What’s the strategy behind the tech giant’s expanding portfolio of certificate programs and partnerships? Lisa Gevelber, founder of Grow with Google, on boosting prospects for workers with and without college degrees, coordinating with employers to address the skills gap, and enhancing post-secondary institutions’ career-launching capabilities.
Joe Fuller: Businesses are struggling to fill open positions, especially for workers with digital skills. There is nothing to suggest that the supply-demand imbalance will be remedied soon. Everything—from the acceleration of technological innovation to the shift to hybrid work—suggests that the demand for workers proficient in technology will remain buoyant. How can that demand be met? Skills providers, like post-secondary educational institutions, have found it hard to keep pace with technology. Upskilling can be a daunting prospect for incumbent workers, given cost and time commitments and uncertainty about the quality and market demand for any given credential.
Welcome to the Managing the Future of Work podcast from Harvard Business School. I’m your host, Harvard Business School Professor and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Joe Fuller. Today I’m pleased to welcome back to the podcast Lisa Gevelber, founder of Grow with Google, the company’s online Career Certificate program. Since the program’s launch in 2017, a quarter of a million people have earned certificates in areas such as IT support, data analytics, and project management. Google also connects graduates with almost 200 employers who recognize their certificates as valid qualifications for career-sustaining entry-level positions. We’ll talk about the skills gap, skills-based hiring, and efforts to redefine the role of post-secondary education in job training. We’ll also discuss how Google certificate holders fare in the job market, and we’ll talk about how Google’s work with leading four-year colleges makes industry-specific training available to general learners on an open-enrollment basis. Could this hybrid approach presage a trend? Welcome to the podcast, Lisa.
Lisa Gevelber: Well, thank you so much for having me back, Joe.
Fuller: We’re excited to have you back. You’re actually our first repeat guest; we’re excited about that. You’ve achieved that exalted status because it’s been a couple of years since you launched the Grow with Google program, and specifically the Google Career Certificates. We’d just really like to get an update how that’s all unfolded. Could you maybe deliver listeners who didn’t have the chance to listen in on our first episodes a little background on the program?
Gevelber: So the Google Career Certificate program is a really important part of our overall Grow with Google program, which we actually started in 2017. We created the Google Career Certificates to solve a really important societal problem, which is that right now great jobs are out of reach for most people. About 77 percent of all jobs in the United States that pay more than $35,000 a year say they require a college degree, but only about a third of Americans actually have a college degree. What that means is that about 80 million adult workers in our country are essentially locked out of good jobs. And in addition, that’s a huge issue for employers, as well. PwC’s Global CEO Survey shows that four out of five CEOs say that not being able to find people who have the skills they need is a giant inhibitor, maybe one of the largest inhibitors to companies’ abilities to grow. So we have this great mismatch between the skills people have and the skills employers are hiring for, and we have this artificial barrier.
Fuller: So you’ve had the certificates going now for several years. How have you performed with it? What are the numbers like? And what type of sense does that deliver you for the success of your initiative to try to create some career credentials other than university degrees that can help more people get on track for good jobs?
Gevelber: In the last year and a half alone, we have graduated a quarter million people with the Google Career Certificates. We now teach data analytics, user experience design, project management, IT support, and e-commerce and digital marketing. And in those five fields alone in the U.S., there’s about a million and a half open jobs. There is huge demand for graduates of the program.
Fuller: How does this training relate to internal upskilling or re-skilling programs at Google, your job requirements? And how do you make sure the curriculum is current? Because several of those are pretty dynamic fields, where we know that traditional skills providers—for example, community colleges—have a very tough time keeping up with practice.
