Google Launches a MOOC to Train Entry-Level IT Support Staffers
Big tech companies like Google are facing heat for developing disruptive technologies that can make traditional jobs obsolete. But at the same time, the tech industry is growing fast, and is eager to recruit workers outside the sector to fill entry-level jobs that often go begging, a Google executive says.
Google is betting on online learning as an on-ramp to tech jobs for displaced workers and others with little exposure to information technology—even those who lack a college degree. In a collaboration with the big educational technology company Coursera, Google is launching a global MOOC (massive open online course) certificate program today to train people in the IT basics they need to understand to help other computer users overcome technical snags as they do their jobs. The plan is to connect the population of underemployed or underpaid Americans with companies of all types that need them in tech support roles.
Natalie Van Kleef Conley, who has worked intensively on training programs at Google, says 150,000 of these U.S. tech jobs—with a median salary of $52,000 a year—are going unfilled. It’s a job category that even Google finds difficult to fill, she says.
“The majority of IT support positions don’t require a four-year college degree,” Conley says. “What they do require is experience and exposure to hands-on troubleshooting work.”
The lack of opportunity for many people across America who lack a college degree amounts to “a public health crisis,” according to a recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The article profiles the rural town of Kennett, MO, where few people go to college. In the past they used to buy homes and support their families as farmers, factory workers, truck drivers, mechanics, and the like. But the local economy has spiraled downward, in part because factories closed or automated. Those left behind with few career options can literally die because of poor diets, lack of health insurance, substance abuse, lost hope, and suicide, The Chronicle of Higher Education found.
The tech industry, however, has opened the door to career advancement for people in distressed communities, through a growing number of online degree programs as well as training courses geared toward specific jobs.
Before Google took the leap and created its certificate program through Coursera, Conley had been working since 2014 on Google training programs designed to help low-income young adults get a toehold in the information technology industry by learning the fundamentals of tech support.
Through its work with a relatively small number of learners who participated in Google internships or an IT residency program, the company discovered it could get them qualified very quickly, Conley says.
“We had great success with this program,” Conley says. “We could essentially teach them IT fundamentals in eight to twelve months.” Now Google is scaling up the educational program that Conley helped to design, and managed—so that it can serve as many as tens of thousands of people worldwide in online form.
Google’s IT Support certificate program offers students a series of six online courses that they can complete at their own pace as they juggle their family and work obligations. Students pay a subscription fee of $49 every month until they complete the sequence of courses, says Kevin Mills, Coursera’s head of corporate partnerships and business development. By working at it 10 hours a week, they could finish in eight to twelve months, at a total cost of $400 to $600, he says.
Many students who can demonstrate financial need, however, may pay nothing. Google has pledged to cover the cost for 10,000 U.S. learners in 2018, if they apply by February 20th, Conley says.
Some of those scholarships will go to the U.S. clients of non-profit organizations working with Google to make tech jobs accessible to disadvantaged groups, including Goodwill, Per Scholas, Year Up, Student Veterans of America, and Upwardly Global. In addition to covering the course fees for these clients, Google will provide wraparound services to these non-profits to help students succeed, Conley says. This could include live facilitators for the online courses.
There are no pre-requisites to qualify for the program, Conley says—not even prior use of a computer or smartphone. “We don’t assume anyone has had access to any kind of hardware,” she says.
What students need is the grit and determination to stick with a basic training curriculum that introduces them to a variety of operating systems, such as Linux, Windows, and Mac, and teaches them how to help other workers when an Internet connection fails, or another system goes down, or some other problem arises, Conley says. The courses were designed by Google experts in tech support.
Mills says the Google initiative is unprecedented in several ways for Coursera, where information technology dominates the list of the most popular courses it hosts on the platform. But many of those courses are for advanced students. Sequences of IT courses are offered on Coursera by both top-notch universities and by tech companies, in specializations such as machine learning and data analytics. But they usually take only about two or three months to complete, he says. And when tech companies offer courses on Coursera, they’re usually training people to work with their own computer programs or technology tools.
By contrast, Google’s comprehensive certificate program is aimed at shepherding mid-level learners—who may only have a high school diploma—directly into a specific job role, Mills says. The course training isn’t confined to understanding Google products, but also covers various operating systems that graduates may encounter at the companies that eventually employ them. This educational model addresses a very large market that Coursera hasn’t tapped much, he says.
“We see this as an area to explore further,” Mills says.
Google has committed to hiring some of the people who earn the IT Support Certificate through Coursera, though the tech giant hasn’t disclosed how many. Through the Coursera platform, graduates of the program can also apply for jobs with Google’s consortium of “hiring partners,” which so far include Bank of America, Walmart, Sprint, GE Digital, PNC Bank, Infosys, TEKSystems, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Google has also created a badge that can be displayed on graduates’ LinkedIn profiles to signify that they have earned the certificate.
The Google course sequence begins with a basic introduction to computer technology, followed by courses in computer networking; major operating systems; system administration and IT infrastructure services; automated infrastructure management; and IT security concepts. Certificates are awarded for the completion of each course, even if a student doesn’t finish the whole sequence.
From their own computers, online students will learn how to interact with operating systems such as Linux via virtual machines created by Qwiklabs, a Carlisle, MA startup that Google acquired in 2016. Qwiklabs had developed training courses that helped people learn how to use cloud infrastructures including Amazon Web Services (AWS), according to VentureBeat. Google is now deploying Qwiklabs to help its IT Support students carry out their lab assignments within the Google Cloud. Qwiklabs can also grade those assignments, Mills says. Coursera will assist with its own assessment tools to grade other student work.
All told, the learners will be expected to tackle 176 assignments—with 31 coding assignments—and 26 interactive labs. Google plans to use course mentors, motivational videos, and other means to support students and boost completion rates, Conley says.
Mills says he thinks Google chose to partner with Coursera because it can handle online education at a large scale. The Mountain View, CA edtech company not only can cope with 10,000 students, but could manage ten times that many, he says.
“Essentially, there’s no limit. Course mentors can be added as needed,” Mills says.
While Google hopes to meet some of its hiring needs from the pool of students who earn its IT support certificate, Conley says the more important goal is to bridge the digital divide for people who might otherwise be shut out of the tech economy.
Students in major U.S. cities may have an easier time taking advantage of the Google certificate program than applicants in rural areas such as Kennett, MO, where online access could be hampered by what Microsoft’s president Brad Smith calls the “rural broadband gap.” Smith named the lack of high-speed Internet access for 23.4 million Americans in rural counties one of the top 10 tech issues of 2018 in his recent Today in Technology report.
“It’s hard to believe the United States can rebuild a broader foundation for economic growth or any long-term political cohesion unless it can make technology and digital skills more accessible to rural communities,” Smith wrote.
For those who can pursue the Google IT support certificate, the opportunities are substantial, Conley says. The number of openings for IT support specialists is expected to grow by 10 percent in the period between 2016 and 2026, she says. And people who enter the tech industry in that role have significant opportunities to work their way up to higher positions in systems administration and other job classifications.
“There is really demand out there,” Conley says.
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