Impact Stories
January 16, 2024 – Future of Work

Merit America: Empowering Americans to find purposeful work

Merit America: Empowering Americans to find purposeful work

Today, too few Americans have access to the learning opportunities that will help them reach their potential or find a career that is meaningful to them. College is expensive or inflexible, and online courses do not have the structure or support to translate learning into a job. By combining technical training from industry-recognized partners with best-in-class coaching and peer support, Merit America prepares adults stuck in low-wage work for upwardly mobile careers. A University of Virginia study released in 2023 found the average wage gain for Merit America alumni was $24,000 just three months post-program completion.

CKF Director of Partnership Development Brennan Brown talked with Merit America Head of Client and Partner Success Kevin Hatcher about how Merit America helps learners discover their unique aptitudes and purpose.  

BROWN: So, Kevin, let’s jump right in. I googled Merit America, and a few observers seem to be worried about choosing a different path than a four-year degree, even calling Merit America a scam. Is it?

HATCHER: Brennan, you are jumping right in with a provocative question. We’re not! What Merit America is, is a nonprofit that prepares workers who are stuck in low wage jobs for in-demand careers. We train and recruit individuals who are motivated to improve their lives and realize their potential, and we give them access to best-in class coaching, industry-created technical training, and then career support throughout life in hopes of connecting them with opportunities that are really going to help them self-actualize and improve their lives — not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities. 

Our model is designed for folks who work and, candidly, don’t have a lot of time or money to invest in expensive or time-consuming programs like college or full-time technical trainings. I think of one of our alumni, Halid, who ran out of money for college and still couldn’t make ends meet when took on several gig jobs. He had a family to take care of too. There weren’t a lot of options for Halid, but our program is designed for individuals like him. It’s fast, taking 14-22 weeks to complete, and it’s flexible. Halid finished our program and is now a systems integration engineer at a Fortune 500 company. He’s making about $45,000 more than when he joined Merit America.  

BROWN: Empowering people to discover their purpose and self-actualize is really what it’s all about. It worked out for Halid, but what happens when an alum struggles in their first job after Merit America?  

HATCHER: Yes, self-actualization is a process, and we want to make space for that. The first opportunity may not be the lifelong opportunity. It may, in fact, be a stepping stone to something better. And our entire program is built to be incredibly learner-friendly.    

Let’s say one of our alums lost a job. They would get their payments paused and wouldn’t Let’s say one of our alums lost a job. First, they could pause their loan payments and wouldn’t have to pay until they’re employed and earning at least $40,000 again. Secondly, that alum could rejoin our career services, or what we call our job support program. They would be assigned a coach. They would get access to all of the same resources and programming, everything from mock interviews, resume review, facilitating introductions with our employer partners, and they would have access to all of the same supports that they had access to in that job support phase when they were first in the program. And, third, we have the Merit America Guarantee which means that if the program doesn’t work for you — you don’t secure family-sustaining employment after two years — you don’t have to pay for the program.

BROWN: Let’s turn to your work with employers. In general, how are they thinking about empowering people to grow and develop?

HATCHER: There are a few aspects that really come to mind. Number one is recruiting and training new talent — not just for roles that currently exist, but for the roles of the future. So they’re thinking about AI, they’re thinking about cybersecurity, they’re thinking about UX, right? They’re really thinking about how to attract new talent and make sure that talent is trained for the roles they are forecasting for five, 17 years from now. Merit America tries to be responsive to that. We’re actually launching some new tracks in cybersecurity project management and UX design based on feedback from employers.

Secondly, is reskilling and upskilling existing talent. A lot of employers are thinking not just about attracting new talent, but equipping and empowering existing talent with the skills they would need to fulfill hard to fill positions internally. I think one good example of this is Amazon. They have this awesome program called Career Choice that empowers employees to learn new skills for career success, at Amazon or elsewhere. Through our upskilling partnership, we’ve provided training for more than 2,000 Amazon Associates nationwide, resulting in over $24 million in wage increases for Amazon learners.     

This transcript was edited for length and clarity. Brown and Hatcher’s conversation was part of Jeff Selingo’s “Next Office Hour: New Signals of Job Preparedness” webinar presented on Dec. 6, 2023. Click here to find the full replay of that broadcast.