Details from Amazon on its expanded free college program, including four national university partners and its collaboration with Outlier. Also, SmartResume’s take on learner records, the evolution of tech degrees, and the federal push for skills-based hiring and apprenticeships.

Next Phase for Career Choice

Amazon is working directly with colleges on its growing free college program for front-line workers—a lot of colleges, fittingly.

The company announced today that it has partnered with more than 140 colleges and universities through Career Choice, the education benefit it recently expanded and now offers for free to its 750,000 hourly U.S. employees.

Amazon will not work with an intermediary to administer the program. It circulated an RFP and has picked dozens of new college options for participating employees. The company also tapped four nonprofit universities with large online footprints as national partners. They are Southern New Hampshire University, Colorado State University Global, Western Governors University, and National University.

“We’ve selected the partners deliberately, so that we can innovate together,” says Tammy Thieman, global program lead of Amazon’s Career Choice.

She pointed to the wide range of credentials and scheduling flexibility offered by the four universities—such as National’s four-week courses, which are available online and in person. Thieman says the company’s goal is to “make it as easy as possible for folks to go to school.” It is offering courses at 110 Career Choice classrooms located in Amazon fulfillment centers in 37 states.

The 140 institutional partners include both community colleges and four-year universities, with fully covered academic programs ranging from certificates and certifications to associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees.

The deepening investment in Career Choice is part of Amazon’s broader pledge to spend $1.2B on its nine free education and skills training programs for employees by the end of 2025. The company wants to upskill more than 300,000 of its U.S. workers to help them land good jobs in high-growth fields—within Amazon or elsewhere—as the retail giant and many other employers increasingly automate jobs.

At the same time, Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing subsidiary, is spending big to offer free cloud training to 29M people globally.

With Career Choice, Amazon is focusing on fields that offer both career growth and salaries that typically are higher than the $18-per-hour average starting wage the company pays its employees.

A health-care company official told me workers from nearby Amazon warehouses could get subsidized training to fill many entry-level openings in allied health. But medical assistants typically aren’t paid enough for the role to be an approved Career Choice credential path. The dilemma is further evidence of the severe, multifaceted societal challenges that are driving labor shortages in both allied health and early childhood education.

Thieman says Amazon is using labor market data to shape Career Choice offerings at the local level, and that the company will adjust them to keep up with the shifting economy. The goal, she says, is to help employees understand their options so they can be good consumers of education.

“We do that work for them on the front end,” says Thieman. “The program is designed around career success.”

Thieman says Amazon went with the large network of partners in part because its workers value local college brands—as do most prospective college students, and their next employers.

College Preparation, for Credit: In addition to adding college partners, Amazon has expanded Career Choice to include high school completion and English language proficiency training.

The company also is covering all tuition for students to enroll in college credit–bearing online courses from Outlier. Created in 2018, the platform features 12 courses and plans to add six more this year. Aaron Rasmussen, Outlier’s founder and CEO, is the co-founder of MasterClass, which offers online classes with high-end production and big-name instructors.

Students who complete Outlier courses earn credit from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown—not retroactively as prior-learning credit, but as course credits that will transfer to most colleges.

“They are actual Pitt credits on a Pitt transcript,” says Rasmussen.

Amazon also worked with Outlier to create an “on-ramp” or college pathway certificate worth 12 credits. The credential is based on four Outlier courses, which students can take in any order. They are required to take courses in college writing and math and can choose one liberal arts and one business course.

Rasmussen says the certificate is a no-cost, low-risk way for Amazon employees to explore college while earning credits that will transfer. “It’s so important to build that confidence—that you can do college.”

Like MasterClass, Outlier draws heavily from the wealth of research on quality online courses. “Make it beautiful,” Rasmussen says, noting that the company conducted 200 interviews for a math instructor position.

Outlier features a cohort-based approach and a range of supports, both of which Rasmussen says are key to giving students the encouragement and help with time management they need to succeed.

The Kicker: “We spend the majority of cost of goods sold on wraparound supports,” says Rasmussen.

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The View From Washington

President Biden’s 2021 Joint Address, courtesy of the White House

Amazon’s Career Choice is focused on college degrees, or certificates and certifications that can be stacked toward a degree. However, many large companies in recent years have touted plans to drop degree requirements and to hire more workers based on their skills.

The hype around skills-based hiring announcements, which have been concentrated in big tech, has outpaced actual shifts by HR departments. A recent report from Emsi Burning Glass and the Project on Managing the Future of Work at Harvard Business School found mostly modest movement on the resetting of degree requirements, with the bulk of the change occurring in middle-skill positions and at outliers such as Accenture and IBM.

The Biden administration, however, continues to back the push for more skills-based hiring, building on a move by the previous White House to emphasize skills over degrees for some federal jobs.

