Online learning platform Udacity is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by offering free tech training to workers laid off as a result of the crisis.
On Thursday the Mountain View, California-based company revealed that in the wake of layoffs and furloughs by major U.S. corporations, including Marriott International, Hilton Hotels and GE Aviation, it will offer its courses — known as nanodegrees — for free to individuals in the U.S. who have been let go because of the coronavirus. The average price for an individual signing up for a nanodegree is about $400 a month, and the degrees take anywhere from four to six months to complete, according to the company.
The hope is that while individuals wait to go back to work, or in the event that the layoff is permanent, they can get training in fields that are driving so much of today's digital transformation. Udacity's courses include artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital marketing, product management, data analysis, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles, among others.
Gabe Dalporto, CEO of Udacity, said that over the past few weeks, as he and his senior leadership team heard projections of skyrocketing unemployment numbers as a result of COVID-19, he felt the need to act. "I think those reports were a giant wake-up call for everybody," he says. "This [virus] will create disruption across the board and in many industries, and we wanted to do our part to help."
Dalporto says Udacity is funding the scholarships completely and that displaced workers can apply for them at udacity.com/pledge-to-americas-workers beginning March 26. Udacity will take the first 50 eligible applicants from each company that applies, and within 48 hours individuals should be able to begin the coursework. Dalporto says the offer will be good for the first 20 companies that apply and that "after that we'll evaluate and figure out how many more scholarships we are going to fund."
The company also announced this week that any individual, regardless of whether they've been laid off, can enroll for free in any one of Udacity's 40 different nanodegree programs. Users will get the first month free when they enroll in a monthly subscription, but Dalporto pointed out that many students can complete a course in a month if they dedicate enough time to it.
Udacity's offerings at this time underscore the growing disconnect between the skills workers have and the talent that organizations need today — and in the years ahead. The company recently signed a deal with Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, to provide training in artificial intelligence. Shell says about 2,000 of its 82,000 employees have either expressed interest in the AI offerings or have been approached by their managers about taking the courses on everything from Python programming to training neural networks. Shell says the training is completely voluntary.
And as more workers lose their jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be even more crucial that they're able to reenter the job market armed with the skills companies are looking for. According to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs report, at least 54% of all employees will need reskilling and upskilling by 2022. Yet only 30% of employees at risk of job displacement because of technological change received any training over the past year.
"America is facing a massive shortage of workers with the right technical skills, and as employers, retraining your existing workforce to address that shortage is the most efficient, cost-effective way to fill those gaps in an organization," Dalporto says. "The great irony in the world right now is that at the same time that a lot of people are going to lose their jobs, there are areas in corporations where managers just can't hire enough people for jobs in data analytics, cloud computing and AI."
Dalporto, who grew up in West Virginia, says he sees this point vividly every time he revisits his hometown. "When I go back, I see so many businesses and companies boarded up and people laid off because they didn't keep pace with automation and people didn't upskill," he says. As a result, many of these workers wind up in minimum wage jobs and that "just creates a lot of pain for them and their families," he adds. What's happening now is only fueling that cycle—one that Dalporto says can be minimized with the right action.
"Laying people off is never an easy decision, but companies have to move the conversation beyond how many weeks of severance they're going to offer," he says. "We have to be asking how are we going to help them get the skills they need to be successful in their careers moving forward when this is all behind us."