New AWS skills initiative brings employers into the heart of college learning

The Skills to Jobs Tech Alliance aims to help colleges rework tech education by starting with the skills employers say they most need.

Amazon Web Services has launched a new coalition of Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and colleges who will work together to modernize tech programs and to better prepare students for entry-level careers in software engineering, cloud support, and data integration.

The new Skills to Jobs Tech Alliance is built around a principle that is rare in higher education outside of the trades: that education should be skills-based and built by starting with employer demand and working backward from there.

“In the past, we wouldn’t have had these conversations coming through the academic side,” Wendy Hensel, executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York, said at an event focused on the new initiative.

Almost 80 institutions have signed on—including CUNY, the City Colleges of Chicago, and Seattle Colleges—serving 380,000 students in the United States, Spain, and Egypt. About 50 major companies, including Accenture, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and T-Mobile, have also joined the alliance.

In the United States, the initiative is first being rolled out in Illinois, New York, and Washington. In each region, the AWS education team will serve as a kind of intermediary, bringing employers and colleges together to design skills maps for high-demand roles in software engineering, cloud support, and data integration. The colleges will then work to align their curriculum with those skills, with employers continuing to weigh in. 

Employers also will help design capstone projects or other work-based learning for courses, and many will be offering internships and apprenticeships through the alliance. The idea is to bring employer input and work experience into the core of the learning. 

“It’s got to be integrated,” says Kim Majerus, vice president for the global education and U.S. state and local government verticals at AWS. “It’s not going to make a difference if it’s tacked on.”

The new initiative grew out of the AWS education team’s experience with offering self-paced training in cloud skills and working with colleges to embed discrete training modules in courses. Both were designed to lead to AWS certifications and ultimately careers.

As that work has evolved, Majerus says, two things have come to the fore. The first, she says, is the question of whether they’re still preparing learners for the right jobs—a question their putting to employers through the alliance. And the second is that the focus should be more on developing skills and less on earning credentials.

“It’s not about the certification,” she says. “It’s about the skill.”

In an interview, Majerus didn’t put numbers to the results AWS is seeking. But she pointed to the company’s overall goal to help 29 million people worldwide train to work in the cloud by 2025.

On the ground: Several CUNY institutions, including the College of Staten Island and Queensborough Community College, are the furthest along in this work. The system was already working closely with the New York Jobs CEO Council, a coalition of 30 of the city’s largest employers, on redesigning some of its applied associate degrees. AWS tapped them both as partners for the work in New York this past April.

The college system has already worked with local employers to map the competencies required for their high-need tech roles, and it is now working with the academic departments at many of its two-year colleges. 

“We take that to the professors and say, ‘Where are the gaps and how can we work to fill them?’” Hensel said at the event.

The answer is turning out to be a combination of curriculum changes, as well as new work-based learning experiences outside of the classroom. The colleges are also designing some shorter non-degree programs that are aligned with the core skills they’ve identified with employers. And the employers in the tech alliance are expected to start offering new internship opportunities for CUNY students in the fall.

“There are a lot of ad hoc programs out there where you get a few students here and a few students there,” Hensel says. “That’s not what we’re doing here. We’re committed to a game changer.”

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