“I HAVE BEEN this close to buying a nursing school.” This is not a sentence you expect to hear from a startup founder. Nursing seems a world away from the high-tech whizziness of Silicon Valley. And, to use a venture-capital cliché, it does not scale easily. Austen Allred, boss of Lambda School, sees things differently. His two-year-old firm matches labour supply and demand by providing fast, efficient training to potential employees. It offers five online courses that prepare candidates to write software at technology firms. Training nurses, more of which are sorely needed to care for America’s ageing population, is not an illogical next step—especially when many nursing schools have to turn people away.
Instead of responding to the threat of joblessness posed by automation with a universal basic income, Mr Allred wants to help people to switch jobs faster. Unlike most online courses, Lambda does not charge students up front to attend (though admissions are competitive) and online tuition is live and interactive, not recorded. Full-time students attend for nine months, Monday to Friday, 8am to 5pm San Francisco time. Latecomers risk falling behind. In most recent classes, 85% of students who began a course finished it.
The school only starts getting paid back for its services after its students have landed a job which pays them more than $50,000 a year, something Lambda expends significant energy to help them do. Around 70% of those enrolled do so within six months of graduation. Lambda then gets a cut of about a sixth of their income for the next two years, until they have paid about $30,000. (Or they can pay $20,000 up front.)
The firm devotes about a third of its time and resources to finding jobs for its graduates, an unusually high share. Another third goes to recruiting students and the rest to teaching. Courses are created with employers’ requirements in mind. For its web-development programme, the list given to Lambda by companies runs to 280 items. Unlike coding, nursing cannot be taught entirely over the internet, so Lambda wants to co-operate with nursing schools across America that could provide the necessary hands-on instruction.
After nursing, Lambda plans to work its way down the list of professions with the biggest job shortages. It is also examining the problem from the other side, identifying available jobs that require skills akin to those of victims of automation—truckers displaced by self-driving lorries or call-centre workers replaced by robocalls.
Lambda’s quirks set it apart in Silicon Valley, but Mr Allred is not the first to recognise the value of work-focused education and training. Germany is famed for its widespread vocational training and apprenticeships. Closer to California, the University of Waterloo, a technology-oriented Canadian institution, has had gainful employment within the field of study as one of its core goals since it was founded 62 years ago. Students seeking an internship can enroll in a special scheme which matches them with firms. Norah McRae, who runs the programme, says that most universities spend little time finding work for the graduates, or teaching the skills they need to prosper in the job market. Too often students are treated as cash cows to be milked for research funding.
But Ms McRae is also concerned that programmes like Lambda School, though well-meaning, risk undermining existing educational institutions by offering a quicker route to work. The kind of intense optimisation which Lambda espouses cannot, she worries, replace conventional learning, which strives to create not just capable workers but rounded individuals.
Such fears presuppose that Lambda can succeed beyond even Mr Allred’s wildest dreams—or those of the venture capitalists who pumped $30m into the firm in January, valuing it at $150m. Student numbers, and so upfront costs, are growing faster than revenues. If Lambda can turn a profit by offering people a stab at a decent job, that would be a fine lesson in capitalism.