Can You Buy a New Job?
Who's in charge of your education?
Jake Schwartz would like to be in the vanguard. The 38-year-old graduate of Yale and Wharton is co-founder and chief executive officer of General Assembly, a leader among "accelerated learning" providers, which last week announced an expansion and the acquisition of Toronto-based career accelerator Bitmaker.
The growing industry of full-time, in-person coding boot camps provides coveted skills that can help you land that next job. GA aims to go beyond that, concentrating on data, technology, design, and business skills, with full- and part-time courses online and in person, shorter-form offerings, and corporate training.
We sat down with Schwartz late last week. Here are edited and condensed highlights of his thoughts on his industry, traditional higher education, the working world, and more.
Breaking the Harry Potter spell
I had come to Yale from Oregon, and I thought I’d already made it. You graduate with this degree that’s written in Latin, and you think it’s kind of like a Harry Potter spell. It can open any door. I got out in the real world and realized I didn’t actually have any skills. I spent a lot of my 20s looking for that place of career traction. I eventually went to business school.
Business school is two years. It’s a lot of money. I started to think a lot about it as a market maker between employers who wanted to recruit and people in their 20s who were, like me, a little lost and lonely, wanting to get to the next step of their career. There might be a way to make it a lot more efficient.
A lot of education is framed as an investment. I realized that if you can reduce the cost of an investment, which we do through shortening the time—the absolute cash cost but also the opportunity cost—and then increase the return through relevance, you end up with a significant increase in the total return on investment.
Where are the jobs?
We’re going through some massive secular changes in our economy and the way we do business. I think for the time being there will be a continual skills gap as the growth increases, and it’s very, very hard to keep up. The good news for students is that means rising salaries, increasing opportunities, earning power that goes well beyond that first job after you graduate from our program.
The other thing is that I think it’s very sexy to talk about tech, but the skills gap goes well beyond tech. I don’t see as much activity and excitement around solving that skills gap in those other areas, and I think there’s just a massive opportunity there. [On a model like GA’s extending beyond tech,] it’s something we’re looking pretty deeply at.
Online or in the flesh?
One of the things that’s enabling us to go beyond the classic metropolitan areas is that we’ve started to launch a lot of online programs. We believe that the future is going to be truly blended between online and offline. We think online is made a ton more powerful with having access to physical spaces and personal interaction, not to mention the network that can form. The flip side is also true: Our in-person courses can benefit from more convenient, ergonomic online experiences.
There’s almost a mania around online-only education, really driven by this idea of zero marginal cost. You can take costs out, that’s one way to solve the equation of how to make education more available, better, less onerous on the students. What we’ve seen is that increasing the relevance—it’s really about that ROI ratio—is such a huge opportunity that in some ways is a lot easier to tackle.
What we are doing [in expanding to such locations as Brooklyn, San Jose, and Arlington that are near existing GA campuses, such as Manhattan, San Francisco, and Washington] is pushing out of the urban core. We’re also going to cities that I think are a little bit different than our typical cities. Dallas is actually a very vibrant economic city. But it’s not a huge tech hub. More and more we’re seeing that’s almost irrelevant, because this digital transformation is affecting companies regardless of their industry or orientation toward tech.
Of partners and boot camps
We are designed to be a grad-school alternative or mini-grad school program, not an undergraduate replacement. I think colleges do some things really well. We do some things really well. So the idea of partnering makes sense. What we’ve seen is that some colleges are really forward-thinking and understanding the need to serve students above all else. I think a lot of colleges, especially some that are starting these boot camps of their own, are thinking of this as an economic opportunity for them. And I think they will for the most part be disappointed.
On the federal government's launch of the Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) experiment, 1 Equip aims to allow some nontraditional education providers like General Assembly to join with higher-ed institutions on programs for which the schools would be able to offer students federal financial aid. we pursued it, but at the end of the day we really couldn’t figure out how it worked as a partnership. There are other alternative-education providers, other than guys like us, where it was a perfect fit because it was really focused on Pell grants and things like that.
I’m very concerned about what it would do to our space if the floodgates of financial aid were opened to it. In some ways, what we saw in Title IV being open in the for-profit postsecondary space can easily become a race to the bottom. It’s about who can get the most scale and deliver the cheapest product to the most people. It exists in exact opposition to our mission about ROI-based education. But “boot camp” makes it sound small. Our three-month programs involve hundreds of hours of instruction. 2 GA does use “bootcamp” in titles of some shorter-form educational offerings.
What about the layoffs?
We’ve grown, like, 5,000 percent 3 In revenue terms, according to Schwartz. in the last five years, and we have over 700 employees. There were a lot of moving pieces running around at any one time. The layoffs of 50 workers square with the expansion because that wasn’t about the company’s performance. That was about adjusting specific situations on certain teams and really getting ourselves prepared for the growth spurt that we’re going to go through now.
As for additional funding rounds, I’ll never say never, but I think we’re heavily committed to controlling our own destiny and pushing toward self-sustainability. I think we’re actually at a great place where we don’t need capital, but that doesn’t say we wouldn’t want it to continue growth if we see the opportunities.
In that theme of controlling your own destiny, an IPO is sort of the rational path to remain independent and continue the mission and vision. I don’t want to commit to anything, but probably more likely 2018 than 2017. We’re much more focused on the business and getting all of those things right, and doing all the things we want to be doing for our mission and vision.