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Air Force sets new course on digital skills training

The U.S. Air Force has agreements with multiple learning management vendors to upgrade its technical training. It wants its personnel to use the same tools as the private sector.

The U.S. Air Force wants to upskill its personnel. The plan is to adopt the same digital training platforms that private sector firms use, including Pluralsight Inc., Udemy Inc. and Udacity Inc.  

In the last two months, Pluralsight, Udemy and Udacity have separately announced agreements with the Air Force to provide digital skills training. The Air Force is launching what it calls a "Digital University," which is now in beta but is on track for full deployment next year. 

Although the Air Force is using three vendors, its personnel will be able to create customized paths of instruction for specific skills. The Digital University platform will be "open and transparent" and driven by an API architecture "so that we can change vendors in and out as needed," said Air Force Master Sgt. James "Guideaux" Crocker, who is one of the creators of the program. 

The Air Force does not "pledge allegiance" to any specific vendor. "We can't play favorites," Crocker said. 

The Air Force is responding to the same problem the private sector is facing. Skills are changing rapidly, and digital skills training is needed to adapt. Last year, Amazon, for instance, pledged $700 million through 2025 to upskill employees. 

The Air Force launched its Digital University as an alpha program earlier this year, limiting it to 700 people. The program is now in a beta phase with tens of thousands of users and will move to 200,000 users by early 2021.  

Digital skills require rapid update

In private sector firms, many existing workforce roles may require up to 10 new skills within a year related to AI, digitalization and those needed to work remotely, said Lauren Smith, an analyst at Gartner. That's based on a global survey of 3,500 hiring managers released Thursday. Of that number, 56% of respondents were in the U.S. and Canada.

Private sector firms are increasingly moving to "learning experience platforms," Smith said, that not only help employees with their specific roles but also provide "visibility and access to development that is beyond their role" to expand careers. 

That kind of digital skills training is similar to what the Air Force is doing for its military and civilian employees. It wants to "show them a career path" so its airmen and airwomen don't have to feel like they have to leave the military to get the training and skills they want, Crocker said. 

The Air Force's need to create a customized approach across multiple learning platforms is similar to organizations that use both in-house and off-the-shelf learning systems, said Petra Mayer, a learning and development consultant in Vancouver, B.C.

"Ideally, access to the different training programs is seamless for the user," Mayer said. Custom learning paths "are important so that the sheer volume of available training is not a deterrent for training and development," she said.

Digital training solves Air Force problem

The existing Air Force training programs were difficult to change and required an approval process that could take months to years. Digital skills are changing too rapidly for this process, he said. 

The Air Force has a need for its military and civilian employees to be up-to-date on the same types of technical skills as civilian counterparts, including AI-related technologies, Kubernetes, cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity, DevOps, Python and so on, Crocker said.  

On Aug. 19, Pluralsight announced its agreement with the Air Force. It is offering Air Force Digital University participants some 7,000 technology courses. 

Udemy announced Aug. 20 that it was making over 4,000 courses in technical and business skills available to the Air Force. 

One month earlier, Udacity, another major learning provider, announced an agreement with the Air Force. 

The need for digital skills training is underscored by Gartner's data. In its survey of hiring managers, only 16% of new hires have the skills they need for the job they were hired to do today and for the future. 

Gartner's Smith said hiring managers often have difficulty defining company need and the job role. "Many times, what hiring managers do is define who they want based on the person that left, not what they want done," she said. 

"The best organizations are making sure that hiring managers are not defining who they want, but what they want done or the skills that are required," Smith said. 

But no new employee will have 100% of what an employer needs, according to Smith. "We need to invest in development, and it needs to follow employees throughout their career," he said. 

The Air Force is good at mentoring and building people, Crocker said, but "that doesn't correspond to digital skills training." The Digital University is designed to address that problem and give the Air Force an ability to adapt quickly to changing skill needs, he said. 

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