Online Skills Platforms: Ideas for Product Scale and Reach
By: Pierce Henderson (HGSE M.Ed '21) and Nakul Nagaraj (HKS MPP '21)
The views expressed in this post are the sole responsibility of the authors and not meant to represent the views of the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, or Jobs for the Future.
This post is a product of the Harvard Project on Workforce’s Summer Fellowship Program, a short-term research and policy opportunity for Harvard graduate students and recent alumni from the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Summer fellows are placed in interdisciplinary, cross-school project teams over the course of the summer and complete projects focused on pressing policy or operational challenges at the intersection of education, labor markets, and workforce development. The Fellowship Program also provides students with opportunities for professional development and engagement with staff and faculty at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the Managing the Future of Work Project at Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Skillbase is a platform that aggregates and curates free learning resources from across the web for people seeking jobs. Skillbase has been used by staff at employment centers, job training providers, and other community organizations to help workers and job seekers build on their skills and find work. Skillbase collates online resources that impart foundational skills and aims to then guide users to the best tools to find work, and succeed in those roles. You can check out Skillbase here. You can learn more about Harvard's effort to build Skillbase here.
Skillbase was initially intended to target adult workers adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The hypothesis was that foundational or “baseline” skills like English language, digital skills, and career readiness were worth the time investment for many of these workers. In the months since launch, the Skillbase team recognized that the content on the site had appeal for broader audiences of adult learners. The scope of Skillbase since expanded beyond those directly impacted by the pandemic to include more adult learners and workers. Learn more about key learnings from the Skillbase product here.
Our summer fellowship project focused on understanding and assessing scaling strategies for platforms like Skillbase.
Nearly 1 in 3 American workers lack foundational digital skills while millions of others lack basic English language and interview skills. Skillbase and a several other platforms, both online and offline, have been designed to cater to this population. Skillbase and Bendable aggregate sources of information, and others such as Per Scholas and Voxy EnGen create courses for users to upskill for jobs of the future. These lessons cover everything from language learning and effective communication to digital literacy and accounting and offer a variety of skill levels. Some key highlights from our market landscape are summarized below:
Source: Author interviews
Based on our market scan, we identified three potential growth strategies for foundational skills platforms.
1) Develop an Application Programming Interface
An application programming interface (API) is a piece of software that allows two applications to "speak” with each other. APIs present a technology solution for easily exchanging information with customers and clients. Nonprofits can leverage APls to provide open resources and easy access to libraries of content. For platforms like Skillbase, an API would provide the opportunity to easily integrate the library of resources aggregated on its platform onto the websites of workforce boards and career centers across the United States.
Opportunities: The API is simple to integrate and provides the opportunity for a platform to quickly expand its reach. An advantage of this approach is the ability to scale through multiple states and create synergies with their existing websites—in interviews, there was enthusiasm from some states to test this idea. Continuous updates to content would be relatively simple to implement and the call-and-response of APIs allows for data collection on customer behavior and use of the tool. Monetizing an API is possible through several options, including white labeling the product or integrating it within a suite of software or service offerings that an organization already provides.
Drawbacks: Although the development of an API seems to be a one-time investment, it requires continuous maintenance to remain viable. At a minimum, it would require maintenance from an IT professional, and if monetization is the end goal, a full-time developer would likely be required to continue to ship new features and improvements to the product.
2) Create or Expand Communities of Practice
In Spring of 2021, the Harvard Skillbase team ran a series of community learning events that aimed at providing MassHire staff, other state staff, non-profit program staff a professional development offering while demonstrating how to use the Skillbase platform. It sought to build relationships and credibility with organizations Skillbase wanted to target (building “network of champions”) and drive more and new usage on the site. Communities of practice provide a compelling model for a technology platform to create a network of workforce/education professionals and organizations connected to the platform and allow the product to get closer to its users.
Opportunities: One way to embed a tool in the workforce system is to build excitement, participation, and activation with stakeholders, through marketing and public-relations opportunities. Community of Practice events can create channels of two-way communication that extend beyond traditional platform demonstrations and one-way marketing strategies by putting colleagues from different contexts together for continuous engagement and feedback. The reactions to the platform could extend beyond informal conversations with stakeholders and become the primary vehicle for user testing and focus groups. The sizes of events could change depending on the strategic goals for product development. This opportunity also capitalizes on the need for professional development for staff in the workforce development sector.
