Episode 104 - Alternatives to Traditional Higher Education: Amazon Web Services

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith welcome Aaron Osmond, Workforce Transformation Leader with Amazon Web Services and the Vice Chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education, the governing board that oversees Utah’s colleges and universities. The three discuss the technology industry, how they partner with higher education, and how students can obtain jobs in technology.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in-studio today, as usual, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks Steve.

Meredith: Good to see you again, as always. We've been discussing in this particular run of podcast episodes the idea of us looking at what we sort of have termed in a very friendly fashion, our competitors. People who are finding niches in which we are not especially competitive, either by design or by desire, and we have another…actually, a really very important guest with us today to discuss that. And I'll let you introduce our guest.

Wyatt: Thanks, Steve. Yes, we are so grateful to have Aaron Osmond joining us today from your home in Utah County. Aaron is a Workforce Transformation Leader with Amazon Services, and I would be negligent if I didn't mention, my boss. [All laugh]

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: Not because of Amazon, of course, but…

Aaron Osmond: No. [Laugh]

Wyatt: Aaron is also the Vice Chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education. A governor appointed board that oversees the colleges and universities in Utah. So, Aaron, you've got a really great understanding in and out and all around. Also having been a member of the Utah State Legislature, I think you understand…

Osmond: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you, President, and have this opportunity to chat about education together with you.

Wyatt: Why don't we start out by…why don't you tell us a little bit about the Amazon Web Services and what your role is?

Osmond: Sure. Well, I'll start by saying that Amazon Web Services is a global company. It's a completely different division than the famous Amazon company that we all know and that we all frequent every day online to buy supplies and stuff online. But this part of the company is dedicated to enabling access to cloud infrastructure for IT. So, what that means is when a company has a bunch of IT infrastructure on premises at their corporate site and they want to move and get out of that business of having all that hardware and infrastructure and all that complexity at their office, they literally can rent all the equipment that they need, all the infrastructure that they need, completely scalable and accessible right through the internet. They don't have to have any infrastructure at their physical company site anymore. Everything that the IT department used to do is available to rent from amazon.com and other competitors that are in what they call the cloud computing space. It is a huge industry, a multi-trillion dollar industry, and it's a space that's becoming more and more significant both from an economic perspective and from a job perspective, and that's why I chose to go to work for Amazon is because I really care about helping kids get access to high wage, in demand, great jobs in technology. And that's one of the things that Amazon Web Services provides.

Wyatt: This is kind of a side note and I hope it doesn't slow us down on this story that you're now telling us, but Southern Utah University is the…I think only university in Utah that has moved fully to the cloud.

Osmond: That's incredible. I didn't realize that, President. That's fantastic. And it's happening a lot. Universities are making that shift, especially from the impacts of COVID, President, where there's such a need for online infrastructure and have it scalable, and many universities just couldn't handle it on their own with their own servers and infrastructures. So, the move to the cloud is affecting higher education around the world.

Wyatt: Well, we feel that it's far superior to us doing it on campus, because it's more secure…

Osmond: Yep.

Wyatt: It's multiple sites instead of on our campus and if there was a fire or something that…

Osmond: Redundance.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Osmond: Mhmm, completely redundant. And it's cost effective. I think that's the other piece too is it's a fraction of the cost to go and buy a bunch of hardware when you're only just renting the kind that you use for that hardware. And it just has changed the industry. It has made accessible, scalable, high-performing infrastructure available to small businesses and large companies and education alike.

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, who do you spend your day with?

Osmond: Well, my day job really is comprised of working with state education and workforce leaders. So, I have the cool job, in addition to my great work that I do which I totally love as well with the State Board of Education, for Amazon, I get to work with state leaders across the country—governors, education policy advisors, commissioners of higher education, superintendents of instruction for K-12—I get to talk to them about putting together a workforce strategy that brings business and education together to enable educational programs and training from high school all the way through to the university system. stackable credentials that are industry based around IT skills and the cloud and we enable states to put all of that together at no cost to them—we provide the materials, the curriculum, the certification resources and exams—we do everything that we can, we even provide free training to the instructors and faculty and give them free certification so they can be ready and credible to their students in delivering training on the AWS Cloud System. But it takes a long time to do it, President. It takes like three to five years to really implement these programs from K-12 through to higher ed in a way that there is true fidelity. Like, it's integrated into the educational experience. It becomes an elective course, it clears curriculum pathways that are understandable by faculty and students alike. So, my day job is doing that.

Wyatt: And I'm guessing that you've travelled less in the last year than you did the year before?

