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Interview

Degreed’s David Blake on his new venture Learn In and the future of skilling

Blake co-founded Degreed in 2012, and has now launched a new skilling startup called Learn In.

Allie Nawrat

Blake
Credit: KATARZYNA SZEWCZYK via Twenty.

Unleash Your PeopleSo what is Blake’s view of the future of skills and learning?

It was when he was doing his SATs to get into college that David Blake first realized that the US educational system was broken.

The experience of studying and taking this test “blew him away”, Blake tells UNLEASH. “It is three hours on a Saturday morning and none of our teachers prepared us for it [as] it is not part of the curriculum,” which Blake describes as “mind-boggling” as these three hours determine US children’s futures.

David Blake, CEO of Learn In & co-founder and executive chairman of Degreed.

The more he thought about the test, the more it seemed “crazy” – so Blake decided to investigate the history of high-stakes testing. In doing so, he realized that “these were the first things I had ever truly studied that a teacher hadn’t assigned me”.

This led the epiphany that “I was graduating top of my class, I was graduating as an excellent student, but I was a terrible learner” – and that he was a product of the system.

So he committed himself to being a life-long learner “even if it meant giving up being a good student”, as well as enabling others to do the same.

He has dedicated his life to disrupting the education system with start-ups and companies with the aim of focussing on life-long learning, rather than everything being about the “bureaucracy of the system”. So how do Blake’s companies Degreed and Learn In aim to do this?

The journey to founding Degreed

After graduating from Brigham Young University in 2007, Blake went off and worked for a start-up called Zinch.

Zinch, which was later acquired by Chegg, was centered around the motto that “students are more than a test score”. It acted like LinkedIn for high-school students and helped them with their college applications.

While the company’s mission “aligned with the catalyst that had woken me to education”, Blake started to realize that he wanted to spend time fixing the broken education system, rather than helping people get ahead in the existing system.

So he launched Degreed with Eric Sharp with the mission of jailbreaking the college degree and to get past of the dominance of college, strengthening the concept of lifelong education. Now Degreed has raised $390 million, is a HR tech unicorn, and works with some of the world’s largest employers, including PepsiCo, Cisco, Boeing, Shopify, HP, KPMG and Visa.

Blake gives the example that if someone asks you about your health and fitness, you don’t say: “I ran a marathon 15 years ago. So why when someone asks about education do people say “I graduated from X 15 years ago”?”

“Telling me where you went to university doesn’t tell me about what you know right now,” declares Blake.

Therefore, Degreed aimed to help individuals to “transact” on life-long learning, the way that people continue to transact in their careers on their college degrees. This added a little bit more validation, “reward and value” for life-long learning.

The company’s platform does this by connecting learning and career growth; Blake claims that Degreed created and now leads the learning experience platform category.

It is a one-stop shop for people keeping track of their learning and development – ensuring people can get credit for what they do – and it is now “the system of record for your skills”, and navigation of that.

How skilling differs from learning

While there is still much work to be done in skills navigation and learning experience with Degreed, Blake decided to seek new opportunities around the next inflection point in the world of HR tech, learning tech, and the future of work.

While the focus of the past seven or so years was on knowledge and learning, there was less concentration on skills themselves.

People and organizations are now very good at learning – particularly aspects like microlearning and micro-credentials – but this is “all knowledge dissemination” and, according to Blake, “we aren’t very good at upskilling”.

It’s an extremely difficult thing to do; just as “watching a cross-fit video does not turn you into a body builder”.

“It is easy to accumulate some level of knowledge [of what you need to do], but it is much harder to spend 600 hours in the gym turning yourself into that athlete,” notes Blake.  

What makes Learn In different?

The aim of Blake and Sharp’s new startup Learn In, which they launched in January 2020 alongside former investor Yael Kaufmann and ex-Degreed product manager Taylor Blake, is to help individuals and employers complete those 600 hours of skilling and do so at scale.

This is based on the fact that upskilling is a win-win: massively ROI positive, and a huge achievement not only for individuals but also employers, society, and governments.

But there are barriers, and they’re not just related to the effort involved. Time and expense are also a factor. Blake cites World Economic Forum figures that it takes 480 hours on average to learn a new skill, and it costs $24,000 to upskill someone.

So Learn In aims to identify the barriers and biases that each client faces in upskilling their workforce, and then remove them structurally to allow effective employee training. The ultimate aim is to help customers to use their limited budgets effectively and wisely.

However, Blake believes the main way to change the game and achieve successful upskilling is a new “workplace social contract”.

Employers may point to their workforce receiving – for instance – eight hours a month of on-the-job paid learning, but that only works if employees are able to miss meetings to complete it.  

Learn In provides a tool “that means when you commit to learning a new skill, we help you block out your calendar,” explains Blake.

Employees then have to get permission from their manager or HR; once approved, however, staff know “it is safe for you to not show up to that meeting” because that is your learning time and part of the workplace social contract.

Learn In’s platform also helps companies to see data that shows how much money they have saved from investing in their existing staff, rather than hiring new employees or freelancers who already have those skills.

Spotlight on BookClub

Learn In and Degreed are not the only companies that Blake is working on at the moment. Another start-up that Blake has founded in the past year is BookClub.

Its tag line is “when a good book ends, the conversation beings”. It began with Blake trailing through Degreed’s data-set on learners, and how they learn. He discovered something surprising: “We learn more from books and authors than any other source; and it is by a lot, like 6.5 times [more].”

But authors don’t have a platform to share their expertise and spark discussion – in the same way professors have Coursera – so he decided to create the virtual BookClub.

The future of skilling

While the COVID-19 pandemic has “brought other priorities [like] wellness, remote work” to the fore, the huge amount of pressure on the labor market means that upskilling has never been more important.

This takes time – “we can’t upskill people in 24 hours” – so it isn’t something that companies should put off. The skills gap is only widening and employees are making it clear that what they most value out of a future employer investment in them as an individual, particularly in terms of learning and development.

As a result, Blake notes, skilling is “shooting up the priority list”.

Companies that move early will have “a real competitive advantage”, particularly given that the best time to skill people is when they are salaried and employed. This is because it “creates a context where they can apply their learning”.

Blake is clear that the future of skilling and learning requires companies to step up and invest in their current workforce.

And, given that it is clearly in their interest to do so, this isn’t a pipe dream.

A bigger challenge for Blake and the world of education at large is that “our universities are not yet operating at lifelong capacity, and that has to change”. He wants university education to have a life-long model, rather than a set time period, and for people to be able to dip in and out when it suits them.

There is a lot of work left to do for Blake, his teams at Degreed and Learn In, and the learning tech industry as a whole.

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