Empowered and UCLA Bring Career Retraining to the iPad

Many of us see a reason to lament when we hear that millions of Americans are unemployed while millions of US jobs go unfilled. Steve Poizner looks at the same facts and envisions a $100 billion market opportunity.

But then, most of us are not serial tech entrepreneurs like Poizner, who sold the second company he founded, SnapTrack, for a billion dollars.

Poizner is hoping his third startup company, Empowered Careers, will help create an online education industry worth more than $100 billion by offering baby boomers and other adults an easier way to retrain for 21st century jobs.

Empowered, based in Campbell, CA, has teamed up with UCLA Extension to re-package 10 of the university division’s professional certificate programs into mobile study courses that students can access solely through their iPads. The training sequences in job-related topics, such as Project Management, Human Resources, and Global Sustainability, are designed to help late-career adults quickly upgrade their skills so they can recover from a layoff or delay a retirement they can’t afford.

Poizner says the programs make sense for workers who can’t spend the time or money to get a BA or a master’s degree at a college campus.

“Traditional higher education doesn’t meet the needs of our target market,’’ he says. “We’re focusing on busy, frazzled adults who need ongoing education to close their skills gaps.’’

Empowered’s profit potential helped it raise $15 million from two VC firms, Granite Ventures and InterWest Partners. But the company arose as a public service project conceived by veteran film executive Sherry Lansing, whose non-profit foundation is a founding partner. Lansing recruited Poizner as CEO, a role that weaves together two long threads in his career. Poizner, the successful tech entrepreneur, also co-founded the non-profit organization EdVoice to improve California public schools. He served as the state’s insurance commissioner, and ran for governor in the 2010 GOP primary against former eBay head Meg Whitman.

In addition to attracting Poizner, Empowered’s public benefit mission also helped it gain a star-studded roster of volunteer spokespeople for its national TV ads, including Emmy winner James Gandolfini and Oscar winners Sally Field, Cuba Gooding Jr. (pictured above), and Geena Davis. All are clients of the huge Creative Artists Agency, which is a founding partner of Empowered.

“This is a fantastic public service, as well as a fantastic business opportunity,’’ Poizner says of the company, which started operations in 2011 and began serving students in UCLA Extension courses this fall.

Poizner’s estimate of a $100 billion market in online career retraining courses covers only the United States. He says that market could double if it also embraced international students, who make up a global potential customer base for high-quality US education.

Screenshot from Empowered Careers' iPad app for students

Assignment list from UCLA's "Water Rights and Sustainability" course on Empowered Careers' iPad app.

UCLA’s extension unit offers more than 130 professional certificate programs, spanning fields including business, engineering, public health and humanities. The division was an online education pioneer as far back as 15 years ago, says Dean Cathy Sandeen. Among its 50,000 students, 25 percent now do all their studies in online classes.

But those courses are presented on websites accessed only through desktop computers or laptops. Empowered adapted the classes for the iPad, so students can get a bit of coursework done wherever they are during their busy days. In addition to mobile access, Empowered provides all students a suite of career counseling services, from skills assessment through job search support—all elements that Sandeen said she had wished her UCLA unit could offer.

“It’s something I often thought about doing, but frankly, we didn’t have the risk capital to do it,’’ Sandeen says.

Empowered and UCLA Extension have a profit-sharing agreement for their joint offerings, under terms they don’t disclose. “We’re hoping to generate lots of profits to share,’’ Poizner says.

The venture also gives UCLA Extension a national and even international footprint, Sandeen says. The school can serve more students without constructing new buildings or making students drive to campus.

Poizner credits the iPad with breaking down geographic boundaries for his online education startup. The device is relatively inexpensive, and available anywhere. And its built-in video chat and messaging functions enable Empowered students to participate in class discussions as well as one-on-one meetings with their career counselors and instructors, he says.

Most of the class readings and lesson materials are available through the iPad app, though students may also need to spend $400 to $500 on books during a full one-year certificate program, Poizner says. Weekly assignments and tests are done on the iPad.

UCLA Extension retains full control of the academic content of the Empowered programs, but these can vary somewhat from the school’s traditional offerings on the same topics. Poizner says the courses are designed for students to complete within 12 months, usually by taking two courses per quarter. Empowered students sign up for a full certificate program, and pay for the sequence as a package. By contrast, UCLA Extension’s other students can take classes one by one, at their own pace, and pay tuition for each course as they go, Sandeen says.

Tuition is higher for the Empowered programs because they include extra services, Sandeen says. The program in Financial Planning costs $7,500 to 8,400, depending on the payment plan chosen. A similar certificate program already offered at UCLA Extension costs $4,750.

Empowered offered a discount rate of $5,940 for those who sign up before Dec. 1, when prices will rise to $7,500 or more. The company has scholarships and payment plans tailored for students at different income levels.

The company’s iPad app creates a “social learning environment” where students can form study groups, build a network for their future careers, and prepare for their job searches as soon as they begin classes. Students log in to Empowered’s iPad Learning Center, where they see class announcements and a calendar of upcoming weekly assignments and discussions. They can also click on a photo gallery of fellow students, teachers and counselors. A green circle below the photo means that person is also online and may be available for questions or idea-sharing. If a student hasn’t logged in for a while, a staffer will get in touch.

For its first certificate offerings through Empowered, the UCLA unit chose 10 career skills that dovetailed with national job growth projections, and that also aligned with the typical strengths of mid- to late-career adults: work experience, broad perspectives, and communication skills, Sandeen says. Among the most popular are the Patient Advocacy program and the Marketing and New Media sequencea. The other certificate programs include Health Care Management, College Counseling and Nonprofit Management.

Sandeen says the enrollment target for the inaugural quarter was around 200 students, and actual turnout was “very close.’’ Students from 37 states have signed up, Poizner says.

The private startup plans to adapt many more of UCLA Extension’s certificate programs for the iPad platform. New offerings may be announced as early as mid-January, the UCLA unit’s Associate Dean, Michelle Stiles, says.

Poizner says he expects Empowered’s student body to reach 1,000 members within a few years, and rise to multiples of 10,000 in the long term.

The joint enterprise can scale up according to a pattern already developed for UCLA Extension’s new Collaborative Online Program Department, Sandeen says. A traditional instructor designs each course in a certificate sequence. The school then hires enough “teaching instructors” to teach the students who have signed up each quarter. The maximum class size is 25 students for each instructor. The university can draw from a large pool of qualified part-time instructors to serve an expanding Empowered student body, Sandeen says.

“The beauty of it is that instructors don’t have to be based in LA,” she says.

Empowered may work with other universities in the future, Poizner says. But the company will not become a service business to help schools get online.

“Working with UCLA Extension is all we need right now,’’ Poizner says.

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