Osmond: [Laughs] Yeah. This last year…this last year, I've been stuck like all of you in my 10x10 cell called, "The Office at my Home" instead of on an airplane. [All laugh] Instead of an airplane meeting with my customers and students face-to-face, and it's been tough.

Wyatt: You're not alone in your office. I've seen your office; you have Abraham Lincoln to keep you company. [All laugh]

Osmond: I do. He is my inspiration behind me every day.

Wyatt: So, are you…is Amazon Web Services…help us understand this just a little bit better. You have the curriculum, you've got the exams…

Osmond: Let me talk about that a little. Amazon Web Services is really an enabling organization. And so, our entire approach is to support every high school, every community college, every university, for example, here in the state of Utah, to implement very specific training around AWS cloud technologies and software. And so, what we do is we build at Amazon, established courses of learning, we offer foundational classes that expose a student to cloud technology concepts in high school, we offer high school students access to a foundational certification called the AWS Cloud Practitioner, and that enables them to understand cloud in general across multiple technologies, not just AWS, and then we point them to more advanced associate-level courses in the community college or university and then on to advanced and then professional certification. Each of these learning steps are stackable. They can add them on as they progress through their educational experience, and they prepare them for real jobs in the marketplace. Now, this is kind of, President, where your world and my world come together. We know that SUU really cares about industry partnership. That you want employers working alongside you and your faculty to make sure that courses that you're offering enable kids to get jobs, students to get jobs, when they graduate from your institution based on both state and national job opportunities. And we're one of those industry providers. We're one of those industry partners, and I'll just share with you why it's so critical to us. Last year alone in the United States, there were 5.3 million open cloud jobs that were posted in the U.S. Of that, more than half of those jobs remained unfilled. We were not able to find students or existing industry professionals to fill those positions, and that problem is growing at a rate of 30% to 40% every year. So, right here in Utah, we have AWS customers—small companies, higher education institutions, big companies, government agencies—that are buying AWS Cloud Services and don't have sufficient people to administer and run those services acceptably. There's a huge skills gap. In Utah alone last year, there were 42,000 cloud job postings here in the state. So, we've got a big problem, President, and we have to work with you and with your team to solve it to prepare students for the jobs of the future.

Wyatt: So, how did we get into this problem?

Osmond: Well, it's pretty simple. I think the real challenge is that parents and students, as they're going through high school, middle school and high school, they just don't know that these education paths are available to them. They don't realize that these kinds of jobs even exist. And so, we have a collective problem—the university system, the high school system, the employers—in communicating and sharing with parents that there are multiple different career paths available where students can get a high wage, high demand job. And they just need to know it's there and expose them to those cool opportunities, and then students will choose them. So, that's part one. And then part two is our education system is very focused on core educational offerings. Reading, writing, math, etc., and it's a struggle sometimes to expand that and to have more availability, a broader range of offerings, in career and technical education. And so, we're working with state leaders across the country and around the world to help them see the value of integrated career and technical education offerings in high school, community colleges, and universities as part of the total learning experience. Not as an alternative; as an integrated part of the total learning experience. So, that's really the two things I think we're facing.

Wyatt: The interesting one that I think higher education generally needs to focus on in terms of what you just said is that we are too much into the core educational offerings.

Osmond: Yeah.

Wyatt: Rather than trying to find the…I don't want to use the word "niche" because with 5.3 million jobs in the country, that's not a niche. [All laugh]

Meredith: Right.

Osmond: No, it's definitely not.

Meredith: A big niche.

Osmond: It's a big, big niche. And the other challenge there too, President, is that often when curriculum or programming, educational programming, is not built or developed at the university or it is not a faculty-led initiative, there is often resistance. And it's understandable. There's a quality control and a fidelity that the faculty want to ensure that a student is well trained and taught. So, taking down those barriers and working more with industry—which your university is doing—is really critical. For example, you guys are working on a new cyber security offering which I'm super impressed with that is an example of working with industry and bridging those gaps and bringing in content and partnering with business to build something that's really going to add immediate value to the students in the form of being able to get a real job. And so, I think it's those kinds of efforts, President, that at Amazon, we're trying to initiate around the country and around the world.

Wyatt: I've got a question for you. Does the fact that parents and teachers and everybody says, "Do we focus too much on telling students to find their passion?"

Osmond: That's an interesting question.

Wyatt: Because you can't find your passion if it's something you've never heard of.

Osmond: Right.

Wyatt: and there are all these opportunities that are out there and some jobs, it's easy to be passionate about and some jobs it's not easy to be passionate about, but they're great jobs.

