Over the last 10 years, we’ve built incredible partnerships with enterprise businesses focused on creating real impact inside and outside their communities. We’re excited to introduce you to the Accelerate program — a coalition that brings Microsoft together with local community, business, and civic partners in several cities around the US. Through Accelerate, GA is able to provide scholarships for several of our technology tracks to students from underserved communities and those impacted by COVID-19.
In this blog post, you’ll get to meet Lina Feng and Kalin McKenna, Microsoft leads for the Accelerate program. Lina leads market activation and operations in select Accelerate markets, and Kalin leads learning partner engagements.
Keep reading to learn more.
GA: What is Microsoft Accelerate, and why are you doing it?
Kalin McKenna: In June 2020, Microsoft released its Global Skills Initiative with the intention of giving thousands of hours of online learning content — for free — to the world. Accelerate is a way for Microsoft to take our Global Skills Initiative into communities in the US where we knew people were trying to return to the workforce. Accelerate was one of the ways Microsoft set out to support those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting (but not unanticipated) acceleration of technology.
We first released thousands of hours of online, on-demand content, which helped students learn at their own pace. However, we found a certain level of digital fluency is needed for someone to even start looking for online skilling resources. People need access to a computer and the internet, which is not something everyone has. So, what we really aim to do with Accelerate and learning partners like GA is connect with communities and reach folks who don’t have the resources to fully take advantage of our on-demand learning.
We partnered with General Assembly to provide learners access to instructor-led, hands-on courses. GA joined Accelerate in Atlanta in 2021, and we’ve since expanded to other markets.
Lina Feng: I want to emphasize that Accelerate is designed to support individuals from underserved communities and nontraditional candidates. The instructor-led experience, whether in person or online, really completes the full journey for a learner by providing technology training as well as coaching for “soft skills” — interviewing, business attire, teamwork, etc. It goes beyond certification to help candidates be hire-ready.
GA: How do you approach rolling out Accelerate to different communities?
Kalin McKenna: We know each market has unique needs. What LA communities need to access skilling might look different from Chicago or Atlanta. The local organizations we partner with are trusted by the communities and often vary by location. We want to be respectful of that.
When we are thinking about what the job market looks like in those locations, it’s possible that one city is going to be hiring for a certain set of tech skills, and in another city, it could be totally different. We make sure that the learning content lines up to where the job market is.
GA: You have a very intentional local, coalition-based approach. Can you talk a bit about why that approach works?
Lina Feng: Accelerate’s coalition approach is a deliberate perspective on what it takes to move the needle on job growth in any given market. As we kick off these digital skilling and job placement efforts, we bring together a broad and diverse set of stakeholders to shape the program. For something as challenging as digital skilling for the future workforce, it takes industry, civic, and community partners to achieve sustainable growth.
GA: Microsoft is a very data-driven company, so we’d love to hear how you’re thinking about what success looks like.
Kalin McKenna: The North Star of the program is that our students are hired. So we’re always talking with our employer network to make sure expectations are aligned and then making changes to the program to ensure we’re providing candidates that meet their needs. A student being offered a job that launches a new career in tech — that’s what success looks like to us.
We try to do the best for our learners. We want to treat our learners and employer network like our best customers, so it’s really all about doing the best for each of them throughout the process.
Lina Feng: There is an organizational culture element in terms of the job’s outcome that we’re seeking, specifically moving towards skill-based hiring. One of the successes that we’re looking to come out of Accelerate is encouraging more and more employers to focus on skills and less on hard credentials. That will definitely open up opportunities for nontraditional candidates.
GA: What has surprised you the most, or what challenges have you faced along the way?
Lina Feng: One thing that we’ve definitely noticed on the learner side is that it’s not a situation where if you build it, they will come, even if it’s free or widely accessible. When it became our mission to better serve underserved communities, we knew we needed to provide answers to the questions: “Where do I fit in? What can I do in this field?”
We’re trying to dispel the notion that when we talk about digital jobs and getting technically skilled, it’s only focused on a small super-advanced portion of roles or functions. Every job is becoming digital in nature, so getting more tech or digital skills is important for everyone in the workforce.
Kalin McKenna: Participants are learning impostor syndrome can be overcome. That’s something all of us might have faced in our careers, but it’s enhanced if you’ve never seen someone like you in tech. How do our students feel assured? How do we provide supportive services in addition to learning?
And to what Lina said before about companies and changing the market dynamics of hiring for skills vs. hiring for traditional accreditation: Different companies are in different places in their journey. It’s interesting to observe the reason why companies are embarking on more skill-based hiring. For some, it’s the talent gap; for others, it’s a deep commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, and sometimes, it’s a combination of the two.
GA: Can you share some learner success stories with us?
Kalin McKenna: We talked to one learning partner, Upwardly Global, who works specifically with different immigrant populations. A gentleman joined one of their cohorts who had never actually typed on a computer keyboard before. Upon completing their program, he was able to get a coding job at a professional services firm. I think that really speaks volumes to the misconception that there’s a lack of talent in these communities. It’s a lack of opportunity. If you can provide the opportunity, you’ll reach the talent, and then you can truly see incredible things happen.
Lina Feng: There are so many stories. One that comes to mind is the young mom who participated in our first instance of Accelerate in Atlanta, who went through a skilling cohort and got certified in Azure cloud fundamentals. She landed a job in a large professional services firm and shared extensively how transformative the experience was.
It proves that there are so many people who are a great fit for a lot of tech jobs; it’s just a matter of how we get them access to skilling, the right skilling environment, and subsequently getting an employer to take a chance on a nontraditional candidate.
GA: What advice would you give to leaders who want to embark on this work but don’t know where to start?
Kalin McKenna: The first thing I would say is you’re not the first ones going out on this journey, whether you’re a single parent looking to shift your career or you’re an HR manager looking to change the way you think about hiring. No matter what side you fall on, there are companies that have achieved notable success hiring underserved, nontraditional talent.
I think a lot of times, when we get overwhelmed, it’s because we’re looking at a blank slate, but in this case, it’s not. Talk to the folks committed to hiring talent from nontraditional backgrounds, look at the proven successes of those companies who have pursued diverse hiring, get insight into how you might want to shape your program. When you can partner with someone and build upon the work of others, it’s a lot less daunting.
Teamwork truly makes the dream work.
Stay tuned for more incredible stories from our team and partners in the coming weeks. If you’re a learner and are interested in participating in the Microsoft Accelerate program, click here. If you’re an enterprise or local government who wants to know how GA can make a difference in your business or community today? Get in touch.