Gevelber: Actually the very first Google Career Certificate, the IT support certificate, was actually built based on an internal program we had here at Google to better diversify our workforce and bring in some nontraditional talent. We had done a pilot, actually, with Year Up, and we had brought in a few dozen folks without college degrees and trained them to be IT support professionals here at Google. It had worked so well that we decided we wanted to open source it, essentially, and make that training program available for anyone who wanted to learn these skills and for any employer who was hoping to hire IT support professionals. And so that certificate was launched in 2018. We’ve updated a lot. So we want to make sure that the things we’re teaching are always consistent with what employers are hiring for. And so, from the very beginning, we actually created an employer consortium of companies who hire our graduates. But they do so much more than that, actually. They input into the curriculum from the beginning. All of the Google Career Certificates are built by Google experts who have decades or years of experience in the field. But once we write the curriculum, we immediately take it out to top employers who hire for those fields, and they help us make it better. As a matter of fact, one good example is on our data analytics certificate. We brought it to Deloitte, who hires a lot of data analysts. They allowed us to build their assessments right into the Google Career Certificate for data analytics so that they knew, if someone graduated with a data analytics certificate, that that person had demonstrated mastery to the extent that Deloitte was looking for. We have been doing that on every one of our certificates. So I think the really important part about the certificate program is, not only is it taught by the experts at Google, all the curriculum is vetted by employers, and employers join our hiring consortium and hire our graduates. We have our own job board for which any Career Certificate graduate is a potential candidate, because they’re qualified by definition, because every job in that job board, the Google Career Certificate is the right credential for.
Fuller: How many companies are you partnered with in terms of being prospective employers? And is it pretty much limited to other tech companies and tech-services companies, or is it broader than that?
Gevelber: We have almost 200 big, national employers who hire our graduates and they hire them everywhere. One of the most important things to us, when we chose the career fields we would teach for the certificates, was they had to be jobs that people could be hired for all over the country, so that people didn’t have to move to the coasts in order to get a job in these fields. And you see that, in fact. People are hiring data analysts, for example, all over the country and in all kinds of industries, right? Retailers need data analysts, public-sector institutions need data analysts just as much as a tech company could need a data analyst. The same is true for things like IT support, right? It’s not just tech companies that need IT support people. Educational institutions need IT support professionals. Businesses of all sizes, including small businesses, need IT support help.
Fuller: Everyone loves to keep score on programs with really traditional metrics. So how has this all turned out in terms of placement rates, in terms of income outcomes, in terms of uplift to increase diversity in these types of jobs?
Gevelber: Yeah, we track all of those things. I’m really excited to say that 55 percent of our graduates come from underrepresented groups, whether they’re Black, Latino, or Asian. About 40 percent of our graduates, when they start the program, come from the lowest-income tercile in our country. So they come from a place where they were making less than $30,000 a year, and they’re graduating into career fields that on average pay entry-level salaries of about $60,000 a year or more. So they’re getting a real uplift in their economic mobility. About 75 percent of our graduates say they got a significant career impact within six months of their graduation. And that could be a new job, but it could also be a promotion or a raise.
Fuller: Now, these are online delivered programs. I know a lot of people who are familiar with the Coursera’s of the world and the 2U’s of the world have found that a lot of the people relying on those media are already college graduates, and they’re seeking added credential to qualify for a new position or just learn something new. How do the demographics match up relative to people without degrees, your original target, versus those who are maybe trying to jump shift into different career or maybe have some college, no degree, if you have that data?
Gevelber: Our whole goal in starting this program was to create a more equitable and inclusive job market. We were really initially solving for people who don’t have college degrees—how could we make a high-quality industry-recognized credential that could serve as an alternative pathway. That said, we learned within the first year or so of our very first certificate that about 40 percent of people who were graduating with our certificate actually had degrees. When we dug in, what we found was people are rational, and they were quite smart in their approach to it. And if you look at Emsi Burning Glass data, it will tell you that, especially if you have a liberal arts or a humanities degree, if you complement that degree with a high-quality industry-recognized credential, you’ll become much more employable at significantly higher wages. And based on that information, we started kind of doubling down on our partnerships with higher ed.
Fuller: Of course, Emsi Burning Glass—now, new name Lightcast—but arguably the really definitive state-of-the-art provider of labor market data in the U.S. Historically, a lot of businesses have tried to augment training rather than align with educators and resources. And you had the creation of for-profit models like the 2U’s to do that. How about delivering this through academic partners? How have you approached that? Tell us more about the results and why you did it. How have you managed this whole ecosystem?
Gevelber: We have always worked with community colleges. Obviously, community colleges play such an important role in our country in terms of workforce development, and they’re also highly connected to employers. We’ve seen a lot of success with community colleges. Dallas College is a great example. As a matter of fact, there are 10 states now who have the Google Career Certificates in every one of their community colleges: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Fuller: When you say that they’re in a community college, what does that mean?
