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There are two trends occurring right now – one in business and one in education – that are majorly threatening their respective industries. In business a huge skills gap is hindering the ability of many organizations to achieve their goals because students are not graduating from school with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need for critical jobs. In education massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are disrupting the traditional models and how people think about learning, delivery, and credentialing. However, out of disruption comes innovation, and if we can set these two trends on a collision course, we might find a perfect solution for the skills gap problem, which is predicted to take a heavy toll on U.S. and global businesses over the next several years.

According to Bridging the Skills Gap, a 2012 report of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), a recent survey found that 84 percent of ASTD members saw a skills gap in their company. That is a huge number, and it is predicted to grow even bigger. In some industries the numbers are particularly grim. For example, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), 93 percent of employers in IT businesses report a skills gap.

Given the recent high levels of unemployment, the problem is not a lack of workers; the problem is that the available workers simply don’t have the skills companies are looking for. This is a problem across all industries, at all levels, with middle- and high-skills jobs showing the largest gaps. According to the ASTD member survey, the largest skills gaps are for leadership and executive skills, managerial and supervisory skills, and professional- or industry-specific skills. Management consulting firm McKinsey predicts that by 2020 the skills gap will result in 85 million unfilled medium- and high-skill jobs globally. The problem also extends to soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and critical thinking. A 2010 survey by the American Management Association found that although 90 percent of executives recognized soft skills as important, fewer than half rated their employees as being above average on those skills.

Why are employees falling behind organizations’ expectations? These are the top three reasons given in the ASTD survey:

  1. The skills in the workforce don’t fit with the company’s strategies, goals, markets, or business models.
  2. Companies lack bench strength for leadership positions.
  3. Less money is being spent on training and there is less support for employee L&D.

Simply put, people entering the workforce don’t have the right skills and companies aren’t spending the money to teach them. As Peter Capelli, director of the Wharton School Center for Human Resources, wrote in Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, “In short, a huge part of the so-called skills gap actually springs from weak employer efforts to promote international training for their current employees or future hires.”

So, what do we do about this problem? How do organizations ensure that their employees have the knowledge and skills to navigate the businesses successfully into the future?

It’s time to bring in the MOOCs.

Massive open online courses are quickly transforming higher education, but perhaps their real potential lies in workplace skills training. If part of the reason for the skills gap is that businesses are investing less in their training programs, then it’s time to make better training available for less money. MOOCs are comparatively low-cost ways to deliver top-quality workplace skills training to a large number of employees all at once.

The advantages of using MOOCs for workplace skills training are numerous:

  • There are many MOOC providers out there who already offer training for basic workplace skills. Using these courses as part of a training program would be one way for companies to train their employees essentially for free.
  • For companies that want to develop their own MOOC, there are several learning management system platforms available either free or at a low cost.
  • Although there may be a substantial initial outlay to develop a MOOC, the marginal cost of training additional employees approaches zero.
  • MOOCs are easy to update so that additional training can be delivered quickly and as needed. This is especially important today, as with the rapid pace of technological advancements many skills simply don’t stay relevant for very long.
  • And last but not least, people like them. People around the world are already signing up for MOOCs in droves. They are fun, effective ways to learn, and many people are now choosing to spend their free time doing something that used to be just a boring day at work.

Some organizations are already using MOOCs to address their own skill gaps. For example, 10gen, the company behind database tool MongoDB, has started offering MOOCs for developers and database administrators using the edX platform. They built the courses entirely from scratch using the “standard” MOOC tools including video lectures, quizzes, homework assignments, a final exam, and automatic grading. Overall the initial cost of the courses was around $250,000, but with the number of students who enrolled, the cost per student was less than $5. And of course, they can run the same course again and again, without incurring substantial additional costs. 10gen vice president Andrew Erlichson predicted that many companies would start running their own training MOOCs because they are cost effective and also open up new markets.

MOOCs are also being used to teach critical thinking and real-world problem-solving skills, basic workplace competencies that seem to be running in short supply. Michael Lenox, of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, is currently offering a MOOC via Coursera called “Foundations of Business Strategy.” Lenox invited small entrepreneurs and nonprofits to share their business challenges and get help from the more than 90,000 students who signed up for the course. This is not a test: these students are actually working on real problems facing businesses today.

MOOCs have incredible potential in the workplace skills arena. Whether your employees need to learn digital literacy, project management, communication, leadership, critical thinking, or just about anything else, a MOOC can be a powerful, cost-effective, and ultimately very fun and engaging learning tool for your organization.

Copyright 2017 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.


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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.