Osmond: Well, I'll answer it an Amazon way. You know, Amazon is all about technology and enabling technology to give us information in a way that is consumable and usable. So, for example, we have data that is stored in government agencies across Utah about various educational outcomes and degrees, about various jobs and compensation for those jobs and how much is paid from a taxes perspective and the kinds of industries that we're in and the kinds of jobs that are coming, the kinds of jobs that are going. But we really haven't yet leveraged all of that data in an effective way for families and the education system to be prepared for and shift their thinking towards the new opportunities that are coming. Amazon is creating technologies called data lakes, where we can bring all of this disparate data that is controlled under all of these privacy restrictions and bring that data in a way that everyone's individual data is protected, but we can pull nuggets out in a data analytics approach that gives us dashboards and insights into what jobs are coming. What jobs pay the most? What jobs are the easiest to be able to get to right out of school? What jobs take the longest to complete? What are the compensation elements of those jobs? And empower students with access—and career counselors and educators—with access to dashboards that are current and relevant to the real jobs that the industry has today. That is where Amazon is trying to take us with our technology through the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data lake infrastructure and cloud technologies that bring all of that together. It's pretty cool where we're going, President. Someday soon, you and I are going to have those resources as members of the State Board of Education.

Wyatt: This almost feels to me…I'm trying to…I mean, the answer to this is so easy and it's also so difficult at the same time. How in the world could we have 5.3 million good paying jobs where a person could live anywhere they want to live and have so many go unfilled? But, is part of the problem that young people have as their advisors, parents, and school teachers who are a generation ahead of them and don't know anything about the world's changes?

Osmond: Yeah. That is exactly it, and I think that as…especially with technology-based positions, President, the technology and the jobs are changing so fast. I mean, when you ask a student today, "What is cloud? And what is cloud technology?" Many will not be able to tell you still. They understand that things are in the internet, but they don't understand really that we're talking about the complete and total replacement of a data center. Putting everything that is needed to run your company and accessing through the internet and the different kinds of jobs that come from that—from design and consulting work to practical network administration through cloud-based networking school to developers and developer-related coding for apps and mobile technology—there's so many different jobs that are now tied to that, that are known by different names today from the old IT world just five years ago. So, it's changing so fast, and empowering families and students with an awareness of these new jobs is our challenge. And often, our educators, our counselors and our parents just are not connected to that information fast enough.

Wyatt: What can we do?

Osmond: Well, again, I think it comes to the partnership. It's one of the reasons why AWS feels like we have to reach out. We're offering programs directly to our schools, we're investing in teachers in K-12 and higher ed to become trained and certified and to become aware of these technologies. When the educators know, they get excited. They become the champions of the technology and the companies at times. And so, our goal is to invest in the future by investing in our infrastructure in the teachers and the schools, and then they take the messages and create the awareness with the families and the kids. So, it's a long-term strategy, but that's where we're starting.

Meredith: Aaron, is that what is driving Amazon's desire to partner with educational institutions?

Osmond: Yes.

Meredith: Because it's, as you've suggested, there are barriers to that.

Osmond: Yes.

Meredith: And it would be much easier for you to do, as others have done, to just simply say, "Hey, we're going to start the Amazon Academy. Come on over and sign up for it and you…there's a job at the end of it and we don't care about higher ed or about K-12." Is that what's driving this? Is that you feel like it's a fundamental transformation of the way we not only educate, but that we see our work lives coming up?

Osmond: Excellent question. So, I want to respond with two thoughts. Frist of all, the technology industry is clearly sending signals around its frustration with higher education and the slowness and, frankly, the lack of level of preparedness of students graduating out of our education system across the country—not specific to Utah—but companies like Google, for example, who recently announced their own certificate program, that if students complete them, these programs have both technical and soft skill elements of these certificate outcomes. If a student completes them, they are offered a position in lieu of a degree at Google. And so, from a cost perspective as well, that program averages between $79 and $129 per credit hours. It's incredibly cost effective. And so, we are facing competition from the tech industry and other organizations that are tired of waiting for higher ed to get its act together, if you will, or the education system in general. So, that's part one. and there are other companies doing that, too, if you look at Microsoft and their LinkedIn division is offering complete education solutions for free. Some are…you can pay for access to instructor facilitated, but the majority of their offering is a digital, asynchronous offering that is completely free for those that participate on those services. But then what Amazon believes is that we need to embrace and help the education system to change. We need to provide infrastructure for example, cloud technologies and resources. We need to support educators and enable them with the tools and certifications they need. And our approach to this is our capacity to get to scale. To touch tens of thousands of students in the state, not a few hundred coming to our own online classes. So, we feel it's important to invest in the infrastructure and help public and higher education to change. And that's where we're going as a company.