Gevelber: So anyone can take our certificates online on demand, because we really built them for working people. We know that time and flexibility are a luxury in our country and that working people don’t have a lot of control over their time. Twenty percent of Americans don’t even know their work schedule for the next week. They certainly can’t control it, so they can’t necessarily commit to being in a classroom at certain times. That said, other people want the support of a cohort-based learning environment and feel like they learn a little better when there’s an instructor present. And so, what most community colleges are doing is supplementing all of the online content that you could do on your own with an instructor to provide additional help. We also have been recommended by the American Council on Education—ACE—for college credit. All of our certificates carry ACE-recommended credits—anywhere from eight to 12 credits, depending on which certificate. We’re very excited that people can either stack them into an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.
Fuller: Well, that’s exciting, because so much of what’s called “career and technical education” [CTE] in community colleges is done separately from degree attainment. It doesn’t provide credit hours toward a degree attainment. Only a few are able to access things like Pell Grants and federal student loans to gain access to that CTE, which throws up lots of barriers to people who are on a career technical path and have a pretty clear line of sight to what they want to do, but the entire system is geared toward getting people in degree programs and financing them to complete them. What about four-year institutions? You’re partnering with some of them?
Gevelber: Yeah, we have great partnerships with four-year institutions. Some schools have built our content right into their curriculum, so you can take it as part of your broader degree study. Some schools, like ASU is an interesting example, have made it an on-ramp into the school. So if you complete one of our certificates—IT support and data analytics—at ASU, you not only earn 15 college credit hours, you get auto-admitted into the university, based on having completed the Google Career Certificate. Other schools provide credit for prior learning. Northeastern has been doing this for some time with the Google Career Certificates. So, for example, they will deliver you 12 credits from Northeastern for the IT support certificate.
Fuller: So that’s full credit toward degree completion at Northeastern University, here in Boston. It’s also at Arizona State University, ASU. You said it’s an admissions ... Is that into their computer science program or some kind of tech program, or just general admission to the university?
Gevelber: It’s admission to the university. And I believe ASU is 15 credits.
Fuller: So it’s a very, very substantial offset to degree requirements.
Gevelber: Yeah, it’s basically a semester, almost a semester worth of credits, depending on which certificate and which school. But we are really building on that, and we’re finding even more creative models. So one example, Rutgers University, provides the Google Career Certificates, made it available for all of their alumni to take for free with a belief, I think, that it helps people—whether they’re career switching or get qualified if they’re entering their career in life—get qualified for a profession in a more specialized way. And then I’m really excited about partnerships that we’re doing with higher-education institutions. We’re specifically partnered with Columbia University, the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, ASU, and Johns Hopkins. I’m super excited about this, because I think it shows the power of collaboration between public and private, and to your point, how do we work together to help people go from the world of education to the world of work, potentially. What we’ve done, actually, is created a set of companion certificates, where Google is teaching the basic certificate—so whether that’s data analytics or IT support—and then the university is building industry-specialization companion certificates on top. So one example, Google built a project management certificate, and Columbia’s School of Engineering built a construction management certificate on top. So they don’t need to teach all the basics of project management, since we’re already teaching that, but they can teach you how it applies to the industry of construction. Another example, we have a data analytics certificate. The University of Michigan built a companion certificate that is how to think about data analytics in the sphere of public policy. And so their Ford School of Public Policy, as well as their information school, built their certificate on top of ours. I think this is really, actually, revolutionary. The reason I say that is that never before could you, could anyone, learn from the experts at Google and world-class faculty in a very affordable and accessible way, no experience or application required.
Fuller: And often getting curriculum across departmental or school barriers in a university is, frankly, harder than going out and getting someone who’s got content. It’s also great to see what is obviously in the data analytics area—something that’s going to be integral to most good-paying jobs in the future—seeing it begin to find its way into programs that are more targeted on a career path and on an academic discipline. One of the things that we hear a lot about learners, and particularly learners without degrees, is the need for surround services; that we know that, for example, in several experiments, completion rates for associate’s degrees at community colleges were greatly enhanced if there were some additional services available to help with transportation and childcare and sometimes even small living stipends, because over half of community college students are so-called “working learners”—they’re holding down at least one job while studying. Has that figured into your program design or your work with these schools you’re partnered with?
