What has Google learned from its certificates program?


For Google, one solution has been its certificates program which is offered through Coursera for $49 per month and takes learners between three and six months to complete, on average. According to Lisa Gevelber, founder of the Google’s certificates program and Google’s CMO for the Americas, about 600,000 people around the world have completed a Google certificate since 2018. 

The first time I connected with Gevelber was in July 2020, when Google announced it would be providing 100,000 scholarships for its online certificates in data analytics, project management, and UX. 

At the time, the national unemployment rate had spiked 10.2%, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it was even higher in states with large numbers of tech workers such as Massachusetts (16.1%), New York (15.9%), and California (13.3%). Amidst this tumultuous labor landscape, many felt cautiously optimistic that low-cost certificate programs could help combat historic inequality in tech, improve job prospects for those who do not have a college degree, and provide unemployed workers an opportunity to upskill. 

In October 2021, I spoke with Gevelber again to discuss Google’s decision to make its career certificates available for free, to every community college and to every career and technical high school in the United States. 

Then in 2022, cyber attacks increased an estimated by 38% globally. By June 2023, Google had launched a new cybersecurity certificate program and committed $20 million in cybersecurity training to colleges across the U.S. 

In this way, Google’s certificates program has amounted not only to a terrific press generator, recruiting technique, and upskilling tool for the company—but also has come to serve as a barometer of employers’ short-term and long-term labor priorities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What have you learned since founding the Google career certificates program ?

Along the way, three things have really stood out. As technology advances, we all need to learn new skills to be effective in our roles and competitive in the job market. No one learns everything they need to know at the beginning of their career or the end of college. We designed the certificates for people without degrees, but have been thrilled to see people of all ages, backgrounds, and education levels take the program to start their careers or pivot into a new field. Many employers—including Google—are also using the certificates to upskill employees and train them for new roles, demonstrating that training is truly beneficial at every step of a career journey.

We’ve also learned that moving toward skills-based hiring takes an ecosystem approach. This work can’t be done alone—we need employers, nonprofits, [educational] institutions, government, and workforce development agencies to rally together to create lasting change. 

Since starting the program, thousands of employers have employed our graduates and joined the employer consortium including 150 big national employers such as Accenture, T-Mobile, Wells Fargo, Walmart, and of course, Google. We’ve been proud to expand the Google career certificates program to include integrations into over 400 schools including the University of Texas system, collaborations with nonprofit partners like Opportunity@Work and Goodwill, and curriculum development with employers including Deloitte that are now including the certificates as a hiring credential on relevant jobs postings. As more cross-sector collaboration continues, I believe we’ll see more adoption of skills-based hiring practices. 

[And third] people don’t have to choose between a degree or a certificate. As the program progressed, we were surprised to see so many people with college degrees earning a Google career certificate. When we looked into this further, we discovered this trend actually made a lot of sense. For example, according to Lightcast data, a psychology major who acquires data analysis skills through a certificate can unlock more than 100,000 additional entry-level jobs paying on average $60,000, versus $39,000 for psychology majors overall.

The first time we chatted was in 2020 when Google had just announced that you were rolling out 100,000 certificate scholarships. What was the uptake on that initiative? 

Scholarships are a really important part of the program because they serve people who have a real need. Our belief all along has been, if you want to solve this important societal problem you need an ecosystem approach. 

The problem that we set out to solve was that, give or take, 80% of jobs that pay more than $35,000 a year, say they require a college degree, but just over a third of Americans have one. Which really means two thirds of our country is locked out of good jobs—about 80 million adult workers. And that’s a really big problem. And to solve a really big problem like that we believed all along, we needed an ecosystem approach.

We could create incredibly valuable content that helped people learn what they needed to know to get some of the most in-demand high paying jobs in our country, which also filled a need for employers who were desperate for talent who had particular skills. Four out of five global CEOs, according to PwC’s CEO survey, say one of the biggest inhibitors for them growing their company is finding people with the right skills. That’s the problem we set out to solve with the certificates. And we knew all along that it was going to take an ecosystem of employers, many of whom have input to the actual content of the certificates. All of our certificates are built by Google experts who have decades of experience in the field. But we really care that we’re teaching people the things that key employers want to know. So we check it and we have employers vet the content. A great example is Deloitte, who even gave us some of the assessments they use to test for mastery in SQL and R for their data analysts. They allowed us to build that assessment right into the certificate. And now we’re a preferred hiring credential at Deloitte.

But it also includes community-based organizations, which is where the scholarships come into play. There are a lot of people who want to do this learning journey with others. They want some sort of cohort based environment. And we have terrific nonprofit partners, everyone from Year Up and Per Scholas, to Merit America and Goodwill, who do cohort based programs and provide a little coaching along the way to do [a] certificate. We distribute our scholarships largely through community-based nonprofit organizations.

How does the Google certificate program help create a hiring ecosystem for Google? 