Wyatt: One of the really positive things about public education, public higher education in particular, which is where we are, is that we're so stable.

Osmond: Yeah.

Wyatt: And one of the negative things is that we're so stable. [All laugh] If we start a program and hire a bunch of people into it, our culture is that we then lead them to tenure and then they're secure in a job for the rest of their career.

Osmond: Yep.

Wyatt: That doesn't lend itself to quick change.

Osmond: No.

Wyatt: But, it feels like we're really built for stability, and we see all the advantages of that stability, but the stability is holding us back from keeping up with the world around us.

Osmond: It is. It is kind of like a catch 22 or a two-edged sword. That stability you can count on, it will be there, it's available, but in many other states who don't manage their education systems as well as we do and who don't have as strong as economies, COVID has really kind of put that pressure to really see some of these problems and the inefficiencies and the cost associated with all of this infrastructure that's not very quick to turn or to meet the needs of industry or to be able to support a high-quality learning experience online. And so, it's causing pressure on the system to make some serious changes or face the reality of going out of business and not being able to fund it from both state and tuition dollars. So, we think that, over time, that things like this COVID scenario will continue to put that kind of pressure, but ultimately to really drive change, industry has to engage and partner with education. And we have to work closely in that spirit of collaboration and innovation to change the education, leverage the skills and the quality of the education environment, in a way that meets our needs for growth. And if we can't get the higher education system to work with us, eventually, like with Google and other providers, industry will stop trying and start doing it on their own. And so, that in my mind is the risk and the opportunity at the same time.

Meredith: Yeah, I've been involved with the AWS Academy initial discussions here at SUU, and that has been the part of it that has been so intriguing to me is that AWS is willing to partner and to assume a little bit of the slowness of higher ed…a little. We often have the discussion that business moves at such a different pace than higher ed does that these types of things are very difficult for both organizations because we just simply get frustrated with one another.

Osmond: Right.


Meredith: And I think it's little discussed that the frustration is really on both sides. It's like Scott and I going on a walk together. He knows he's got to slow down just a little bit in order for me to keep up. [Laughs] Because he's got a 70 inch inseam and I've got a 12 inch inseam. [All laugh] So, we don't walk at the same rate.

Osmond: I love it.

Meredith: Nevertheless, I enjoy going for a walk with Scott, and I think he enjoys walking with me. So, finding that…it's just that willingness, that desire to actually…sorry, I've got a phone ringing in the background here.

Osmond: You're fine.

Meredith: It's that willingness, it's that desire to look past our initial differences and still be willing to partner beyond that, that I think is going to make AWS successful where others have just, as you've suggested, they've simply thrown up their hands in frustration and started their own thing.

Wyatt: Aaron, you said something…

Osmond: I think the other piece…

Wyatt: Oh, go ahead.

Osmond: Sorry, go ahead.

Wyatt: No, go ahead.

Osmond: I was just going to say, President, as I look at that, one of the things AWS is trying to do is to remove the barriers and the blocks and to be a partner, recognizing that it's a long-term commitment. AWS is not out to sell our education materials. We're not out there to make money off of our training products. Our goal is to enable tens of thousands of students to get access to this education so that they can go work for our customers. That's how AWS wins. When our customers can hire qualified talent out of the school system and know that they can support AWS technologies when they go to work for our customers, we have a big win. So, our goal is to invest in teachers, invest in their education, invest in their certification, empower them to know and learn these technologies, and do all of that at no cost so that they can then turn around over time and provide those services and resources as part of their school system, whether that's K-12 or higher ed, in their normal delivery models as part of their normal infrastructure successfully and with ease. That's hard to do and it takes multiple years to do. It's not something that happens overnight, but AWS is committed to do that.

Wyatt: Well, the one…that's a nice way to describe what you're doing. And the statement that you made a few minutes ago is still ringing in my ears, and that is, if I put a couple of things you said together, that there's 5.3 million openings, maybe half of them didn't get filled because there's not qualified people out there, and so, you're trying to help us catch up so that we can train enough people to fill those jobs, good paying jobs. But eventually, if we don't catch up, that AWS is going to go out there and start a directly competitive program rather than work with us because you've got to get the people.

Osmond: We won't have a choice.

Wyatt: Right. There is no option.

Osmond: We don't think that…it really isn't going to be an option if it gets to that point, but what we see is an education system across the U.S. and across the world that is hungry to partner with industry, that wants relevance.