During his State of the Union address this week, President Biden called for “giving workers a fair shot” by providing more job training and apprenticeships and asked employers “to hire them based on their skills, not degrees.” In a fact sheet, the White House said it is:

That follows on a $113M investment in registered apprenticeships announced last week by the U.S. Department of Labor. The Apprenticeship Building America Grant Program will provide funds for nonprofits, higher education institutions, and government agencies to modernize state apprenticeship systems and expand the range of industries they serve. Up to $50M is designated to support equity partnerships and pre-apprenticeships that expand access to more Americans.

“We want to make sure this is a more common pathway for people into employment—but also we want to do that in ways that support more equitable pathways into work overall,” Angela Hanks, acting assistant secretary for the Employment and Training Administration, told Work Shift in a recent interview.

The Labor Department has already invested $130M in modernizing apprenticeships and put up $500M for the Good Jobs Challenge, which calls for local governments, employers, and colleges to develop new skills-based training programs for in-demand jobs. The department received more than 500 applications from regional partnerships and plans to award 25 to 50 grants later this year.

The Kicker: In a further sign of federal interest in nondegree training, the National Center for Statistics proposed last week to start collecting data on noncredit college enrollments starting next year.

‘Certified Job Talent’

SmartResume from iDatafy is an upstart worth watching on comprehensive learner records. It’s among a growing group of projects that seek to give learners a way to display their education, skills, and accomplishments in a digital format—ideally one where credentials can be verified.

iDatafy takes on this sprawling challenge by starting with the résumé. Colleges and workforce certifiers register skills that are included on customized, blockchain-undergirded SmartResumes, which link back to those partners.

Employers typically pay a fee to connect with learners through SmartResume, which makes it both a résumé-issuing tool and an employer-to-job-talent-matching engine, says Ian Davidson, iDatafy’s chief growth officer. So far more than 60 employers have signed up to recruit from the platform’s thousands of résumés.

The company has focused on Arkansas as a laboratory. Its 20 higher education partners include the University of Arkansas System, the Arkansas State University System, the University of Central Arkansas, and Arkansas Tech University, which collectively produce about 75 percent of the state’s college graduates.

That level of scale in a relatively tight geographical area allows iDatafy to create a certified job talent marketplace, says Dave Wengel, the company’s founder and CEO:

“For the first time, these Arkansas institutions could now both attest to things on a student’s SmartResume that were missing from their diploma or transcript—such as leadership activities or demonstrated skills—and be easily discoverable by employers.”

This week, iDatafy and the National Student Clearinghouse announced a partnership. The nonprofit clearinghouse stores secure data on almost all U.S. college students. It also offers digital learner records with the FERPA-compliant Myhub platform. For example, the clearinghouse is part of the Indiana Achievement Wallet project.

Learners who use the Myhub digital wallet will be able to connect their credentials to SmartResume through the new partnership.

When employers get notifications about jobseekers on the platform, they see the learner’s various skills and achievements, but not the sort of personal details that can lead to hiring bias against people of color and other underserved groups.

Sharon Leu is an executive in residence at JFFLabs and a former official at the U.S. Department of Education. She’s worked on a landscape scan of learner records and says that SmartResume and the Dallas-based GreenLight Credentials both hit many of the necessary bases for a high-quality platform.

“We see this as the kind of marketplace that we’d like to see at scale,” Leu says of SmartResume, citing its focus on both employers and university partners. “This one connects better on the two sides.”

Open Tabs

Economic Mobility

WorkRise is seeking proposals for pilot projects that test interventions designed to improve the economic mobility of low-wage workers. The research-to-action network, which is hosted by the Urban Institute, will award up to $2.5M in grants for selected projects, which can feature either the public or private sector. It is prioritizing pilots that create alternative pathways into high-wage jobs, among other criteria.

Tech Diversity

JFF conducted an analysis of 200-plus start-ups, educational institutions, nonprofits, and other programs focused on developing Black talent in tech. With backing from Comcast NBCUniversal, the report identifies 14 trailblazing organizations with promising approaches to career exploration and training, including Onramp, a skills-based hiring platform focused on candidates from nontraditional backgrounds.

Job Placement

Braven Fellows outpace their peers in the job market, with 61 percent of the 680 fellows who graduated last year holding a job within six months. The nonprofit Braven, which helps underrepresented college students transition to strong first jobs, also reported a $56K mean annual salary for its recent graduates, with 74 percent working in roles that align with their long-term career interests.

Working Remotely

Remote jobs received an outsize interest from student users on Handshake, accounting for 17 percent of all job applications on the career connection platform last year but only 7 percent of the full-time jobs. Interest in remote work was not limited by an applicant’s major, Handshake said—more than 20 percent of applications from users majoring in communications, computer sciences, art and design, and health professions were for remote work.

As always, thanks for reading. Catch you next week. —@paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.