Earning a college degree has long been viewed as the best path to upward mobility in American society. But Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10 argues that the emphasis on higher education is leaving out millions of low-wage workers who could ascend to middle-income occupations with the right job training.
“Only one in 10 low-wage Americans will attend college by their mid-20s, and our response to these individuals has been really lackluster as a society,” he says. Meanwhile, employers are struggling to fill several million jobs in technology, healthcare, and other fields.
Diemand-Yauman is co-founder and co-CEO of Merit America, a nonprofit that offers part-time training in the technical and professional skills needed for many in-demand fields. “The economy has an incredible need for skilled talent in these careers, and we need to begin investing in another way to think about faster, more flexible pathways for underrepresented Americans without a four-year degree,” he says.
Merit America’s training programs, previously 80 percent online, are now fully remote. Since most students have jobs already, the programs accommodate those with unpredictable work schedules and dependents they need to look after with asynchronous learning. The programs run for nine to 24 weeks and offer coaching and peer support in addition to technical skills training. Merit America also helps with job placement.
The organization works with many prominent employers, including Uber, DoorDash, Google, and JP Morgan Chase, to train workers and place them in new jobs. Amazon has committed to spending $700 million over the next four years to enroll its fulfillment center workers in several training programs, Merit America’s among them.
The average student in the program is between 30 and 35 years old and earns $26,000 a year. After completing the training, 63 percent land a job within six months at an average salary of $50,000. Founded in 2018, Merit America has so far provided training to 500 people and is ramping up to work with more than 1,500 this year, with a goal of serving more than 10,000 in the next three years.
Diemand-Yauman has been interested in education since his days at Princeton, when he conducted a field study for his psychology thesis with 250 high school students, which was published in the journal Cognition and featured in The New York Times. He served as student body president his senior year and won the Pyne Prize, the highest general distinction for an undergraduate. After college, his experiences ranged from creating and performing on a children’s English educational show in Seoul, South Korea, that was watched by millions to being one of the earliest employees of Coursera to co-founding Philanthropy University, which offers training to thousands of nonprofits.
These days, Diemand-Yauman is also a lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where he co-teaches “Humor: Serious Business,” a course about how to use humor to build more effective bonds at work and embed it into leadership strategies. That endeavor inspired him to co-create “Remotely Humorous,” a series of lectures about bringing humor into the workplace during the pandemic that is available online. It promises attendees will learn “the neuroscience of laughter” and also “the definitive punchline to ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’”
“At Princeton, supported by leaders like Dean Thomas Dunne, Dean Tori Jueds, and President Tilghman, I discovered humor was a really important part of my leadership,” Diemand-Yauman says. “It makes people feel more engaged and makes work much more nourishing.”