Wyatt: That is true.

Osmond: That is looking to change, but not sure exactly how. That don't have great budgets and infrastructure capacity and that need help to get there. So, there's just so much infrastructure it would be so much more effective and efficient for industry to partner with education and to help them change. And that's the approach Amazon is taking. And so, it's not just to try to do it on our own. We could. We could figure it out. Amazon is one of the most successful companies in the world. It has enormous reach and capacity and investment ability. But we're choosing to invest in the infrastructure that exists and to partner with education to meet the goals. We think that is the better investment long-term.

Wyatt: It's almost as if…if the strength of a university is stability and if the weakness is maybe too much stability sometimes, it almost feels like we need to have part of our university focused on this stability and part of it that is just totally flexible. [Laughs]

Osmond: Yeah.

Wyatt: That can move and change every year depending on what's happening in the market. That would be an interesting…

Osmond: President, when you look at what we are trying to do in our state around our technical colleges, in many ways, that is the hybrid, right? We're trying to be super close to industry. We're trying to minimize, as much as we can, the amount of time and cost associated with getting the training you need to go get to a job. And the partnerships that are developing between, for example, Southwest Tech and SUU are a great example of how your institution is trying to support and integrate and partner with those elements together. The fast, not the slow, but the more methodical and purposeful elements of long-term education combined with the speed and the resiliency and the quick change associated with industry. That's tough to do. But I think we're doing a good job in our state trying to figure it out, but that is necessary because industry is changing so fast. Jobs are being created that didn't even exist two or three years ago right now in Utah. We've got to figure out how to respond.

Wyatt: Steve and I met with somebody a while ago working in a high tech industry who helped create a bachelor's degree program in that industry for one of our sister institutions just a few years ago, but now tells us that the world has changed so much since it was created that he's not sure it's going to be successful.

Osmond: Wow.

Wyatt: So, we have…the one takeaway that I'm getting from you is, in higher education, is that we have got to be closer to our industry partners and we have got to be able to find ways to change. Because industry is changing.

Osmond: Yeah, fast.

Wyatt: The jobs that are going to are changing so fast that we've got to be willing to change along with it.

Osmond: Yeah, totally.

Wyatt: And that injects…

Osmond: And when you think about those…sorry, go ahead President.

Wyatt: That is, by definition, instability.

Meredith: Yeah.

Osmond: It is.

Meredith: And there's a certain amount of discomfort as well. Yeah.

Osmond: Oh, yeah. Well, it's intriguing and it's a fun challenge, President, that I and you get to work on as part of the State Board of Education and that I also get to enjoy in my daily profession. And I just want to say that, from my perspective, SUU is one of those institutions that is leading out on these topics already. There's so much to be proud of for what you and your team are doing there at SUU, and I think it's a reflection, too, of why the governor also made a decision to have a second governor's office in the state at SUU's campus. You guys are innovative and on the cutting edge. That's all I have to say.

Wyatt: Well, it's nice of you to say it. And we need to be more innovative and more on the cutting edge.

Osmond: Agreed. [All laugh]

Wyatt: But I…we do appreciate that validation. Because we are striving to do that, and frankly, that's one of the reasons why we're doing this series of podcasts is that we're trying to learn, we're trying to have this discussion, we're trying to wring our hands publicly, and by doing this, invite everyone at the Southern Utah University community to listen to these podcasts and think, "Wow, that is really interesting. How can I be part of the solution?"

Osmond: Exactly.

Wyatt: That's why we do this, isn't it, Steve?

Meredith: It is indeed.

Osmond: Love it.

Wyatt: And we have people listening from all around the world. We're delighted, whatever we learn, to share that with institutions of higher education and those interested in higher education in countries all around the world. Well…

Osmond: Well, it's been an absolute pleasure, President.

Wyatt: Yeah, thank you so much. This has been fascinating. Thanks for your time.

Osmond: Well, I'll just say to you two that if there's ever an opportunity to have a conversation again like this with you guys on some other exciting education topics—and there are several, President, we could dive into—I'd love to do it.

Wyatt: OK, will do.

Osmond: Alright.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest via phone from his office in northern Utah, Aaron Osmond, who is a Workforce Transformation Leader with Amazon Web Services, and very importantly to us, also he is the Vice Chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education. We are so glad to have had you, Aaron. Thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule to join us.

Osmond: It's been a pleasure, gentlemen, thanks so much.

Meredith: And we thank you, our devoted listeners, for tuning it. We'll be back with another podcast very soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.