One of the hallmarks of our economic era is the “end of the career” — the idea that we latch on to a single occupation or industry and stay with it for decades. Whereas 40 percent of America’s baby boomers stayed with their employer for more than 20 years, today’s new workers can expect to have multiple employers during their careers and even more than one job at a time, putting a premium on regular skill updates. Google’s new Career Certificates program is an innovative approach for equipping those who lack the resources or desire to attend four-year institutions with the skills they need to succeed in tech careers.
Google Career Certificates are online courses with a flexible, six-to-eight month time horizon that students access through a monthly $49 fee. Currently, there are five credentials to choose from: IT Support, Data Analytics, Project Management, UX Design, and Android Development — all aligned to in-demand job classifications at Google and which the company says it will treat as equivalent to college degrees in its hiring practices. Other big companies like Intel and Infosys have indicated they will follow suit. Beyond Silicon Valley, companies like Deloitte and Hulu have also expressed interest in the program. These credentials are good options for mid-career workers as well as students who are either reconsidering a four-year degree or who are interested in experimenting with other educational approaches.
Such a development would represent an important step forward in the democratization of tech careers. Blacks, Latinos, and women are underrepresented in STEM education and careers. In 2016, Blacks made up 9 percent of science degree recipients and 3.9 percent of engineering degrees despite making up around 13 percent of the population. Hispanics had 13.5 percent and 10.4 percent respectively despite making up around 19 percent of the population. These low levels of representation are problems both for career opportunity and access and have shown up in embarrassing and, at times, offensive tech malfunctions.
The downside to these certificates is the problem of skill atrophy. The narrower the skill set and the more repetitive the task, the higher the risk of automation. For example, workers with higher-level capacities at IT system design are more professionally secure than those with just coding skills. Meanwhile, some non-technical skills like teamwork and communication routinely show up on lists of characteristics that are most highly sought after by employers. Our own survey of STEM workers published last year confirmed this: Entry-level workers valued higher-level mathematical ability while mid-career workers emphasized the importance of interpersonal skills. As workforce development professionals frequently say, hard skills get you hired but a lack of soft skills gets you fired. Workers need both types to build successful careers.
So two cheers for Google for opening up a new, alternative pathway to a fast-growing sector without the financial and time burden of a degree. It’s an important experiment, a helpful supplement to other education, and a trend worth watching closely.