Credit: Courtesy Lisa Barrett

The pandemic has intensified questions about the value of college education (and business school, too) and highlighted how apprenticeships and new training programs are undervalued relative to how well they prepare people for the workforce. 

To get a sense of how this could shake out, I spoke with Lisa Barrett, who oversees learning, innovation, and operations at Multiverse, a UK startup focused on providing apprenticeships as an alternative to university education. Co-founded by Euan Blair, son of Tony Blair, Multiverse a few weeks ago announced it raised $44 million and is expanding to the US. Here is my conversation with Barrett, edited for clarity:

Can you start by explaining what Multiverse does?

Multiverse is totally changing the game around what it means to be prepared for work, and then to continue to stay upskilled in work. We have to talk about the solution by the problem we’re trying to solve. The problem that we’re trying to solve is twofold. One is that university for too long has been a one-size-fits-all. It’s particularly stark in the US of course, where you see people graduating from four-year universities, having debt and having definitely gotten skills, but not necessarily the ones that they’re going to need in the workplace. Then suddenly not only do they go in feeling unprepared, but they also don’t have the specific skills that are nowadays needed. Things like data, digital marketing, or really any of the kind of specialist skills that you need.

The second thing related to that is this idea of having one shot of learning at the beginning of your career, or even a few big shots. It just doesn’t really work, for a few reasons. The first is that most learning you forget pretty quickly. If you’re not applying it in context, you don’t actually know how good your performance is or how it’s going to be, because you have an idea of how something works but you haven’t actually done it. The second piece of that is things are changing quickly. So you go off and say, ‘Okay, I’m actually going to go do an advanced degree in X,’ but by the time you’re done with that, the world has moved on. So we need something that meets people where they are. What I’m so excited about with Multiverse is that all of our work is about learning in context. It’s about what we have branded ‘deep application,’ which is our model for applied learning.

And it’s really about shortening those iteration cycles. Learning something, and then immediately practicing it and getting coached on it and doing it. One of the ways that we talk about our success is what I call art and application, or the nuance, the idea that you want an individual to learn a skillset and be able to apply it in the right way at the right time, in the right job. Not in a textbook classroom scenario where you’ve got these 10 factors, and if those 10 factors are true, you can execute on it. But rather, what does it actually look like to do that in a great way? We run what we call professional apprenticeships, and we believe the Multiverse version of that is really unique and special because we hire the best coaches from their industries who also can really move people through.

We do a lot in a one-on-one setting. We do a lot of, again, practice and feedback loops, and it’s a very personalized journey for every apprentice. We figure out where anyone’s falling down or might struggle. And we coach them all the way through that and get them out the other side. And what we have, what’s really incredible, is a strong community of apprentices around this. It’s not just a course or a program; it’s really, again, building someone up and figuring out what they need with their coach. But then they’re connected to this community, which is the thing that a lot of us do like about going to a kind of a four-year program or a longer-term program is you have that identity. There’s a social element, there’s a camaraderie, and there’s kind of a safe place to go and have different conversations. Our apprentices are exposed to a caliber of people that they just wouldn’t be at any point in their career, let alone those who do apprenticeships at the beginning.

They’re hearing from the best. They’re having access to workshops like salary negotiations. Things that you just don’t get taught normally. It’s pretty incredible. I always say judge us by our results, not by our talk. So all what I’ve described is how we get the results we get. But what we end up with is just incredible feedback from the employers that we work with. Most of them end up hiring more apprentices as soon as they get ours in. And the most incredible feedback from our apprentices. We have a 98% pass rate for the folks who are doing our qualifications and just really good feedback on our coaches and otherwise. It’s an entirely different way to make sure that that individuals and companies have what they need.

Are you focused primarily on tech and finance employers at this time?

Actually, we work with a range. We actually do everything from public sector to the private sector. We’ve got a lot of really interesting things that we’re doing with different parts of the UK government, from health, through justice, through aviation. Everyone needs to upskill and move quickly. Then in the private sector, everything from FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods companies]—to certainly finance and tech, but really everything. The question we’re helping every company answer is how do you get your employees to the place where they need to be. Especially so they can take advantage of the digital revolution, and in cases where companies have invested money in technology or in data, but actually now you can’t utilize it fully because your staff isn’t where they need to be.