Drawbacks: This is a slower method of conducting user and customer interviews. The preparation time is outsized relative to more targeted and immediate focus groups and traditional user testing. Moreover, these events may cause product development to skew towards in-person, high-touch features, which may not be sustainable. Communities of Practice require investment in people to facilitate online or in-person events. There may be more time dedicated to preparing and conducting events instead of prioritizing product development.
3) Partner with Workforce Development Professionals
Partnering with workforce professionals allows tools like Skillbase the opportunity to embed itself into the workflow of job coaches and career center staff, who are already serving job seekers. These could be bespoke solutions for career centers, developed iteratively by working together with workforce agencies to address specific pain points for staff. Interviewees noted there is promise for Skillbase if the platform could help reduce a workforce professionals’ daily workload, such as a tool that curates learning lessons or identifies and assesses foundational skills for customers, learners, and clients. One option is to white label the platform and build features with WIOA requirements at the center of the design process. This could give eligible providers opportunities to integrate foundational skills curriculum into their existing suite of offerings. Another option is a freemium model, where advanced, custom features for staff could be purchased by career centers and community-based organizations, while free access for learners remains open to the public.
As part of our research, we also analyzed potential short-term and long-term revenue models for skills platforms.
State and federal Departments of Labor and state workforce agencies are potential revenue sources. States that have strong skills-to-employer pipelines should be prime targets to sustain user growth and build momentum. Federal funding is also more likely with the passage of the American Rescue Plan. For isntance, the US Department of Labor recently allocated nearly $145 million to states to help them acclerate their re-employment programs and help the unemployed get back into the workforce more quickly.
Organizations like Bendable and Black Girls Code have secured funding from philanthropic funders ranging from Google.org, Walmart.org and Microsoft. Workforce development is a an area of growing interest for philanthropy. Recent Harvard Project on Workforce research found that applicants to New Profit's education-to-employment RFP had revenues of over $2 billion and drew a median of 60% of their revenue from philanthropy. Foundation funding could supplement state grants, and public-private partnerships are also intersesting avenues. In one example, multiple foundations, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and states including New Jersey and Michigan are partnering through the Data for the American Dream initiative to expand access to education and career data and support development of user-centric tools.
Sucessful platforms may feature direct employer partnerships to either upskill incumbent employees or source new ones. This is potentially more self-sutaining revenue model. However, it could also be difficult as new entrants may compete with many well-established incumbents in the online skilling market, such as LinkedIn Learning and Penn Foster.
Advertising was assessed as a potential opportunity due to its ease of implementation and reliable revenue stream. Options include a network such as Google Adsense, which serves ads based on the visitor's search history, or custom or affiliate advertising where ther are agreements with partners to promote their complementary products or services. However, interviewees noted the difficulty of generating enough users to build a robust stream of revenue with advertising- high traffic volume is required. In addition, advertising may also conflict with an organization's brand image and with the user experience on the site.
Drawing on examples from Skillbase and other existing skills platforms in the workforce-development ecosystem, we identified opportunities and drawbacks of different scaling strategies for online resource and learning platforms. Early-stage platforms must consider which options allows them to best test their assumptions, connect with users, establish product-market fit, sustainably monetize, and stay consistent with their mission.
About the Authors
Nakul Nagaraj was a 2021 Summer Fellow with the Project on Workforce at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. Nakul is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School with a Master in Public Policy.
Pierce Henderson was a 2021 Summer Fellow with the Project on Workforce at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. Pierce is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a Master of Education in Technology, Innovation, and Education.
This work would not have been possible without the support from the Project on Workforce at Harvard. We would like to express sincere gratitude to Rachel Lipson, Mary Sauer, Isaiah Baldissera and Stephanie Taube for guiding us along this process, providing valuable insight, and giving us strong actionable feedback.
We are also thankful to everyone at JFFLabs–and particularly to Heather Terenzio –who gave us great advice and flexibility to explore solutions. Finally, we are very grateful to all the interviewees who took time off from their busy schedules to answer numerous questions patiently and provide valuable advice and guidance.