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Worrying about a dystopian future of massive unemployment ushered in by automation seems like the latest parlor game for Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, small cities across America are already struggling to provide residents access to good-paying jobs, with municipalities often confronting — simultaneously — both a ‘skills gap’ and an ‘opportunity gap’. And this is especially true for tech jobs.

Tech companies that are considering expansion to the heartland to escape runaway costs in the Valley often worry about finding local talent. That’s the skills gap. At the same time, workers in these areas are reticent to acquire the requisite skills, as they don’t see a ready demand for them. That’s the opportunity gap.

In May, online learning company Udacity and the city of Reno, Nevada launched Udacity Connect: Reno-Tahoe, which aims to address both gaps at once:

  • Skill: The program offers a three-month, part-time full stack web developer nanodegree or certificate. The program involves online classes, as well as in-person collaboration for projects and mentoring, and is specifically designed to prepare graduates for employment.
  • Opportunity: Local hiring partners include Bombora, Cycle, No-IP, Renown Health, and Convergence Health. Nearly 30 students have enrolled in the full stack web developer course, which begins today.

“I think we have to try not to say ‘How do we save 3,000 driving jobs?’ We say ‘How do we train people to do the next job?’” Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani told Brad Stone, senior executive editor at Bloomberg. The two appeared onstage at a VentureBeat gathering Wednesday to launch our Heartland Tech channel and upcoming Blueprint event. The gathering was part of VentureBeat’s editorial initiative to explore the economic and tech divide between Silicon Valley and the rest of America.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brad Stone: Let’s start broadly.There’s a certain strain of almost apocalyptic anxiety here in Silicon Valley, that we’re looking at a jobs bomb. Software, AI, and automation will be putting masses of people out of work. There’s some debate about that. Do you subscribe to that thinking?

Vishal Makhijani: I think in times of big transformation like what’s upon us now, it’s easy to get cynical. If you look at what’s happening in media, everyone has a dystopian view of what will be happening in the future. It’s not to say there won’t be pain, but I think part of the opinion comes from how many of us have this model in our head of how you can educate. You get educated this one time in your life. It goes along with acne and feeling about the opposite sex in a certain way. We go and drink and party. That’s our model of education.

In light of how things are changing and how fast they’re changing, we need to embrace a new thing. At our company we embrace this notion called “life-long learning.” That growth mindset allows us to take a more optimistic view. It actually gives you an opportunity to change. The old model was, you learn something for most of your career. But if you look at the real numbers, McKinsey or anybody else, people will be changing their careers four, five, six, seven times. You have to have the mindset that you’re going to have to retool yourself. That’s exactly what our company does.

Stone: This idea of 20 or 25 percent unemployment because the robots are doing everything and they’re driving trucks and driving taxis — do you see that as possible, but avoidable, if we have the political will to retrain people?

Makhijani: The key is we have to try not to say, “How do we save 3,000 driving jobs?” We say, “How do we train people to go do the next job?” Before we had the massive mechanization of our culture 100-something years ago, 80 or 90 percent of people worked on farms. We didn’t need that anymore and we were able to redeploy them. Right now people ask, “Well, where are you going to redeploy them?” We try to take a more optimistic view. Give you the tools of what’s causing all the change. Our company tends to focus on what we can do to get people’s lives together again. It’s software development, data science, and more recently artificial intelligence. If you look at our student base, they’re the leading thinkers of that growth mindset. These are folks that are actually in jobs already — the vast majority of our students have jobs already — and they’re retooling themselves. They’re doing it live. You read the emails that come back to our company and they’ll make your heart soar and sing, as opposed to being all dystopian.

Stone: I like your optimism, but the really optimistic view is that this is naturally taking care of itself. Economies always evolve. One type of job disappears and another emerges that maybe we didn’t even foresee. Is that naïve? If we weren’t investing in things like job retraining, what happens?

Makhijani: Left completely alone, you’ll have some pain. I’m not saying there’s not going to be some pain. I don’t mean to be insensitive about that. But I think what’s happening with us in Reno, for example. It takes folks to step up and say, “We need to bring these things together.” Whether it’s big companies that are established, or fostering a startup company, we’re going to try to play a role there and help retrain folks for those jobs that are there.

Stone: What do you see as the political will right now to get ahead of this challenge, to avoid the pain you talk about? We’ll talk about private obligations in a second, but particularly when you look at Washington now — people are talking about this issue. Do you see signs of optimism, that action needs to be taken?