Gevelber: Yeah, absolutely it has. We have been partnering with various workforce boards and nonprofits since the very beginning. We did something really special at the beginning of 2022. We took a step back. We have been supporting some of these kinds of surround supports, the things you were talking about—living stipends, transportation help, childcare, career placement help—through Google’s philanthropic arm—Google.org—for several years since we started the Google Career Certificate program. But what we realized, like so many others, is that it’s super hard to scale that philanthropic approach. By nature, you deliver out the money, and then it’s gone. And there’s only so much. It’s never enough, really, to meet the need. And so we actually pioneered a really new model this year. We created a $100 million Social Finance Fund, with the ambition that that fund will create $1 billion in wage gains from the people who receive the support. The $100 million goes toward exactly the kind of wraparound support that you were just talking about. We’ve brought in MDRC to do the gold-standard measurements on this fund. They’re going to be doing a randomized control trial on this fund over several years. The way the fund works, we put money into the Social Finance Fund. Social Finance distributes it out to appropriate nonprofits. The first recipients of the fund have been Merit America and Year Up. And then Merit America and Year Up have tremendously successful programs that help people using the Google Career Certificates learn everything they need to learn to get one of these high-paying jobs. And then, when someone gets a job, assuming they earn at least $40,000 a year or more, they actually pay back to Merit America or to Year Up the cost of those wraparound supports. And that then funds the next person. So the fund is built to sustain itself, so that each person who is successful pays back, so that the next person can get that support. I think that’s a really inspiring and revolutionary new model for philanthropy that makes it inherently more sustainable and scalable. We are really holding ourselves accountable for the wage-gain results.
Fuller: Well, I feel compelled to say that that Gerald Chertavian, Harvard Business School graduate, has been a guest on our podcast. Connor Diemand-Yauman and Rebecca Taber Staehelin have been guests on our podcast, as has Tracy Palandjian from Social Finance. How do you see this being a basis for further growth?
Gevelber: We hope that this helps inspire many others in the philanthropic world to think differently about how we fund things like workforce development, because there is such a great need that we need to have ways that are inherently more sustainable and scalable than some of the traditional models.
Fuller: Lisa, when you talk about your business partners, you’re talking about Deloitte, your neighborhood-garden-variety $60 billion professional services group, other tech giants. How did these skills extend into smaller enterprises, which often are so desperately in need of them but don’t have access to talent necessarily because of their geographic location or because they’re bidding against the Adobes of the world for the talent, or for that matter, the Googles of the world for the talent?
Gevelber: We work with lots of small businesses here at Google. We did a lot to help small businesses—whether the pandemic, including hundreds of millions of dollars of capital that we put in to help small businesses through partners like the Opportunity Finance Network, but also even with our technology and tools. What we learned from small businesses is that a third of American small businesses said they would not have survived the pandemic without being able to pivot to more digital tools. We know from our data that small businesses who have digital talent and skills within them acquire customers at about 20 times the rate, versus non-savvy businesses. And about half of small businesses say that they don’t have the skills in house they need. So one of the things we did is, we made all of our career certificates available to every business in our country for free. We said, any business in America can have up to 500 licenses of the Google Career Certificates, which is about $100,000 value in workforce training programs for every business in America, completely for free—the idea being that most small businesses not only don’t have the talent or skills they need right now, they usually don’t have extensive budgets for upskilling or re-skilling or tuition-reimbursement programs. And so through this Career Certificate program, I think we’re really going to help businesses of all sizes be able to upskill or re-skill their folks. And that’ll really help also ensure that the people in those communities all over our country have easy access to that re-skilling or training.
Fuller: One thing that educators, particularly, express a lot of concern about is the difference between what they call “transferable” skills and what many people describe as “proprietary” or “sovereign” skills, that a lot of companies put forward training, which is specific to their technology, their approach, their taxonomy, and isn’t really that fungible into other roles. Also that many community colleges complain that companies talk to them about training, but it’s always training that’s so hyper-specific to the company’s specific needs that the community college says, “I can’t make the investment in course development for something that’s just all about what you want and isn’t going to attract applicants or upskilling candidates from other companies in a similar space.” How have you controlled for that? Have you been asked about that? Are these programs that are giving people skills that enable them to be attractive to employers that aren’t really, for example, relying on Google marketing and other tools that are so integral to your offers?
