Digital Ladder

Building a digital ladder

Opinion: We must prioritize funding for new learning-by-doing workforce models

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union three decades ago, despite many missteps, America has retained its position as the world’s foremost power, principally due to its digital leadership and economic gains therefrom. Nearly all the most important digital milestones have taken place here and, not coincidentally, nearly all the biggest digital companies are here, making money off software and data. (China now has digital giants, but only one – Bytedance – spans beyond the Great Firewall.) And at least until recently, global talent flooded into our companies and colleges.

But two obvious risks are threatening the supremacy of America’s digital prowess: the looming potential of large-scale conflict with an authoritarian regime, and the ever-shakier ground on which American unity and stability rest. That second risk stems in no small part from economic inequities that can themselves be traced to the state of our digital economy. 

One reason rage and resentment have become so pervasive is that while nearly all Americans are consumers of digital technology, a sizable proportion are shut out from the production side. That means feeling shut out from the dynamic digital economy and meaningful economic advancement. It means many Americans don’t recognize the future because they don’t see themselves in it. It means too many have become as susceptible to grievance and lies as, say, Germans were in the 1920s and ‘30s in the wake of national humiliation and hyperinflation.

The best response to this state of affairs is to build a digital ladder so fewer Americans are left behind. Once good middle-class digital jobs are within reach of every American – or at least visible, with reasonable hope of attaining them – then we can hope that both the gaps between the haves and have-nots and the size of the extremist echo chamber will be on the way to getting much smaller.

How to build a digital ladder? It starts by rethinking our approach to education. Digital skills are often interpreted as coding. But coding is a small part of what’s missing. Digital transformation has progressed to the point that much of the necessary coding to make the economy whirl has already been done.

So, a digital ladder must equip job seekers with what can be best characterized as platform skills. These days, that includes everything from customer relationship management (Salesforce) to HR (Workday) to finance (NetSuite) to sales and marketing (Hubspot), as well as industry-specific platforms for hospitals (Epic), insurance (Applied Epic), home care (WellSky), construction (Procore) — the list goes on. 

Although these platforms require a good deal of functional or industry knowledge, they don’t take years to learn. As a result, they ought to be within reach of tens of millions of frustrated Americans in search of higher earnings. But mastery is unlikely to arrive in a classroom. These skills are much harder to learn in class than by doing them in practice.

Susan Wright, director of Talent for Good, a Salesforce apprenticeship program, explains: “In Salesforce, automations reduce clicks, make things more efficient, and improve data. But you can’t really teach automations in a classroom. To successfully build them, you must do the technical work of building the Flow, then test, document, and roll out to users.”

Unfortunately, while digital transformation has placed a huge premium on learning by doing, the structures for that sort of education are hard to come by in today’s higher education system. Few Ph.D programs involve much in the way of applied learning, so well-educated faculty members often don’t treat it with the same reverence as classroom learning (not to mention that the majority of academics have little experience as practitioners). Add that to the troubled relationship between colleges and employers, and it’s clear that many of America’s institutions of higher education are ill-equipped to provide access to the concrete, practical digital skills that so many of today’s jobs demand.

Building a digital ladder, then, means prioritizing new learning-by-doing models. And the best digital ladder is getting paid for learning-by-doing. In opposition to college’s “train and pray” model, this digital ladder is apprenticeship – a job where workers are hired first then paid while they train on the requisite platform skills.

Apprenticeship is the rarest of commodities in modern America: something we all agree on politically. In a recent survey, 92% of Americans had a favorable view, and the New York Times reports “the desire to expand apprenticeship reflects a rare area of bipartisan agreement.” Perhaps rational Republicans recognize apprenticeship could help awaken the party from its fever dream. And apprenticeship is perfect politics for a Democratic party struggling to win back the support of working-class voters who now overwhelmingly view it as the party of a liberal, college-educated elite.

But today, one reason America’s digital leadership is flagging is that there’s a huge disconnect between what we believe in and what we invest in. Funding for apprenticeship is a fraction of funding for “train and pray.” By my calculations, federal, state, and local governments continue to invest over $400 billion each year in the analog ladder known as college, while total spending on apprenticeship is under $400 million. Comparing a single apprentice to her college-attending friend, support received by the apprentice is about 2% of what we spend on the college student. 

If we hope to both maintain America’s place in the digital firmament and address the economic turmoil that has thrown our country into divisiveness and disarray, we need a digital ladder for our digital economy. So, it’s urgent that we foreground learning-by-doing and background classrooms, at least until we reach a more balanced approach to funding and status. The need couldn’t be more urgent, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Ryan Craig is the author of College Disrupted and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College. He is Managing Director at Achieve Partners, which is engineering the future of learning and earning.

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