The future of non-degree certificates

The future of non-degree certificates

Q&A with the founder of Grow with Google

Prolonged economic uncertainty and high levels of unemployment are pushing many working adults to consider technical training to upskill and secure reliable, in-demand jobs. For adults considering returning to school to earn a degree and respond to the growing demand for technology skills, earning a certificate through Grow with Google—the company’s initiative to create economic opportunity for all through free tools and training—presents an enticing alternative or complement to higher education.

Lisa Gevelber, the founder of Grow with Google and Google's Chief Marketing Officer of the Americas region, recently sat down with EAB's Chief Partner Officer Sally Amoruso and a team of EAB experts to dispel the myth that the program presents a threat to higher ed. Instead, says Gevelber, Google is working with community colleges and universities, as well as CTE high schools, on what could become a “game changer” for job seekers.

(Note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity by Emily Arnim)

SA: Can you share a bit about the provenance of this work? Clearly this is a mission-focused, non-revenue generating effort on Google’s part.

LG: When we started this journey in 2017, the economy was doing relatively well, but unemployment for 16-24 year olds was at a 7 year high. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that only one-third of Americans had four-year college degrees. Since degrees are often listed as requirements in job postings for high-growth career fields, the implication was that good jobs could be out of reach for ~ 2/3 of Americans.

We recognized this broader workforce challenge in Google’s struggle to find qualified candidates for our internal IT Support department. At the time, there were 150k open IT Support jobs in the US (now it’s 215k) and not nearly enough qualified candidates to fill them.  Through a pilot with the nonprofit Year Up, we proved we could make candidates job-ready for entry level IT Support roles without a college degree. Once we had seen the success in our own organization, we wanted to make our job training program widely available. We developed the Google IT Support Professional Certificate to create pathways to in-demand, high-paying jobs for non-traditional talent. The certificate can be completed in 3-6 months part-time and creates an onramp to entry-level jobs with a median annual wage of $56k. We’re really proud that many of our graduates come from underrepresented groups in tech: 60% identify as Black, Latino, female, or veteran.

In July, we announced three new Google Career Certificates: Data  Analytics, Project Management, and User Experience (UX) Design, all of which are high-growth, in-demand fields, with entry level incomes of at least $50K, and open jobs throughout the country. The certificates do not require a degree to complete.

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of Grow with Google graduates come from underrepresented groups: minority, women, and veterans

SA: Talk about social mobility.

LG: We’re very encouraged by the results we are seeing on economic mobility. 45% of our learners come from the lowest income tertiles, reporting an annual income of $30k or less, and upon completion move into roles with significant wage gain and benefits.  80% of completers reported a positive career impact within six months, including finding a new job, getting a raise, a promotion or starting a new business. There are many  graduate success stories, including Yves Cooper, a former truck driver who is now working in an IT role at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C, and Chelsea Rucker, a single mother with no degree who was hired in an IT role at Google’s  Tennessee data center.

SA: How did you actually make the online offerings conducive and accessible for the needs of low-income and underrepresented minority participants?

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Community Colleges and several non-profits are Grow with Google partners

LG: Our programs are offered 100% online, on-demand on the Coursera learning platform. We know that many learners have full-time jobs and are parents who want to complete the certificate on their own time. We also partner with several nonprofits and over 100 community colleges that provide wraparound support like 1:1 career coaching.

Through Google.org’s workforce development grantees like Jobs for the Future, Inc. (JFF), Merit America, NPower and Per Scholas, more than 20K people from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds have taken the IT Cert with wraparound support to prepare them for jobs in the digital economy. These partners reach populations that want instructor-led or cohort-based environments. We're also expanding to 100 career and technical high schools within the next year.

Beyond making the certificates available, we understand that we need to keep learners motivated throughout the challenge.  These certificates are intentionally rigorous because our goal is to make participants truly job ready. For instance, to complete the IT Support Certificate, you have to pass 150 assessments. Most people fail at least some of the assessments on their first try, which can be demotivating. So we help them refresh their knowledge of the content they missed and encourage them to try again.

SA: It's interesting when you say that you make it tough so that participants are ready to be successful because the quality of your graduates, if you will, is what is going to allow those employers to continue to hire.