Part of your announcement was that you’re launching in the US right now. How many people have gone through your program so far?

We’ve had about 2,000 apprentices go through.

What’s missing from how we train Americans for work and retrain them over their lifetimes?

The co-creation of training and education with the employer, and then with something else, is what’s missing. What I mean by that is that education has existed almost separate from career, but then somehow these things are supposed to link up. What I love about apprenticeships is it puts employers right in the middle. People always say to me, ‘Oh, okay, so you train people. And then the employer employs them if they like them.’ I say, ‘Oh, no, no. Either these people are already working at the employer or the employer is bringing them in as a new hire.’ So they’ve got skin in the game, they’re already invested in this person. Then we are the training partner. We are creating that apprenticeship around the person, around the job, and around the company strategy.

That’s really critical. It means that you’re backward designing. We’re backward designing from what does an exceptional, let’s say, project manager look like? What does an exceptional person in the first two years of their career look like? We backward design, but I don’t think that’s quite enough because too often, we think about people as just utility. An employer might think of someone just as a skillset. But there’s more to it than that. We know for someone to be highly effective in their job, it isn’t just about the skillset. It’s also about the way that they interact with other people. Are they actually able to fulfill on what they say they’re doing? Are they confident? You want to have this sort of ’employer-plus’ model, where you’re building people who are going to be resilient and thrive, are confident, have the right relationships, and all that goes together.

That’s a totally different way to think about it. We’re literally backward designing from where we want the future to be. Then it’s just the delivery mechanism. So how can you deliver things in tandem? Rather than ‘education is over here, and work is over here.’ How does the delivery model support a feedback mechanism where we think about this as this triangle of the employer (the line manager), the apprentice, and the coach. The apprentice is doing their job, the line managers managing them. Then the coach is making sure that they’re constantly getting upskilled and getting what they need, and then all these pieces fit together in a nice way, so that the entire feedback structure and delivery mechanism, again, brings those things together. That’s pretty different from what’s been happening today.

Your initial focus is roughly 18 to 25 olds, but this could extend to retraining as well?

That’s exactly right. We started by thinking about the fact that university is broken, as a one size fits all model. University does lots of great things, but not everything. That’s a big need that we heard and that we saw. Then we quickly realized that if you’re going to solve this problem called ‘how to have a proper alternative pathway,’ then we need to be thinking about how to upskill and support people through their entire career. Let’s just use data as an example. It’s great that we’re training people for data in the early parts of their career. But what about all these other people in my organization who aren’t data literate? Can you do that too? We said, yeah, of course we can. So we started doing data fellowships for people who have maybe 30 years of experience, at different times in their career, and then an advanced data program to build specialists and even data literacy for people across everything. To solve that problem of really having great preparation, it’s actually not quite fair just to focus on the front end, because you’ve got a lot of people who’d be left behind.

Why have apprenticeships not rolled out more in the US?

When I say the word apprenticeship, people picture a shop floor. If you look at the media around apprenticeships in the last five years, even when they’re talking about professional apprenticeships or apprentices at Google, you still see the Financial Times, for example, using pictures of literally people wearing helmets. Part of it is there’s just been this like very hardline separation between vocational training and what people call professional qualifications. In the US, that’s particularly strong, the idea of one or the other. And there’s been a lot of investment in the idea of university, with a good intention to start. There’s been a lot of focus on closing the achievement gap, access, and everyone going to university.

But I think the problem is we forgot university is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. There’s been a lot of strong directional stuff about making this accessible to you no matter where you grew up. And I will say, when I was a teacher 20-odd years ago, that’s what I was telling my students—all of you will be able to go to university. There hasn’t been something that is an alternative with the same level of cachet. So that’s why we were really keen to say that a Multiverse apprenticeship isn’t just any old apprenticeship. We’re promising a certain caliber. We’re promising this community. Because you have to have the brand value and the status of that type of thing to carry it forward. Otherwise people are going to have to go to university just to have that piece of paper, that checkmark, which they shouldn’t have to do.

