Foundry College raises $6M to teach workers to stave off automation

Steven Loeb · October 10, 2018 · Short URL:

The school trains students in the skills they need to obtain "middle-skills" jobs

It feels as though there has been a looming threat of automation to American workers for years now, like we're all sitting around with a sword dangling above our heads. It may not take much longer for it to drop: according a report last year from McKinsey, 73 million U.S. jobs will be lost to automation in a little over a decade from now. 

The workers who will be able to survive the coming threat are going to be those that have the kinds of skills that cannot be replaced so easily by machines.

Those are what Foundry College, a new educational institute dedicated to teaching those employees those very skills which are necessary for middle-skills jobs; that means those that require more than a high school degree but less than college, such as managing a franchise or running a division of a large company. They require skills such as communication and problem solving, as well as emotional intelligence. 

On Wednesday, Foundry College revealed that it will be launching its first class beginning in January 2019, while also announcing that the school raised $6 million in venture funding from education investment firm Learn Capital.

This is the first investment the school has taken.

What Foundry teaches

Part of what Foundry does is teach employees some of the skills that will allow them to keep employment as work becomes more automated. 

"It is clear that people can do some things better than machines can do, that there are some things that AI is not going to be able to do better than humans for the foreseeable future. Our mission is to teach working adults the kinds of skills and knowledge that will lead them to get a good job or progress in a job that they’ve already got and not be diplaced by automation or AI. That’s our top level mission," Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn, founder of Foundry College, told me in an interview. Kosslyn is the former Dean of Social Science at Harvard University and former Chief Academic Officer at the Minerva Schools at KGI.

Two things that separate human from machines are emotions and context. For example, while a machine can diagnose somebody better than a human, it can't sit with the family and discussing treatment options in a compassionate wat. 

"Humans are really good at regulating their own emotion, being aware of other people’s emotion, understanding the role of emotional communication, understanding the role of emotion in things like setting priorities," Kosslyn explained.

"The other thing is context. Context is open ended; every time there’s a new news event the context changes. In fact, even the dimensions of the context evolves. Context is crucial to being good at analyzing situations, to be good at problem solving, to having good judgment, to understand what goals are worth pursuing. So those emotion and context are going to be things humans do better than machines."

One of the courses that Foundry offers its students, for example, is to help teach them critical analysis.

"An innovation at Foundry is we have foregrounded these kinds of skills, this is what we actually teach. We don’t expect you to learn critical analysis by studying philosophy or English and it’s going to be a spin-off, w actually teach it directly. So one thing is evaluating should whether you should believe a report or not, another is making decision that make sense. There’s a variety of kind of critical analyses," said Kosslyn.

Other courses will revolve around practical problem solving, where it will teach students heuristics to deal with real life problems; clear communication, where it will teach ways to read and write and to give presentations; and learning to learn, so Foundry can actually teach students how to learn in a way that will be useful for the rest of their lives.

The school also teaches two kinds of soft skills, one of which is inward looking with lessons on self regulation, how to organize yourself and personal responsibility. Then there are those that are outward looking, which teaches students how to work on a team, leadership and  how to negotiate.

In addition, Foundry has a major which is a business management major, where students learn to import these general skills into a business context, so they can apply them in ways that will make sense for employers.

"What we’re going for is preparing students with a skillset so they can get a good job in a managerial capacity," Kosslyn explained.

For example, he pointed to the national news story from earlier this year in which two African American men were arrested for sitting in a Starbucks.

"I’ve been told by someone who apparently knows that the way they train their managers is with protocols, scripts, ‘Do this in the following situation, in the other situation do that.’ Those protocols cover about 85 percent of the situations you’re likely to encounter," he said. 

"In this case it was apparently covered, but the protocol said something to the effect of that if someone is sitting at a table for more than 15 minutes and not ordering, politely ask them to leave because we need this space for paying customers. If they had taken candidates who were graduates of our program, they wouldn’t have just followed the protocol that way; they would have taken a step back and analyzed the situation, a couple of African Americans, certain situation, thought about how to solve what the problem was, namely they were taking up space not ordering something, thought about how to communicate clearly, so for example ask a question. ‘Do you plan on buying something?’ and so forth."

The type of education offered by Foundry differs from other similar types of job training, such as vocational schools, which only teach for a short period of time, and only on narrow subjects, which don't help employees retain their positions in the long run. The school also differs from liberal arts schools, "which are training students with knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which is useful in a broader context but it doesn’t necessarily help them get a job or grow in a job."

"What we’re doing is combining practical knowledge, knowledge you can actually use. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication, those are practical skills. We’re combining that with a broader context so that, in fact, you can adapt as the world change, and the workplace evolves. So we’re doing something really different," said Kosslyn.

