With a $5 million investment to be divided between three target projects, Google and Walmart have put their heft behind an initiative to advance the workforce. This is the first time these two industry leaders have collaborated.
One of the projects, Opportunity@Work, hopes to expand its current system and serve the underserved with a hiring channel focused on skills. The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy is putting its grant money toward expanding the Inclusive Innovation Challenge to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship globally. And the Drucker Institute is working with the city of South Bend, Indiana, to design a system dedicated to continuous learning for every citizen.
“The philosophy here is that becoming a good learner is something that anyone can do and something that should be available to every member in the community,” said Santiago Garces, chief innovation officer for South Bend.
This “city of lifelong learning,” officially titled the South Bend Lifelong Learning System, is the first of its kind in the U.S.
The project aims to serve all of the city’s residents, with a focus on ensuring relevant and accessible learning for the most economically disadvantaged. The system will be part digital, part physical and, according to the Drucker Institute, “will take what is currently a highly fragmented set of learning resources, identify those that have proven to be most effective, integrate them more efficiently and make them accessible and inviting for the entire South Bend community, regardless of someone’s age, educational level, income or job status.”
The system’s digital portal will help South Bend citizens understand what skills are in demand in the area based on employer input; see where those skills are being taught (at local institutions or through curricula available on the platform); keep a record of what has been learned (possibly with credentialing or badging recognized by local businesses); further develop career skills (possibly for continuing professional education credits); and find volunteer opportunities to teach others (possibly in exchange for points that can be used to take courses themselves).
The city will also collaborate with the St. Joseph County Library and other nonprofit partners to provide designated physical spaces with wireless connectivity, computer training, face-to-face teaching (where more effective) and other support services.
“What’s unique about this program is putting it into practice in one particular community,” said Tricia Moriarty, director of communications for global responsibility at Walmart.
To the Drucker Institute, South Bend is the ideal testing ground. In 2013, the institute worked with South Bend to prototype a learning and management course that would become the Drucker Playbook for the Public Sector. “It’s now national and cities all over the country are using it, but it was piloted and developed in South Bend,” said Rick Wartzman, director of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society, a part of the Drucker Institute that is spearheading the project.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also has stated in numerous interviews that South Bend is the perfect beta city. Garces agrees. “We’re able to implement something like this deeply across the entire community,” he said.
With a population of just over 100,000, the city size is manageable and projects that work there can be easily scaled to larger cities. “It is a city that is big enough to be interesting and has real problems,” Wartzman said. “But it’s also small enough that we can wrap our arms around it.”
Historically, South Bend was one of many cities that relied on manufacturing to survive. Until 1963 the city’s primary employer was the Studebaker factory. When the factory closed, the town had to slowly rebuild its economy. “When there’s big economic shifts, people are left behind in a state of turmoil,” Garces said.
Thus, the widening gap between skills businesses need and those employees have has hit the city especially hard.
Time and experimentation are anticipated before the initiative is operational. “I think of this as the pre-design phase,” Wartzman said.
The Drucker Institute plans to roll out the system in three parts over the course of three to four years. The first part, which is slated to run until the end of the year, will be focused on analysis and connection building.
“Right now, this is about information gathering, understanding what the community needs, understanding the dynamics of the job market. We’re putting a lot of research into that and building trust within the community,” Wartzman said.
Establishing trust is especially important as the project plans to connect existing organizations and resources across the city. The St. Joseph County Public Library, which will serve as the backbone of the system, is one of these organizations. “Ultimately they’ll be the ones that sustain the system and run the system,” Wartzman said.
Overall, the Institute aims to be a content curator, not creator, and the team sees the network as a gateway to resources that already exist. “There’s a lot of great material out there, but the marketplace is so fragmented that it’s hard to make sense of it all,” Wartzman said.
The system is meant to provide employees with the skills that they need to be successful now. That means understanding which skills are relevant. Area employers will add information about what skills they are looking for, and the system will show learners where they can learn those skills, both online and in physical classes.
“The idea is creating a system that actually meets the needs and meets the realities of these people,” Garces said.
Community and Collaboration
Changes will likely occur during the project’s design phase, but the team hopes they will be able to help improve citizen’s lives as well as their job prospects. Some of the classes offered will be aimed at engagement for the city’s retired population as well as learning general life skills, such as how to prepare healthy meals or gain financial literacy.
“We think that there’s something very powerful about having the system be truly universal, [one] that is really used by everybody,” Wartzman said.
Garces added: “As our residents become better learners, they have better outcomes.” He said he hopes the system will improve the community at all levels.
Many of the project’s key stakeholders, like the local community college and the St. Joseph County Public Library, are eager to begin.
“The community’s been incredibly supportive,” said Brian Donoghue, director of civic innovation for the city. “I know I’ve at least received a number of emails from people interested in volunteering, people interested in getting to take a part in it.”
According to the South Bend Tribune, the city has already contributed about $5,000 to the project. Most of the program’s funding is coming from Google and Walmart, who are giving $500,000 of their $5 million budget to the South Bend Lifelong Learning System.
For Google and Walmart, this money is well spent. “Walmart as an employer is constantly looking for talent, so it’s just smart business to raise the whole sector,” Moriarty said.
In addition, funding programs like this one furthers what Walmart calls its global responsibility. “The whole focus of our philanthropic portfolio in the workforce is to identify ways to help people continue [up] that ladder of economic mobility,” Moriarty added.
At the moment, Walmart, like many large organizations, is wondering how best to prepare for the future of work. Moriarty said that teaming up with Google only made sense to address a problem this large. “No one company can do this. No one organization can do it,” she said. Collaboration will be essential for ambitious projects like these to succeed.
The Next Learning City
Increasingly, learning will need to extend beyond the traditional time frame. “For everybody now, learning truly needs to be lifelong,” Wartzman said.
Learning also often exists in pockets that are only available to certain individuals or with certain credentials. Free resources can be hard to find, of lower quality or no longer relevant to the workforce of today. “One organization, one employer, they can have the best intentions and best ideas, but the whole ecosystem has to change,” Moriarty said.
It is too early to say whether the South Bend Lifelong Learning System will be more successful than existing curation methods. It may be better to view it as a companion to those methods. According to Wartzman, the project doesn’t aim to surpass or replace, but unify. “This is not something that’s a public-sector duty alone or just a private-sector duty,” he said. “This is something where I think all sectors really need to come together and play a role in creating a healthy learning ecosystem.”
Mariel Tishma is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.