The world needs more data scientists and Microsoft (MSFT -0.71%) has taken a big step to make that happen.

At the company's Worldwide Partner Conference, the tech leader introduced the Microsoft Professional Degree (MPD) program, a "university-caliber" curriculum for professionals at any stage of their career. The program launches with an initial offering in data science, with all courseware available on, the nonprofit online learning destination founded by Harvard University and MIT, according to a press release.

"The proliferation of cloud technologies and the delivery of software as a service has opened up tremendous revenue opportunities for our partners," said Microsoft executive Steven Guggenheimer in the release. "The Microsoft Professional Degree will be offered via edX, as well as through learning-as-a-service offerings delivered through partners, to meet customers' evolving training needs and to help close the skills gap we are seeing across a number of industries."

Microsoft has decided to offer a program that will help meet a specific workplace need. Image source: Microsoft.

Put simply, there's a need for this and by offering this program Microsoft can help create workers that can fill needs for the company.

Alison Cunard, general manager of Microsoft Learning Experiences (LeX), explained in a blog post that offering learning as a service lets the student follow their own path, at their own pace in order to reach specific goals, which can close the skills gap.

"The versatility of the Open edX on Azure platform, and the breadth of our learning partner community, allows us to broaden our reach and deliver customized curriculum to drive skills needed in the market, such as the Microsoft Professional Degree (MPD) program," she wrote. 

Cunard also explained that need drove the decision to make the initial curriculum for MPD focus on data science.

"A study by McKinsey & Company estimates that by 2018 the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills, as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions," she wrote.

How does it work?

Microsoft's initial program consists of nine classes and a final project. Students can audit classes for free, but to receive credit toward the MPD they must purchase a certificate for each class. The price varies between $25 and $99 for each step of the program, with the total cost coming in just over $500.

Classes are offered in specific session and students can enroll based on this calendar. In addition, the web page from the program offers a detailed syllabus for each class, which is designed to require four to eight hours to complete.

Why is Microsoft doing this?

Call it altruism directed by self-interest. Microsoft needs more people with these skills and recognizes a critical shortage. The company also sees that the traditional education market may not be serving post-college workers.

By offering this type of program the company creates a path to learn a valuable new skill for adult workers at a negligible cost. It's a model which other tech companies have employed and it's a smart way to address a global need while also helping itself.

"At Microsoft, we believe the approach and tools used for learning need to continually evolve to meet the demands of our device-centric and data-driven world. This is a world where both technical and functional skills are becoming increasingly critical across all careers and vocations," said Cunard in the launch release.

See a need and help fill that need. That's not how the education system has generally worked in the United States, but it's an approach that solves a problem that helps the workforce while benefiting the company.