How Foundry teaches

What separates Foundry is not only what it teaches, but how it teaches.

First, since many of its student are working adults, who have jobs and responsibilities, it has devised a system where it meets students where they already are, rather than asking them to conform. 

"One of the novel things is we’ve developed a curriculum where we are shaping ourselves to our students, who are working adults, who typically have good jobs, they have families, and they have responsibilities. So we’re not asking them to bend themselves to our schedule. When we get to scale we’ll be offering classes in the morning, noon and in the evening, but more than that, all of the work is in-class. There’s no homework, there’s no reading in advance, it’s all contained within class, 90 minutes, twice a week," Kosslyn explained

All classes are offered online, but the company uses technology to break away from the image of a student sitting behind a company while someone lectures to a wide audience. The classes are smaller, and are students are asked to interact with the coursework, rather than passively learn.

"We’ve devised new ways of combining information transmission; that is, lessons with active learning. Things like role playing exercises, debates and so forth, which is known to be a much better way of not only helping you remember information but also being able to use it effectively," Kosslyn said. 

The first half hour of a class is a lecture, but even that part includes some interactivity, such as polls, quiz questions or flash breakout groups. The goal first part is to teach, while the second part is to get students to apply what they've learned, so they apply it. To accomplish that, they form breakout groups, which can be anywhere between two to eight students, where they perform exercises that are designed have them actually use the material they just learned.

For example, in a class that is teaching students how to negotiate, the class might be broken up into groups where each one has a specific job in a scenario. For example, if they are tasked with building a new power plant, one group might be engineers, another could be environmentalists, while another is the unions. In the first phase, each group will get together and figure out what they will be negotiating for. Then, in the next phase, the groups break up into new groups, one where member is a representative of their group, and who now that has to negotiate their position to the representatives. 

"Not only will it stick, because we know from the science of learning that the more you use something the more likely you are to remember it, but they’ll get some idea of how to apply it in the job situation, which is what we’re interested in," Kosslyn said. 

The future of Foundry

Foundry's new funding will go toward expanding its team, as well as building out its technology.

"We are currently developing lesson plans. We have nine people who are working on developing courses currently. We have people have involved in marketing, we have a technology group which is developing proprietary technology for being able to deliver our classes. We have a group that’s looking at possible relationships with employers. So a lot of activity going on, it’s all centered around delivering a super high worth product to students, so they can become more successful," said Kosslyn.

Right now there are over a dozen employees at Foundry College, and the number that it decides to hire going forward will depend on how quickly the company can scale, which depends, in part. on the number of partners it is able to establish relationships with. Foundry is currently in discussions with a number of employers, organizations, and governments, with a plan of having them send their employees to the school in a symbiotic relationship.

"We are, right now, working on establishing partnerships with companies who will send us their employees. We know that employers say that only 11 percent of the candidates they get have the competencies for the jobs that they need, for these for middle skill jobs. And they say that 91 percent say that critical thinking, problem solving, communication, soft skills are more important than any major," said Kosslyn.

"Given that the employers have recognized that they need this, what we would like to do is offer to employers to send us their employees, and we will put them through the program and up level them, which will make the more valuable employees for the employers, but also help the employees. So that’s one thing we offer."

The schools plans to work with employers to actually tune up the curriculum, so that it's more useful for them, allowing them to their giving us input to shape the kinds of candidates they’ll find most useful.

While classes cost $1,000 each, Foundry is really a B2B2C player, meaning that it would like to make relationships with employers to send us their employees to be students. The benefit to employers will not only be a more trained workforce, but there's a financial benefit to them as well.

"It turns out the tax laws allow employers to get a considerable write off right off the top for expenses to subsidize student tuition. It’s over $5,000 it’s possible per student per year. This, from the point of view of a company, financially is a wash, and what they have to stand to gain by up leveling their employees is considerable."

Foundry is coming along at a time when attitudes toward education are changing; gone are the days where everyone was told that, in order to get a job, they needed to get a four year degree, replaced by a more flexible system that understands that different jobs require different levels of education. 

"It’s clear that there’s a recognition that not one size fits all and that different people have different goals and that different kinds of education are going to help them achieve their goals. So we’re sort of fitting into that zeitgeist. I think we’ve identified a niche that nobody else has has filled, this idea of practical knowledge that’s integrated in a broad education so people can evolve as the workplace evolves. There has been a blossoming of different kinds of education that fit people with different goals," Kosslyn.

"What we would love to do is bring this to scale. We would like to educate a large number of people in ways that will stick and help them succeed in jobs what will be meaningful for them, and will lead them to be successful, both personally and professionally. We are really trying to make a difference here."

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