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Addressing the Skills Gap: How to Get People Trained Now

Mason Jones is one of my heroes.

Growing up in rural Georgia, Mason didn’t do well in school – or, as he puts it, “I barely got out of high school”. His big plan after graduation was to go to work for the tractor trailer manufacturer on the assembly line where he would do intense, manual labor every day. After a year on the job, Mason had an epiphany. “I decided,” he says, “to work with my mind. And, I wasn’t even sure what that meant at the time, but I was willing to find out.”

Image Source | Getty Images

Mason would soon discover that his choices were limited: Go to work, go to the military, or go to school.

Tough choices, since most kids come out of high school with no idea what they want to do with their lives, and with very few opportunities to test the waters to find out.

So, Mason joined the Navy and over the next seven years, he acquired the technology skills he thought he would need to succeed in a growing IT market. After the military, Mason applied to my IT services company as a data storage consultant, but we told him that he still needed more training.

To his credit, Mason got the training and certifications he needed. A few months later, he came back to us and we hired him. He became a superstar consultant, rose to be a manager and ultimately a director of client services. He grew both professionally and personally and became a huge asset to our organization.

Eventually he outgrew us and started a company of his own. Now, he’s doing the kind of cerebral consulting work that he truly loves. And I’ve never been prouder of him.

Sure, Mason’s story has a happy ending. But it’s hard not to think of the millions of other ‘Masons’ out there who haven’t reached their full potential because the training and skills they need are out of reach.

The kind of certifications Mason got on his own now cost upwards of $50,000 – out of reach for most individuals and businesses. Plus, in a fast-paced technology world, the training one receives today will be obsolete in just a few years.

So, how do we make it easy and affordable for people to get the training they need now? And, how do we scale the solution so we can make huge progress now, not small steps over decades?

Thankfully, others are beginning to think about these issues and are doing something about it.

Ryan Carson, CEO at Treehouse gets it. As it says on their website, “Millions of people can't afford a quality technical education, or if they can, it's out of date immediately when they graduate. We aim to change that.” Treehouse uses eLearning, gaming and fun to teach people how to design and program websites. Students log in, watch videos, take tests and unlock badges representing skills obtained.

Carson says that this approach is counter to the computer science education he got years ago. Even with a degree in hand he says “I still didn’t know how to program”. Treehouse teaches programming skills that students can put to use immediately at a fraction of the time.

Chicago-based Code Academy, takes a different approach by putting students through a 10 week, onsite coding boot camp.

After graduating from Northwestern, CEO Neal Sales-Griffin says he had a life changing moment: “I realized that coding would be the future and that if people could learn to code they’d always have work and be able to solve big problems in the world.”

He began to read every coding book imaginable and take every tutorial on the subject of coding. After a year, he figured out that he had only scratched the surface. “I realized,” he says, “that it shouldn’t be this hard.”

So, he started his own company that would teach in 10 weeks what took him a year to learn. Already up to 100 graduates and plans for expansion are in the works.

Time to Reboot

Organizations like Treehouse and Code Academy are springing up across the globe. Their early success makes me believe that there is a Big Answer out there – but one that will challenge our notions about education and traditional training models.

Maybe, the whole system needs a complete reboot in order to adequately prepare a 21st century workforce. But this is more than filling jobs to me. This is about helping people get the skills they need to unleash their own potential.

Mason Jones did. He’s an example of what’s right about our country and he inspires me.

But there’s much more work to be done. This is a time for bold action. It’s a time to incorporate all of these ideas and more to build a bridge for all the ‘Masons’ of the world who have the drive and desire to cross over and change the world.

Steve Satterwhite, CEO of Entelligence IT, first wrote about the Skills Gap here on CNBCon Feb 2nd. Since then, the response has been overwhelming. He is passionate about starting the conversations needed to solve the skills gap in this country and putting people back to work now. His forthcoming book about the subject will publish in 2012. And if you want to join the discussion, email him at steves@entelligence.com or follow him on Twitter @ssatterwhite.