Program Innovation

Can Amazon Upskill Higher Education? A Beta Test

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Amazon Prime Day came and went on July 15th, and by most accounts, it left smiling faces around the globe. But just a few days before this annual shop-a-thon, Amazon announced a gift of its own: a pledge to , about a third of its U.S. workforce, by 2025.

Higher education handwringing began almost immediately.

While some observers characterized Upskilling 2025 as “deeply threatening to community colleges and continuing education divisions,” others saw it as a potential “shot in the arm” for higher education.

What does Upskilling 2025 signal for higher ed?

Future-Proofing the Workplace

Corporations have trained their own employees for decades, often through union-backed schools such as Ford University, or more recently, the Learning Inspired by FedEx Program (LiFE) at the University of Memphis. Kaiser Permanente’s tuition-free medical school leverages industry expertise to offer professional medical education to any qualified applicant.

Upskilling 2025 has the potential to be different. Amazon is making a concerted effort to upskill, in its words, to “meet employees where they are,” whether they are part of Amazon Web Services or working at a fulfillment center.

In typical Amazon fashion, it’s offering a broad menu of training and apprenticeship opportunities alongside the expansion of its “Machine Learning University” (MLU). MLU leverages the significant software coding expertise of its own data scientists, and offers employees—and recently any developer—an alternative pathway for advancement in machine learning.

These upskill efforts suggest that Amazon believes it has the experience, talent, and vision to offer a new way to train and credential its employees, and perhaps others. Amazon’s MLU, for example, is now available to software developers outside of the company. Does this signal that Amazon will obviate the need for partnerships with accredited schools? Unlikely. Amazon’s “HQ2” effort in Northern Virginia will certainly involve established institutions throughout the region.  

Instead, perhaps Upskilling 2025 can be understood as an attempt to future-proof Amazonians for an increasingly automated workplace, whether within Amazon or in other settings. But while it’s likely that millennial workers will experience a more automated workplace than their parents, the details of automation remain complex.

Recent studies by McKinsey’s Global Institute reveal that automation will impact work inconsistently. Despite the efficiencies and improved performance of automation, data suggests that the displacement or “down-skilling” of workers will occur in some but not all industries. Office, food service, and transportation workers will be more vulnerable to displacement, while professions that depend on human interaction will be less vulnerable.

Given Amazon’s role in accelerating the arrival of an automated workplace, these forecasts bode well for Upskilling 2025. Amazon is betting that the required skillsets of workers will continue to rapidly change, and that Upskilling 2025 can deliver these requirements to a broader slice of the workforce. The question keeping higher education leaders up at night is whether Amazon’s $700,000,000 investment will resonate with the same adult learners they also want to recruit and enroll.

What Do Working Adults Really Want?

Amazon’s Upskilling 2025 is notable for its scale and broad offerings. Initially, it has the potential of expanding access to education and training for workers who may not have otherwise enrolled in traditional programs. Time will tell, however, whether Amazon’s ultimate goal is to anticipate its own need for upskilled workers or if Upskilling 2025 is a barely disguised beta-test for a publicly available Amazon University.

Whether this scenario is part of Amazon’s master plan, or not, a detailed assessment of the preferences and attitudes of working adults can shed some light on how adult learners make decisions regarding their educational future.

Based on data from our 2019 national survey of adults who want to continue their education, Eduventures’ newest Adult Prospect Survey™ reveals several relevant patterns:

  • When asked to identify their top reasons for returning to school, 59% seek higher earnings, 29% want to build foundations for their careers, and 24% hope to either switch careers or advance in the same fields. Other motivations include starting a business (17%) and deepening skills (16%).
  • Notably, only 10% identified “automation” as a concern and driver for them to return to school. While it’s entirely possible that these adult prospects underestimate the potential impact of automation, their primary reasons suggest that Upskilling 2025 would be welcomed as long as the programs lead to higher rates of pay, either at Amazon or elsewhere.
  • A subset of respondents indicated it would pursue a vocational or technical training program rather than a degree. While these learners also sought higher earnings and solid career foundations, they also expressed greater levels of concern over automation (Figure 1).

Can Amazon Upskill Higher Education?: Prospective Adult Learners Returning to School to Stay Ahead of Job AutomationFigure 1.

These patterns suggest that pragmatism and caution remain the key drivers for prospective adult learners. Given this, Upskilling 2025 represents an appealing set of opportunities, provided that there’s clear evidence that the training experiences would translate into higher earnings and career advancement.

Prime Time for Amazon U?

For schools, the fundamental question remains whether these learners will continue to see a college credential as an attainable and relevant goal. Alternatively, might they consider a credential solely provided by an increasingly ubiquitous online retail giant as, or more, viable? Is there a branch of Amazon University arriving on their doorstep soon?

While the signaling power of Amazon is strong, and perhaps unprecedented, there’s little evidence to suggest that an attempt to upskill 100,000 employees over six years represents a significant threat to higher education. Instead, Upskilling 2025 may be best understood as a calculated experiment, designed to assess whether Amazon’s success at transforming the retail world will yield valuable insights into training and education. It may prove to be the kind of “shot in the arm” that higher education institutions should pay closer attention to.

Thursday, September 19, 2019 at 2PM ET/1PM CT

Prospective students are the leading edge of your brand; the students you recruit today represent your brand tomorrow. This means that successful recruiting not only fills your class, it also contributes to grass roots brand-building for your institution. 

Using Eduventures national research on prospective Student Mindsets™ and institutional brand segments, Eduventures Principal Analyst Kim Reid will illuminate two foundational questions of brand positioning:

  • How can you use data to better understand what kinds of students are in your market?
  • How do they think about the institutions they are considering?

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