We were the first member of the hiring consortium for the Google career certificates program. It was actually based on a small pilot training program we had created to bring people without college degrees into Google’s tech support team—the people who support Googlers. And it was so successful that we decided to make it available to the world. 

We realized not long ago that there are 1,000s of Googlers now taking Google career certificates—without a lot of proactive internal marketing, I have to say. It’s exciting to see what they’re doing. A good portion of them that are administrative professionals who really want to get into project management, or UX design, and don’t have an easy pathway to do so. But the Google career certificates training program and credential gives them a visible way to show that they’re qualified for the job. And so now these people are moving within Google into different jobs. I really love that 1,000s of Googlers are taking our own certificates. 

And then there’s all the people we hire [from the certificate program] as well.

You mentioned working with community-based nonprofits. Is that including your partnerships with community colleges and higher ed systems?

We started very early in our Google career certificate journey partnering with community colleges. They’re kind of the lifeblood of the workforce development system in our country. There are about 11 million people who go to community colleges, about 40% of undergrads in our country. And so in about 10 states, now, we have Google career certificates in every single community college in that state, which I think is really exciting. And we’re seeing tremendous results at places like Dallas College that serves over 150,000 students. They’ve already graduated hundreds of people, just with the Google IT support certificate.

Community colleges are really embracing this as a great way to help people get the jobs that employers in their area are demanding. A community college’s job is to serve students, but also to serve employers. And they know that the career fields that we’re teaching are some of the most in-demand in their communities. And so we’ve launched the cybersecurity certificate [because] there’s a giant need for that. There’s about 600,000 open jobs in cybersecurity just in the U.S. and about three and a half million globally. There are great entry-level jobs in cybersecurity and that’s what we’re training people for–things like cybersecurity analyst positions. 

We added American Express to our employer consortium with the Google cybersecurity certificate. We added Colgate Palmolive, who was very excited about the cybersecurity certificate. One of the things that [I hope] we’ll see from that, in addition to bringing in more people who know how to do cybersecurity, is [more] diversity in that field.

We already know that just under 50% of all of our career certificate grads are women. That compares to about 28% and the technology industry overall. And over 55% of our graduates are either Black, Latino, or Asian, as well. So we’re not only meeting employers’ needs for people to have these skills and meeting people’s needs to break into careers they wouldn’t normally have had access to, we’re also helping to diversify the talent pool at these important, high-paying jobs.

On the topic of cybersecurity, Google is currently running a big TV ad spot on cybersecurity. As a CMO, why is cybersecurity such a strong messaging priority right now? And why is the Google certificate program structured under your marketing team? 

Cyber attacks have increased over 40%, just in the last year alone, they cost small businesses billions of dollars every year, and they really affect our critical infrastructure. But we know that if we can help train more of these professionals, that’ll make a dent. And also, we have training for small businesses. There are some very simple things you can do as a small business to better protect your assets. And so we have, we also have an online training that helps small businesses learn how to protect their data and their systems as well.

[The program] lives in marketing, because I created the program and I live in marketing.

But it’s not because it’s about marketing. We can do good and we do good with our products in every part of Google. There’s no perfect place to put something like this, and the reality is actually people from all over the company contribute. When we make a cybersecurity certificate, the experts aren’t the aren’t coming from within marketing. Some of our absolute best cybersecurity people are the subject matter experts that create the content and who are featured in the course. Same with data analytics, which was created by our finance team and others. I’m just a catalyst to help all of those talented people create this work that really helps make great jobs accessible to more people around the world.

You have previously told me that the Google certificate program is not revenue generating for Google. Is that still the case?

We made it so that the program actually sustains itself. People have always paid for the program through Coursera, and it’s actually really important that they do, because they’re much more likely to complete the program if they pay than if they get it for free. Every behavioral scientist would tell you that people behave differently with things that they pay for. So that’s always been how the program has worked. And we have always offered scholarships for those who need it. Right now, the program is just focused on continuing investment by paying for itself. 

How does your team measure the impact the certificate program has on people?

Our society is so far past the time where you could teach someone everything they need to know to have a successful career when they’re like 22 years old. And so the reality is people are constantly needing an accessible, affordable way to re-skill and upskill themselves for today’s and today’s jobs and cutting jobs. And it has to work, the way working people need it to work. One of the core principles of our program is that programs like ours need to be online on demand, because working people need to be able to do it when they have time. And it’s super hard for a lot of people to commit to classroom time on a regular schedule. For example, about 20% of Americans don’t know or control their schedule for even next week. So it’s hard to commit to a robust and ongoing class schedule. They need to do it when they have time. That’s why we build the program the way we have. More than 60% of the people in our program are actually working full-time.

We survey all of our graduates. And what we know from them is that over 70% of them report a positive career outcome within six months. That could be getting a new job, but it could also be getting a raise or getting a promotion. 

Those are the outcomes that people care about.


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