How to train 2 million Americans for high-skilled jobs for free

According to recently released Labor Department data, job openings in the United States topped 7 million for the first time in history. Nursing and tech jobs remain, according to the report, among the most difficult for US employers to fill. Companies are, in turn, spending extravagantly to attract the relatively few Americans with in-demand skills.

Tech firms spend $30,000 to find a new developer. Finding a new nurse costs $82,000 on average. Employers, in aggregate, spend billions on advertising and recruiting firms that charge up to 30 percent of an employee’s salary to find people with the right technical skills.

Economists would classify the $200 billion job search-industrial complex as an economic dead-weight loss to the economy — one that, if fixed, has the potential to dramatically improve the nation’s productivity.  

But a growing number of firms are investing in a new and more benevolent corporate paradigm that will result in training millions of Americans for good first jobs, for free. Because as the costs of recruiting and churn continue to rise, it is actually becoming cheaper for employers to train a generation of Americans to fill these jobs. And the relationship between education and work is evolving to meet the needs of this changing training landscape.

So-called “coding bootcamps” have now trained more than 50,000 software developers at an average cost of just over $11,000. Next-generation staffing firms are not only placing, but training college grads within in-demand tech jobs at companies like Walmart and Capital One.

The advent of online and competency-based learning now allows institutions like Western Governors University to train a nurse for much less than $40,000: just a fraction of what it costs a hospital to retrain their replacement.

Employers often believe they can only hire workers that already have the skill set that they require — such as the ability to use a software package like Tableau, a common data visualization tool. But as the pace of technological change continues to increase, such workers will be harder to find. There are only so many Tableau developers. And the problem is going to get worse before it gets better, with the Trump administration working overtime to eliminate some 500,000 H-1B visa holders.

The idea of employer-provided training is, of course, not an entirely new concept. Up until the late 1990s, most large employers recruited entry-level talent and trained them throughout the course of their careers.  

Over time, though, those programs became too expensive and the percentage of workers receiving on-the-job training fell 42 percent between 1996 and 2008. But as the labor market tightens, employers are under increasing pressure to retain skilled workers — and as a result, investment in training has been on a steady rise, with both per-employee expenditures and number of learning hours reaching new highs in 2017.

As they work to integrate ongoing education and skills training more deeply into the employee experience, employers are, in turn, looking to a new generation of intermediaries who source qualified labor and then provide job-specific, last-mile training. These intermediaries recruit from within high schools, colleges and workforce boards, providing career-focused training in the most in-demand skills. They look to find those of the 40+ million underemployed Americans that have strong cognitive skills, but may lack the technical skills required for employment — in order to both solve employers’ costly retention problem and create new pathways to economic opportunity for job-seekers.

The future of work is here. If just a few major employers began to repurpose their $200 billion recruiting budget on purpose-training a new generation of American workers, we’d solve the future of work challenge.

Daniel Pianko is the managing director of University Ventures. His commentary has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch.