After high school, Mohameth Seck enrolled in college. But he dropped out in his sophomore year to spend time developing an app.
“I was taking classes that weren’t really interesting me,” said Seck, now 25, who wanted to work in tech. “I was, like, ‘I have to wait four years to get to that point I want to get to?’”
Seck instead learned to code in a one-year programming course run by a nonprofit, where he stuck around for an extra year to master more advanced skills. Many of his friends took the same shortcut to good jobs at companies including Sony and Lockheed Martin.
While he continues working on website projects, Seck is now teaching coding to high school students at a skills academy in Stamford.
It’s part of an accelerating movement of noncredit, short-term training programs, not just in technology but in many fields for which students are impatient for jobs and employers for workers who want to leapfrog their way to careers — and do it without necessarily spending the years and money it takes to earn a university degree.
These are among the ways “employers are creating the solutions they need in order to deal with their talent demands,” said Bridgette Gray, chief customer officer at Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit that encourages employers to hire more people without degrees.
College, Gray noted, may not be right for everyone. When her own son left college after a semester, she gave him the option of several workforce training programs. He chose the nonprofit Per Scholas, which offers tuition-free information technology training. Now, at 27, he’s making more than $90,000 a year.
The skills academy at which Seck teaches is run by Synchrony, a national financial services company headquartered in Stamford. It opened officially in April with a hearty endorsement from Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, who praised it as a way to meet employer needs.
High school students attend after school and in the summer to learn about web development, user experience and other in-demand topics under the mentorship and guidance of Synchrony employees and engineering majors from the University of Connecticut. They also practice skills in the hot fields of 3D printing and robotics.
“We really start from the beginning,” said Sophia Aguirre, who graduated from Westhill High School in June and has already learned enough coding to create a website for her father’s landscaping business. “We build those communication skills and confidence with people around us.”
In a darkened room in Synchrony’s sleek glass headquarters on a tree-lined street in Stamford, Seck is teaching roughly two dozen students to use databases. This week, they’re building basic apps and games using Firebase, a Google platform.
In some cases, the classes have already changed the students’ job plans.
“I had never in the beginning thought of coding,” said Nichole Samaniego, another Westhill graduate, who had previously considered going into biomedical engineering. At the academy, she’s designed a website for her mother, who runs a cleaning service. “After doing this program for almost five months now, I saw that I wanted to change my career.”
The program seeks to prepare students for whatever they choose to do after high school, whether that includes college or not. There’s advising for those who decide to go further in their educations. Samaniego, for example, plans to enter the University of Connecticut in the fall, though now with a focus on computer science and engineering.
But the academy also offers interview and application help for students who want to apply directly for jobs at some of the companies with offices in and around Stamford, including Charter Communications, Indeed.com, Conair, Gartner and Pitney Bowes.
The effort is just one example of the country’s blossoming love affair with non-degree skills training. Workforce development nonprofits are springing up everywhere, as are efforts from companies including IBM and Google to bypass slow-moving colleges and universities and create their own courses and credentials.
State and federal agencies are joining the trend.
Connecticut’s Office of Workforce Strategy, for example, is investing $70 million of its American Rescue Plan money to offer grants for short-term industry-recognized credential programs in fields including manufacturing, health care and IT to people who need, or want, to change jobs.
The agency would also like to see more companies get involved in training opportunities, as Synchrony has done, said Niall Dammando, the Office of Workforce Strategy’s chief of staff. It’s in the state’s self-interest to push for more training alternatives like these, he said.
“From a financial perspective, it’s really aligned with state goals for economic growth,” Dammando said. “When we’re seeing people who work in lower-skill, lower-wage jobs, that inherently is tied to lower taxpayer revenue that is generated to the state from those individuals, so we have real aligned incentives to get these people into higher-wage jobs.”
Interest in non-degree programs is way up since before the pandemic. Among adults who are considering further education, since 2019, the proportion who say they want non-degree training is up by 12% to 26% (depending on their existing level of education), while the proportion who say they’re interested in bachelor’s, associate, masters or doctoral degrees is down by 8% to 29%, according to a survey by the consulting firm Eduventures.
Experts say that faster-paced, less-expensive training programs are booming in part because the cost of college and the time it takes to earn degrees are weighing on potential students, especially at a time when businesses are desperate for workers.
Nearly one-third of teenagers now say they would prefer their postsecondary education to last two years or less, a survey by the ECMC Group, a nonprofit education corporation, found. More than half are open to something other than a four-year degree.
It once was common for employers to train workers on the job, said Brad Hershbein, senior economist and deputy director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. But when margins began to tighten toward the end of the millennium, employers began outsourcing that training role to colleges. Now some companies, motivated by a mix of corporate social responsibility and the need for talent, are edging toward a new model in which they create their own, or hire from other, training programs.
“We have lots of job opportunities in lots of areas, specifically in tech,” said Bobbi Davis, vice president for workforce transformation at Synchrony.
College and university enrollment has dropped by close to 8% since the start of the pandemic, or by 1.3 million students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That includes students older than the traditional 18- to 22-year-olds, many of whom are even more likely to prefer fast-paced training to longer-term certificate and degree programs.
The push over the last few decades to get everyone to go to college may have been flawed, many experts now say. Although college degrees pay off, on average, with lifetime earnings for a bachelor’s degree-holder about 84% higher than those for workers with just high school diplomas, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, not everyone can get into, afford or succeed in college.
“The current college model does not work for many students, especially if you look at the data around Black students or Latinx students or low-income or first-generation students,” said David Soo, chief of staff at Jobs for the Future, a national workforce and education nonprofit. “The current traditional model does not work for them relative to their other peers. So we need to find a better way to serve those students.”
Instead of telling young people that they need to go to college to succeed, a better message might be that people should take part in some education or training after high school, even if it’s not for a degree, Hershbein said.
Though a college degree is still necessary for many jobs, employers have, in the last year, been reducing their educational requirements, Hershbein said, although that trend began to plateau in May, with businesses likely anticipating a recession.
Getting more employers to decisively change their hiring practices may require a cultural shift, said Gray, at Opportunity@Work. The organization is working with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to remove degree requirements from thousands of state jobs there.
Experts caution that quality in noncredit training programs varies greatly, and students may not know how to compare them. Evaluating programs is likely to become more of a focus as states devote increasing amounts of money to this kind of workforce training.
There are other cautions, too, about the push for rapid training.
Gerald Chertavian, CEO of Year Up, a workforce training nonprofit, said it’s important that even short-term training efforts teach students how to succeed and behave in professional environments, as he said Year Up’s do.
Six years down the line, average earnings for participants in Year Up’s programs in business operations, IT, sales and other subjects are 30% higher than those of a control group, Year Up says, with an average starting salary for graduates of $44,000. Costs are covered by Year Up’s employer partners.
More programs need to have strong connections to employers who will hire their graduates, Chertavian added, and should prove that those graduates go on to good jobs.
The kinds of skills he stresses — communication, critical thinking, working in teams — “often aren’t taught in our community colleges,” which increasingly provide non-degree, short-term training, Chertavian said. They also “often aren’t taught in our for-profit bootcamps. And, frankly, many of those organizations aren’t held accountable for the gainful employment that their graduates achieve.”
Anthony Carnevale, executive director of the Georgetown Center, said a push for training is good, but it’s inaccurate to tell people they won’t benefit from a degree.
“Once you get a recession, there are going to be plenty of people wandering the streets looking for jobs,” Carnevale said. “The employer will choose the best one. That is, they’ll take the college degree over the training certificate or the high school degree, which is what they’ve been doing since the ’80s.”
Researchers at the Georgetown Center predict that by 2030 only 30% of jobs will be available to workers with just a high school education. Good jobs, those in which workers can earn a solid wage, will continue to go mostly to people who have bachelor’s degrees, Carnevale said.
The goal of short-term training shouldn’t be to divert students from college, said Lindsay Daugherty, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.
“We know that a four-year degree provides more than a short-term credential in terms of earnings gains,” Daugherty said. “If what’s happening is that individuals who would have otherwise earned a bachelor’s degree are detouring and stopping off with a short-term credential and not reenrolling, then I think that would be problematic.”
Her research has focused on short-term training credentials from public colleges, which have tried to tap into the demand for quicker training by offering short-term certificates themselves. A study in Ohio showed an earnings bump of about 16%, or $4,000, for students who received a certificate from a public institution. That’s less than the expected salary increase from a bachelor’s degree, but still significant for students who want to support themselves and their families.
“The best outcome is that people have choices,” Carnevale said. “And that we ensure that all the choices lead to a good job.”
This story about training programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.