are being offered in data analytics, project management and user experience (UX) design. The certificate programs are taught by Google employees working within the respective field on Coursera, Google’s virtual learning platform. At the cost of $49 a month, these programs are intended to be completed over six months.

In Google’s announcement of the program, Kent Walker, senior vice president of Global Affairs, wrote: “College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security. We need new, accessible job-training solutions — from enhanced vocational programs to online education — to help America recover and rebuild.

“Our Grow with Google initiative helps people get the skills they need to get a job or grow their business. Today we’re announcing a new suite of Google Career Certificates that will help Americans get qualifications in high-paying, high-growth job fields — no college degree required. We will fund 100,000 need-based scholarships, and at Google, we will consider our new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related entry-level roles. We’re also committing $10 million in job training grants for communities across America, working with partners like YWCA, NPower and JFF.”

Savannah King
Managing Editor of Custom Content

Savannah King

Savannah King is managing editor of custom content for Conway Inc. She is an award-winning journalist and previously wrote for The Times in Gainesville, Ga. She graduated from the University of West Florida with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and lives near Atlanta.


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