Not having a college degree is correlated with negative outcomes, including poverty and health and mental health issues. Wouldn’t any rational person want to go to college, given that data?

That’s true without an alternative. If you don’t have an alternative path, then you’re going to do what’s always been done and that’s going to be the option for you. That puts a responsibility on us to just create an alternative path that results in those different outcomes. At the same time, there’ve been a number of studies recently that have shown that that data is not as clear cut as it might have once been thought to be; that actually, if you look at, for example, the average earnings of an MBA versus someone without an MBA, there’s some questionable return there. I’ve seen some of the same data around a BA where it really depends a lot on which school you went to. What path did you take, what major? I think that black and white story isn’t actually as black and white as we once thought it was.

Unions have had successful apprenticeship programs over the years. How are you positioning relative to organized labor?

It’s a slightly different space. I don’t see us as necessarily playing that. We see ourselves again much more in the education and training space. We’re more purely in working with employers to ensure that they have those skills. There’s an interesting question about the direction that different labor unions move. But again, the space that we’re more playing in is if what people would have been doing would have been corporate training, or would have been going to university or one of those different things. It’s a slightly different, but complementary thing.

What are the key ingredients of the training that make it successful?

The key ingredient is starting with a high bar and clear expectation for what performance is going to look like at the end, and then backward planning from that. So that the program is backward designed from what job performance looks like in the real world, not just knowledge. Second would be high-quality coaching along the way, high-quality coaching and support; both delivering content, but then also coaching individuals on how to apply it. And specifically where an individual would need to get better or improve or where they need more support. A strong relationship between line manager, apprentice, and coach would be another one. And community would be a big one as well.

Let’s pretend that you’re doing our people leadership program. Then you’d be getting really specific development and coaching over four modules about how you lead as an individual. How do you lead teams? How do you lead within the organization? Content around that. But again, you might want to go deeper in different areas. So, for example, there might be a specific conversation about leadership in these types of large corporate organizations, where there’s a specific challenge, or something like negotiations is something that comes up a lot. The community becomes a place where you can go deeper, enrich, get personalized skills, and get that support. Those are some of the key ingredients. At a really basic level, the employer is paying for the apprenticeship. So they’re paying for the training; the individual is paying with their time. We’re delivering that wrap-around apprenticeship.

What’s the average length for a program?

Twelve months—some of the longest ones are three and a half years. It will always be in a full-time role at the employer, and then they spend about 20% of their time in some version of applied learning.

You’ve had enormous number of applicants for the apprenticeships. What are the primary ways in which you screen? What do you look for?

We’ve got the two different groups. We’ve got what we would call career builders and career starters. Career builders are the folks who are already at the employer. We would look for some specific things to make sure a fit is there for apprenticeship. But obviously the more interesting conversation is about the career starter. We look for character. How does this person respond to different situations? Who are they in terms of their kind of make-up and response in different situations? We look at their track record of achievement. Now we are really careful not to look at that in terms of the traditional indicators. We’ll actually look at someone’s performance in school, for example, versus the expectations for that demographic and neighborhood in that particular school.

We’ll also look for other, other evidence of track record. It could be like having multiple responsibilities, juggling lots of different things. Having a part-time job on top of everything else. We’re really looking at their ability to achieve in context. We will look at their their intent. What do they intend to do? Why are they doing this? Are they committed to it? We will look at intelligence. Again, not measuring that in the traditional way, but are they able to break down situations into critical pieces? How are they going to operate in a specific situation with regard to intelligence. And coachability—that’s a really, really big one. Are they able to be reflective, but also are they able to be coached? That one is a huge, huge predictor of someone’s ability to be successful in the job.

How do you measure coachability?

We’ll give them different scenarios and see how they respond. We’ll also give them feedback and see if they’re able to incorporate it. You can do that both in an actual interview or conversation. You can actually do that on the spot, to give someone feedback and see how they then change their thinking and change their responses during the course of the interview, or through scenario-based analysis.

