Microsoft’s $25.8M gift to help expand Skillful job training program

June 27, 2017

workforce training program that helps Coloradans get the skills they need for careers in information technology, advanced manufacturing and health care is poised to expand beyond the state’s borders, thanks to a major gift from one of the world’s largest technology companies.

Microsoft Philanthropies will invest $25.8 million into Skillful as part of a three-year partnership with the Markle Foundation to accelerate the middle-skills training program’s growth first in Colorado and then to additional states.

“We believe that this work in Colorado can not only change the game in a positive way in Colorado but we believe it has the potential to create a model that can spread to the rest of country and benefit people coast to coast,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft Corp.’s president and chief legal officer.

The $25.8 million donation is the largest in Microsoft history, Smith said. The Redmond, Wa.-based company last year acquired professional networking platform LinkedIn, a founding partner of Skillful when it launched in Colorado in 2016.

“This initiative is addressing one of the biggest challenges of our time,” Smith said. “We can all see how quickly the job market is changing not only in Colorado but across the country. Technology is creating new jobs, but new jobs require new skills. If we don’t make it easier for people to acquire the skills needed for jobs, we’re going to leave people behind.”

Microsoft’s investment will allow Skillful to engage more employers across the state in skills-based hiring — eliminating companies’ reliance on bachelor’s degrees as a job requirement is a key part of the program — as well as expand to additional workforce centers, said Zoë Baird, CEO and president of the Markle Foundation.

“It’s our belief that success in creating change at scale is going to turn on creating a labor market ecosystem that uses for people’s benefit the very forces that are creating disruption — data and technology,” Baird said. “Everyone in the labor market needs to be able to make data-driven decisions.”

Between 2012 and 2022, 47 percent of job openings in Colorado are expected to be middle-skill positions — jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree — according to the National Skills Coalition. Nationwide, nearly seven out of 10 Americans have skills that could transfer to a new career but no four-year degree, Skillful said.

To date, Skillful has worked with more than 90 small- and medium-size employers in Colorado, Baird said. About 150,000 people have used the LinkedIn Training Finder.

On, job seekers can find information about high-demand jobs in IT, advanced manufacturing and healthcare, how much they can expect to earn, the skills required, where they can acquire those skills locally, how much it will cost and current job postings. The program provides in-person and online support.

“We’re very excited that Microsoft is going to partner with us in this,” Baird said. “They not only bring resources but decades of experience in providing digital skills training, tools and business models that can be deployed by various partners in this system in order to be more successful.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper said Microsoft’s gift is really a validation of all the hard work the Markle Foundation, LinkedIn and the state of Colorado have put into getting Skillful off the ground.

“Now our job is to justify that faith to make sure we really scale this up,” Hickenlooper said. “We want to make sure it delivers on the promise that we are going to be able to create an ecosystem on this platform where people really do begin to evolve into talking about skills and competencies, as opposed to just degrees.”

That’s more important than ever today in Colorado, where unemployment is at 2.3 percent, the lowest in the nation, he said.

“More than anywhere we need to deliver more workers with the skills needed into that talent pipeline. Our businesses are scrambling to find qualified workers,” Hickenlooper said. “This is going to give us, if we do it right, a competitive advantage over other states and other countries in how quickly our companies can grow.”

Paul Harter,CEO of Aqua-Hot Heating Systems in Frederick, said he’s already noticed a difference since his company switched to skills-based job postings. Aqua-Hot manufactures heating systems for heavy vehicles such as RVs.

“In this tight job market, it gives us access to more candidates,” Harter said. “We hired a instrumentation tech from the oil and gas industry — he read through our skills-based posting and said, ‘Hey, that’s me.’ ”

Previously, he said, the company relied on vague job titles and equally vague “equivalent experience” requirements or overly complicated descriptions that ended with “other duties as assigned.”

Now, they’re much more strategic about hiring.

“Everyone gets the logic but where organizations struggle is, boy, if we have to rewrite every job description, do you have any idea of how big of a job that is?” Harter said. “If they take a closer look, Skillful already has the templates. They’ve already done the heavy lift. It looks overwhelming, but it’s not.”