Global Work-based Learning Review: America

Part one of a series of articles looking at work-based learning across the globe.

We did some research into work-based learning across the globe, looking at best practice and innovation to help benchmark and inform Scotland’s strategy in this important and growing area. 

The first in our new series of articles looks at what’s happening in the US, as they try and tackle an extreme shortage of skilled workers.

Employers drive demand for 'new-collar' workers and 'microcredentials'.

Walmart, Boeing, 21st Century Fox, Microsoft and Zurich Insurance are among 11 major US employers who have launched the Rework America Business Network to accelerate the development and adoption of innovative hiring and training practices. The aim is to help US companies attract, develop and retain the talent they need, while giving more Americans an opportunity to thrive in the digital economy.

The network has been set up with the Rework America Task Force, created in 2017 to ‘rewire’ America’s labour market from one based largely on traditional credentials, such as degrees and work history, to a model based on in-demand skills – especially those valued in the digital economy.

”Boeing is the global leader in aerospace thanks to the hard work, passion and innovation of generations of American workers. Our future success—and that of our customers and supplier partners—depends on having a workforce equipped with 21st-century skills, particularly in the area of digital literacy,” said Heidi Capozzi, Boeing Senior Vice President of Human Resources and chair of the Rework America Business Network.

A national priority

 A raft of federal policies have been introduced to promote apprenticeships. In 2018, the US government launched, a new centralised website for apprenticeship information. It follows President Trump’s launch in 2017 of an Executive Order Expanding Apprenticeships in America. Before him, President Obama’s ApprenticeshipUSA programme brought unprecedented federal investment into apprenticeships and the largest growth in apprenticeships in nearly a decade.

For every $1 invested in apprenticeships, employers get $1.47 back in benefits, according to the US Department of Labor.

Companies launching their own apprenticeship schemes include tech giant Amazon, which has pledged to hire 25,000 veterans and spouses of military personnel by 2022 through its new Amazon Veteran Technical Apprenticeship (AVTA) program.

Using the strapline ‘No degree? No problem!’, IBM has also launched an apprenticeship programme to fill what are described as “new-collar” jobs.

“Many of today's most in-demand jobs require the right skills, but not always a traditional bachelor's degree,” IBM chairman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty told CNN. “We call these new-collar jobs, and they're well-paying careers in fast-growing fields.”



“US employers are struggling to fill a record 7 million jobs, while there are millions of Americans who might be able to fill these jobs if given the opportunity for training and development,”

Denis McDonough, chair, Rework America Task Force.


The skills crisis in America’s tech sector, which accounts for 10% of US GDP, is particularly acute, with 500,000 jobs unfilled, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CTA). In January 2019, the trade body, which represents the $377 billion U.S. consumer technology industry, launched the CTA Apprenticeship Coalition in partnership with IBM and a host of other employers committed to creating or expanding their own apprenticeship programmes, including Bosch, Canon, Ford, Toyota and Walmart.

Majoring on microcredentials

The need for work-ready skills and the growth of online learning is fuelling the growth of so-called ‘microcredentials’ – mini-qualifications that demonstrate skills, knowledge, and/or experience in a given subject area or capability.

Sean Gallagher, author of The Future of University Credentials and executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University in Boston, says: “The growing need for continuous learning is reflected in the explosion of new educational credential offerings in recent years – ranging from online degrees and coding bootcamps, to technology certificates, digital badges, nanodegrees and MicroMasters.”

Digital badges are a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality, or interest that can be earned in many learning environments. Technology certificates demonstrate professional competency in certain aspects of technology. Nanodegrees are vocationally-focused online certificates the can be completed in less than 12 months. And MicroMasters are online graduate-level courses delivered through universities to develop career skills and build on existing qualifications.


Experiential learning – where students work on real-world projects – is another key growth area and is offered by Northeastern University through its Experiential Network (XN).  “In just the last few years, nearly 10,000 students have completed projects for 2,000 active partners such as Pfizer, General Electric, Raytheon and Costco,” Gallagher says.

“Outside of our institution, start-up companies such as Parker Dewey and Riipen are creating platforms that connect students and universities to ‘micro-internships’ with employers. Other start-ups such as Practera – which has roots in the Australian university sector – are developing experiential learning software that provides faculty with the tools to integrate real-world employment into their courses.”

In a survey of 750 hiring leaders in the US, Northeastern’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy found that most – 64% – felt that the need for continuous lifelong learning will demand more credential attainment from job seekers and higher levels of education in the future.

Innovation in Action #1: MicroMasters

MicroMasters programs are a new category of Master’s-level online education, designed to bridge the knowledge gap between higher education and the workplace. They provide deep learning in a specific career field and are recognised by employers for their real job relevance.

MicroMasters were first pioneered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – ranked the world’s No. 1 university in the influential QS World University Rankings – and launched in 2016 by edX, a collaboration between MIT and Harvard University to provide university-level, career-relevant courses worldwide.

EdX has since launched more than 50 MicroMasters programs from 30 global institutions in subjects including artificial intelligence, sustainable energy, corporate innovation, Internet of Things and emerging automotive technologies. 

Elena Mazzolini, a senior veterinarian in northern Italy, took the Project Management MicroMasters program from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.


“I am a senior veterinarian working in public health,” Mazzolini explains. “As such, I have to manage many different types of projects – from typical research projects to less structured projects. You do learn these skills on the job and from your previous education, but the MicroMasters program allowed me to fill many gaps of knowledge and to contextualize experiences I had acquired myself. I feel more comfortable now when I start a project.”

Studying online has allowed her to choose from the best universities a wider offering of course subjects, Mazzolini adds.

“I did my MSc in epidemiology many years ago at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which was education of high value – but it was expensive and greatly impacted my family.”

Mazzolini believes that free online courses made available over the internet to very large numbers of people – known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) – will not replace traditional education, but provides more education pathways.

Innovation in Action #2: AirBnB Data University

To improve data literacy amongst its workers, Airbnb, the online holiday rentals giant, launched Data University. The aim is help staff understand the company’s various tools for collecting and analysing data, and how to work with data.

“Data University is data education for anyone at Airbnb that scales by role and team,” explains Jeff Feng, Airbnb’s Product Lead for Data. “Our vision is to empower every employee to make data informed decisions. Our approach is unique, since organisations offering data education typically focus just on their technical employees. Our approach is also intentional because we believe that every person at Airbnb should and can use data in his/her role to make better decisions. Thus, we designed the program to make it accessible and relevant to anyone at Airbnb.”


The curriculum consists of more than 30 classes covering a wide range of different topics. The ‘100-level’ series is a foundation level designed to be accessible to everyone. The ‘200-level’ series equips people with applied skills in database programming language, analysis and visualisation tools. The 300-level series is then targeted primarily towards engineers and data scientists.

“Creating ‘citizen data scientists’ is powerful — not only does it help ensure that decisions are grounded in data, but it enables people to make decisions autonomously,” Feng says. “This is important because the person asking the question always has the best context on the question they are trying to answer, and it reduces the feedback loop to answering questions. This also has the side benefit of freeing up some of the Data Science Team’s time.”

  Data University has been a huge success for the company far, with 500 participants taking at least one class in the first six months. “It has completely transformed Airbnb’s data culture, Feng says. “Ad hoc data requests that used to go to Data Scientists or Analysts are now often being self-serviced or addressed by other Data University graduates.”




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