Has the pandemic changed people’s receptivity to this model?

On the applicant side, the volume has gone right up, as you might expect. We’ve just been inundated in a good way for us, but in obviously a troubling way for what’s going on with a lot of people. On the employer side, there has been a shift toward upskilling their existing people. There has been an emphasis on how do we get the people we already have to the right place and not as much front-end hiring, as you’d expect. We anticipate that that will open up again relatively soon. But definitely the percent of our folks who are career builders has gone up in the last nine months.

A recent study found that up to 30 million Americans have the skills to earn 70% more money, but they don’t have college degrees and that’s what’s holding them back. What should employers or others do about that?

There’s a question about what’s the right approach. Then there’s a question about reality and how do you get there quickly on the approach side? That is definitely a reflection of the fact that employers tend to look for the same types of indicators. That there’s been so much emphasis on a college degree when it’s not necessarily correlated to actual outcomes in the real world, that says a lot. What we need to do is move to a model of assessment of understanding who someone actually is and their performance in context, and definitely technology will help with that. There are things that machines are really good at, that we should let machines do. And there are things that humans are really good at, that we should let humans do. Getting that balance right in an application or hiring process is really, really important.

As for how do you get there quickly—brands matter. Part of the reason why brands matter is because the brain just doesn’t have the capacity or the time to make all the decisions. So it’s really convenient if someone went to Harvard because your brain just goes, okay, great done. I think brands do matter for Multiverse. That’s why it’s really important that we are showing that employers want this. If you look at the employers we work with, we work with the Googles. We work with the Facebooks. We work with the Unilevers. We work with the really big deal companies that will build that credibility and show that this is a viable route. Also because of the way that our model works and the selection process that we do use, we’re able to put much more diverse people in front of employers, who then are highly successful. So our brand starts to matter. The Multiverse brand will be a way of shortcutting that decision-making process, but it won’t replicate traditional patterns of inequality. Are we going to be the only thing that’s needed to solve the 30 million people thing you’re talking about? No, but we definitely think we’re an important part of the solution.

What sort of mindset shift is required for employers in terms of how they think about their workforce?

It’s looking at your workforce and the time you put into training as an investment, not a cost. That’s not a huge stretch because if you look at, for example, where else money is going from a human capital perspective, you will see a lot of companies spending a lot of money on external special skills. That could be consultants. It can be contractors. But it’s a lot of money spent on skills that then walk out the door when the program is over. It’s really looking at how do we get our existing workforce to have those skills and those abilities. And that time is an investment.

It’s also about employers taking on their responsibility of educating people over the course of their career. If you look at the best employers where they get the most applications, they have high retention rates. That’s already happening, but it’s definitely a shift. I think employers become in lots of ways the place where people are going to continue to grow. That’s not employers’ area of expertise, but it’s about bringing in the right training. We would say apprenticeships do that alongside them.

For workers, what sort of mindset is required in terms of how they think about work and career?

Individuals in some ways are going to move more quickly or be very receptive to this, especially because of what we’ve gone through in the last year. It’s about thinking about your career and your learning and training as a continuous journey. As in, what do I need at this point in time? Rather than I need to know all of these things right now, at the beginning of your career, what are the key things that you need to be successful right away? And then what’s this other thing I want to upskill in? And then move on. Think about how many people go and train in something and then get into it. And they’re actually not that interested in it. It’s not really what they wanted.

So I think what we encourage people to do is to think about it as more iterative, think about it as more combined, as a journey where we don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, things are going to keep changing; but the trend of working for multiple employers, the trend of multiple jobs skills, that trend to even multiple careers in a lifetime, I don’t think that’s going away. It’s then getting people to say, how do I set myself up for success for that? Also a level of resilience is definitely required. Previously, when you went to an employer, you could expect to be there, not that long ago, for your whole life, for 10 years, that type of thing. Workers need to be quite resilient and aware that things are going to change and build a mindset of, okay, I’m going to have to roll with it. I’m going to have to roll with that as technology changes, or as my employer changes or new pressures—but how can I put myself in the best position possible?

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