LG: That's right. We designed the program to be a pathway to jobs both inside and outside of Google. The program’s Hiring Consortium includes over 50 national companies who are committed to considering graduates for related roles, including Best Buy, Walmart, Bank of America, Intel, the Cleveland Clinic, and of course, Google. We’re hiring program graduates, and we’ve been thrilled to see national and regional consortium employers hire them, as well.

SA: How did you engage employers? It's a huge differentiator that these degrees are recognized as having value and that your graduates are recognized as being work ready.

LG: We built these certificates from the ground up in partnership with employers. First, we did a job task analysis using Googlers who work in these fields, we also analyzed open job reqs and spoke with employers about the skills they are looking for.  We reverse-engineered the content based on the skills people need to know, and built the syllabi and curriculum around those skills. The certificate content is written, designed, produced, and delivered by Google employees who have spent decades in these fields.  And tested with subject matter experts - people that hire for these types of jobs and know the material - both at Google and in our hiring consortium to ensure that what we’re teaching would truly prepare you for an entry-level position.

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Madeleine Rhyneer: If people are smart, they're terrified by what you're doing. What kind of feedback do you get? Because I'm thinking this is a game changer for traditional, residential higher ed.

We know from our work at EAB that many of the people who didn’t go to college this fall are low-income students from underrepresented minority groups and often most impacted by COVID. This is exactly the population that this kind of program will help. So what would you say to a university president or chancellor who feels threatened?

LG:  Pre-COVID, only about one-third of Americans were getting four-year college degrees. And COVID is likely reducing that number.  And we know that people without college degrees are more affected by economic downturns. During economic downturns, underrepresented groups and people who don’t have a four-year degree experience the most employment loss. The crisis has accelerated the need for alternate routes to reskill and create pathways to jobs.

We have no interest in disrupting higher ed; that is not our goal. Our goal is to provide an additional pathway into high paying, high growth jobs for people without degrees. We think higher ed institutions have a key role to play, and have an established partnership with over 100 community colleges.

"We have no interest in disrupting higher ed; that is not our goal. Our goal is to provide and additional pathway into high paying, high growth jobs for people without degrees." - Lisa Gevelber

SA: It sounds like you have a complimentary, or collaborative relationship with community colleges, rather than a competitive one. A lot of institutions across higher ed have been trying to introduce certificates, with pretty sporadic success. I'm wondering whether you see this as an on-ramp for degree attainment, which is how many community colleges see it. They're using certificates to lead into degree programs.

LG: We are focused on providing people with options. And the IT Support certificate provides 12 ACE credits so that learners can easily stack the certificate with additional education. We’re trying to solve for helping drive economic mobility, and that people will choose the channel that works best for them.

SA: So you're focused on getting these people upwardly mobile, agnostic of the ultimate degree or certificate. Do the students get the opportunity to interact with any other people in the program? Is community building and networking available?

LG: Yes. Many completers come through programs that provide instructor-led or wraparound support, either through a non-profit, community college, or CTE high school. There are also online community forums built into the platform where students help each other out when they get stuck and our subject matter experts answer questions.  We actually get a lot of feedback by looking at communications between students.

SA: How do you source your candidates for the certificate program? I'm sure you probably have been inundated with applications, but do you put the word out in any systematic way to identify candidates?

LG: There is no application process, anyone can sign up. One-third of the workforce believes education or training would be necessary to find a comparable job if they lose theirs. And of those who believe they need more education or training, 54% said online programs are their most popular choice for education providers. We have incredible partnerships with libraries, non-profits, and community college networks throughout the U.S. that help us get the word out.

SA: Obviously through these certificates, you're teaching hard skills, but have you thought any about the softer skills?

LG: Yes, we built applicable soft skills into the curriculum, such as customer service techniques in IT support. When students finish the certificate, we also provide access to free interview training and offer job specific resume templates, so completers learn how to showcase their new skill set in the market. We’re trying to build that bridge, from skills training to jobseeker tools to jobs.

SA: How do you define success? Five years from now, what will success look like?

LG: At Google, our goal is to ensure the opportunities created by technology are truly available to everyone. That means helping all the folks out there who are looking for economic mobility - the chance to create a better life for themselves and their families. We believe that economic opportunity is all about jobs - good jobs and we want to help create onramps into those jobs.  Their success is our success.

"We believe economic oportunity is all about jobs - good jobs and we want to help create onramps into those jobs. Their success is our success." - Lisa Gevelber

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