Gevelber: Yeah, absolutely. In all of our career certificates at Google, we’re teaching you how to succeed in a particular career field. We’re not teaching you Google software. So if you’re going to be a data analyst, you need to know SQL and R, and that’s what we teach. Those aren’t Google products. If you’re going to be a user experience designer, you need to know Adobe and Figma. Those are also not Google products, but that’s what we teach. We also, even in our e-commerce certificate, we teach Canva and HubSpot, the standard tools of the trade, because the whole goal is to help people really achieve economic mobility. And in order to do that, we have to be teaching them a variety of tools, not necessarily our own tools. There are a lot of offerings out there that teach you a specific software. And that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re teaching you how to be successful in the career, which might involve a variety of software, including many, many that are not Google tools. But we also think it’s important to teach people not just the hard skills of a career, but transferrable skills that set them up for life. And so all of our certificates teach problem solving and critical thinking, how to synthesize information. Our project management certificate teaches the things you need to be successful as a project manager, which means not just Gantt charts and the ROAM analysis, but it also means influencing without authority. It means, how do you help form consensus? How do you create psychological safety? Our user experience design certificate teaches how do you have customer empathy when you’re doing designs, how do you avoid bias, how do you overcome imposter syndrome. Our data analytics certificate teaches ethics, and it teaches privacy. So all these things are things that are not necessarily just about doing a particular career, but those are transferrable skills that people can take with them no matter what career they do next.
Fuller: So, Lisa, you mentioned that the program offers placement support. One of the things we certainly found in our research here at Harvard is that that very often employers have fairly routinized, almost stylized way they approach candidates, which is not familiar to a lot of people, particularly if they’re apply for their first job or they’ve only had jobs in lower-skilled roles before. Are you providing navigational aids that augment, for example, the financing options and the ability to get college credit for these courses?
Gevelber: Yeah, we’re doing a few things there. So first, we’re helping people translate what they learn in the certificates. We do that in two ways. One, we provide industry-specific or field-specific resume templates. So we help people understand how do you create a resume for data analytics, or how do you create a resume for IT support. The other thing we do is we ensure that when you leave, you have an actual asset that you can bring with you to an interview to show your mastery. So if it’s the user experience design certificate, you get to create a portfolio as part of doing the certificate, and you take that portfolio with you to an interview. You’ve created a mobile web app, you’ve created a responsive website, and you’ve created a final UX design project. Now you have your own portfolio to bring with you. Similar for the project management certificate, you’ve created a project charter, you have Gantt charts, you have a ROAM analysis you bring with you. For data analytics, you have a full analysis that you’ve done, a full case study that you’ve done, start to finish, that you can take with you to an interview, an actual capstone that you can use to prove your mastery. And then the last thing is, interviewing is tricky, and it’s hard, and practice helps. And so we provide every Career Certificate graduate with a full year of big interview training—that’s like a $900 value—where they can practice over and over again to get better at the interviewing, which is, actually, its own skill. I think those things are all, I think, really useful in terms of people knowing how to translate and talk about what they learned, as well as having some assets to prove what they know how to do.
Fuller: Things like that are invaluable, both because it builds the confidence of the applicant, but it also gives that proof to the employer of someone’s competence, not just their completion of a program. We certainly think that competency-based learning with those types of proofs of comprehension and abilities is not only important substantively, but also it sure makes that those interviews go more easily, because people are talking about things they’ve done as opposed to what they aspire to do, and they’re immediately able to demonstrate both enthusiasm and aptitude, which is attractive to any employer. Well, Lisa Gevelber, founder of Grow with Google, thanks for the update on your Career Certificates and the program. And keep doing innovative things and we’ll have you back again.
Gevelber: Thanks. Thank you so much, Joe. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Fuller: We hope you enjoy the Managing the Future of Work podcast. If you haven’t already, please subscribe and rate the show wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more about the Managing the Future of Work Project at our website hbs.edu/managingthefutureofwork. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter.