Technology as the Missing Link: The Industry-University Partnership

How to meet students where they are—and to re-skill for today’s workforce.

GUEST COLUMN | by John Baker

In today’s constantly changing labor market, learning doesn’t end when you get your degree. Today’s workforce is made up of lifelong learners. If employers want to hire and retain the most skilled workers, they have the impetus to provide employees with more opportunities for upskilling and retraining. At the same time, institutions of higher education can’t simply consider their job complete when they confer a degree. They have an obligation to include learning opportunities for people who want to return to school to complete a degree, shift their career focus or gain the additional skills needed for career advancement. 

The Significance of Upskilling

According to data from World Economic Forum, approximately 10% of an employee’s time will need to be devoted to upskilling in the modern workplace to ensure skills are up to date. One such example is Joe Kelly, a 51-year-old FedEx manager who recently fulfilled a promise to his late mother that he would complete his degree. Beyond fulfilling the promise, he recognized the need to gain additional skills he could use to accelerate his career. Joe is one example of many individuals seeking learning that can be integrated into work.

‘The number one ask of more than half of job-seeking millennial workers is learning and growth…’

For corporations, we’ve seen that simply launching a tuition rebate program to assist upskilling isn’t the solution. The number one ask of more than half of job-seeking millennial workers is learning and growth, according to HBR. Our own report, The Future of Skills: In the Age of the 4th Industrial Revolution, makes the case for creating more accessible learning that would drive outcomes and increase access to employer-sponsored training opportunities, while also giving employees the ability to pursue new learning opportunities on their own. To create opportunities like these, corporations and educational institutions need to forge innovative partnerships.

Enter the corporate-education partnership. Take, for example, the successful partnership between FedEx and the University of Memphis. The FedEx hub in Memphis was experiencing a lot of turnover in some critical frontline positions, largely because employees didn’t see any career path within the company. While FedEx offered a college tuition reimbursement program to employees interested in taking classes, few people participated – the admissions process was difficult, traditional campus classes weren’t a good fit, and most employees couldn’t afford the up-front expense.

Enter technology. FedEx partnered with the University of Memphis to create LiFE, or Learning Inspired by FedEx. LiFE provides FedEx employees with personalized learning opportunities from the University of Memphis through our online learning platform. Employees can increase their skills and knowledge online by finishing a degree. The partnership provides an educational option that allows employees to pick up where they left off in school, whether they’ve completed some high school or some college. And there are no out-of-pocket tuition fees or entrance exams standing in the way. 

The platform allows LiFE to personalize online content for employees and provides:

  • A clear, simple landing page.
  • Integrated tutoring available 24/7 through the platform.
  • Virtual office hours for faculty, enabling employees to ask questions and get specific feedback.
  • Gamification aspects for courses to keep employees engaged and learning.


Additionally, it allows employees to focus on the handful of tasks immediately ahead of them, so they can better manage work priorities with their educational priorities. The platform also uses virtual assistants that provide students with a nudge when it spots indications of the student falling behind or opportunities for encouragement to exceed expectations, ensuring that students get the most out of their learning experience.

Essential to the Future of Work

So far, more than 3,000 FedEx employees have taken advantage of LiFE, which bridges corporate and education by providing access to employees through technology. When I started D2L in 1999, it was with the somewhat far-fetched idea that the internet could be used for learning. In 2019, FedEx employees who otherwise wouldn’t be able to complete their degrees can now do so through mobile devices on their morning commute. That’s extraordinarily gratifying.

Supporting this kind of lifelong learning and strengthening the link between industry and education is essential to the future of work. At the same time, the ability for people to learn at their own pace in their chosen environment is key, too. We must continue to use technology to meet the needs of lifelong learners to support an ever-evolving workforce.

John Baker founded D2L in 1999, at the age of twenty-two, while attending the University of Waterloo. D2L is a software company with a mission to support learning as a foundation upon which all progress and achievement rests. John graduated from the University of Waterloo with an Honors B.A.Sc. in Systems Design Engineering, with First Class Honors and an option in Management Sciences. Contact him through LinkedIn.


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