Makhijani: While everyone was worried about cabinet appointments and stuff like that around education, the stuff that really matters is what happens state to state. We’ve been excited about what’s happening, for instance, in Reno. To give a quick background on what we do, we build our credential called the nanodegree. The nanodegree is meant to get you into that great job in a reasonably short period of time, typically something like six months. It allows you to be in software development, data science, or more recently AI. And we’re not an accredited organization. Our path to credibility is by working with innovators in industry who are developing these technologies and helping teach those things. There’s been warm receptivity to that notion. By having people welcome us — the Reno situation is essentially a public and private partnership. Companies are playing a role, signing up to hire these folks and give out scholarships. The public sector is playing a role in scholarships as well.

Stone: I’m certain this question will come off as Silicon Valley snobbery, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is the nanodegree relevant and useful to the portion of the economy that’s at most risk for dislocation? Perhaps coal miners are a poor example to use, because they’re triumphantly returning [to work] according to the president, but if you’re in an energy sector that’s facing job losses, does Udacity help you?

Makhijani: We can’t boil the ocean. I will admit, many of our students are already technical in some way. We look for other companies to play a role here, too. This is where the public part of this is going to have to play a role, by helping folks gain the basic requisite skills. Because we do everything substantially online — this program in Reno is actually one of our newer products, called Udacity Connect, which has an element of in-person learning — we can provide in-person learning along with the benefits of online at a dramatically lower price point. We can educate folks with these skills for $2,500 bucks a pop. You don’t have to spend $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 each to do that. If you think about duplicating that model in a bunch of different categories, we can do this. This is not about the classic cost structure. You just have to take a novel approach to doing it. Frankly, with how slow the world of education tends to move, we hope to drive a truck through that opportunity.

Stone: I wanted to get to that in a second, but tell me a little bit more about Udacity Connect. You have a school in Reno?

Makhijani: Yes. We’ll have a facility there. But most of the learning happens online. Students get together with their instructor once a week. That limits the in-person cost there. It provides enough accountability, enough discipline, enough structure in the program so students will be able to finish the program in around three months.

Stone: Tell us about the scale of the program. How many do you have open now?

Makhijani: We’re starting small. We had 100 folks apply. We have 30 of them in this first class. They’ll become what are called full stack developers. But we have goals to add all kinds of other areas: machine learning, robotics, things like that. We tend to be focused on those areas because those are our Silicon Valley connections, those kinds of companies. But like I said, there’s nothing that stops other folks from doing some of the same things.

Stone: Does this scale across the country – the South, the East Coast, coal country?

Makhijani: We can scale quite easily. In fact, as we’ve worked through the kinks of having some parts of this in-person, we’ve figured out how to do this in an easy-to-repeat way. We’re on the precipice of something special here. You can provide a lot of the structure and support that’s tough to duplicate online, but then all the benefits of online scale. When we build a great curriculum with fabulous teachers from companies like Google and others, everyone around the country — you don’t have to be in the Valley to learn from that. You don’t have to come to Stanford to learn that. You can learn that with us.

Stone: If you talk about driving a truck through the opportunity — if you’re alone, it’s never going to solve the problem. What’s the receptivity of the educational status quo to this model, to adapting and changing and getting ahead of the big job retraining project we seem to be facing?

Makhijani: We operate in China, India, and Brazil specifically, with larger operations. I can tell you, those markets are embracing this faster. It’s incumbent on us here in the United States. If we want to make these changes and participate in these changes, to have the growth mindset collectively to say, “Hey, we want to go put education in these markets that have a clear desire” — Reno’s story over the last 10 years is a remarkable story, being able to attract amazing companies. They have a vibrant startup community. Risk-taking entrepreneurs. It’s a great mix. You have the quality of life element, which I’m very envious of. I sit in traffic for an hour a day. It’s a phenomenal opportunity.

Stone: I’m going to leave tonight with a yearning to move to Reno. [laughter] Do you worry about the U.S. being competitive vis-à-vis other countries that are moving more quickly down these avenues?

Makhijani: That’s where my own civic pride comes in. Like I said, we are a global company. Our mission is to democratize education. That’s a global mandate. But I’m not going to lie. Of course I want us to play a big role here in the United States.

We have a real opportunity to do this. One thing about education is we tend to have this, “Oh, we can’t experiment, we can’t do these things.” We have to completely turn around and embrace the new stuff, learn the new skills, do it in a way that scales, do it in a way that’s cost-effective and allows a ton more people to do it. You used the coal miner analogy. Part of this is just affordability and accessibility. If that broadband is there, all we need is a broadband connection. If the broadband is there and the desire is there, you can learn from the most amazing people. By delivering this stuff online, we get people who invent stuff to teach it to you. It’s not like some third-rate professor at a vocational school who may have learned third- or fourth-hand removed. You’re learning from the source. That allows everyone to participate.

Stone: Thank you.

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