IBM Looks Beyond the College Degree

The tech company is looking for different ways to fill “new-collar” jobs in its 360,000-employee workforce by adding digital badges and apprenticeships and deepening partnerships with community colleges.

October 29, 2019
 
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Few major companies have been as aggressive as IBM in experimenting with different ways of hiring tech workers.

Citing a serious skills gap, the multinational International Business Machines Corporation is looking for different recruiting channels for its workforce of 360,000 employees. IBM's view is that “new-collar” jobs in cybersecurity, cloud computing and other high-demand fields don’t necessarily require a traditional college degree.

The company also has created one of the most developed digital badge portfolios for an employer, which both its workers and those outside IBM can earn, and it is adding more and different apprenticeship opportunities as well launching its own boot camp-style offerings. At the same time, IBM continues to partner with traditional colleges, particularly through its expanded work with community colleges.

Inside Higher Ed recently interviewed Kelli Jordan, director of IBM career and skills, about the company’s take on workforce development, the college degree and alternative credential pathways to jobs. Excerpts from the conversation follow below.

Q: What has driven IBM’s new-collar push?

A: The phrase is probably a bit overused, but it was really the idea that there’s a skill gap that exists today. When we look at the number of jobs that are available -- and that number keeps growing, more than 700,000 open technology jobs in the U.S., another half a million over the next decade -- it’s just not enough coming out of the educational system; it’s not meeting the demands of the workplace today. We have more jobs than we have people to fill them.

So we really started to think about how we could bring more candidates into our pipeline, how we could open up the aperture of skilled resources so that we could actually meet our hiring goals. We look at the number of students who are graduating from a traditional university today -- it’s only something like 60,000 to 70,000 graduating with a computer science degree. That’s one-tenth of the open technology jobs.

So that’s quite a gap that has to be filled. We need to do that by bringing in new candidates who have a different background. And so for us, that meant community college partnerships, it meant initiatives like P-TECH, it meant digital credentialing programs and our apprenticeship programs. Really thinking about new types of skill development programs and educational initiatives that will help to skill the populations so that they can fill these jobs.

Q: Has IBM changed its views on hiring graduates from traditional colleges?

A: We’ve not devalued the traditional college pipeline at all. In fact, we have a very robust recruiting program for our early-career professionals. For us, this is unlocking new channels. In addition to what we were already doing, starting outreach to community colleges, focusing on veteran populations, focusing on boot camps. All of those channels that we haven’t looked at before.

Q: How extensive is the company's move to begin dropping degree requirements in hiring?

A: It’s the vast majority of jobs. That’s where we get into that concept of new collar. It’s not a traditional blue-collar job. It’s not a traditional white-collar job. It’s these new-collar roles that prioritize capability over a credential. And it’s really anything that you’re finding in the technology industry. It can be cloud computing, cybersecurity, design, even data science. When you think about the industries where this type of concept can exist, it could extend to health care, manufacturing. It doesn’t just exist in technology. But to think of those types of roles, that’s where our apprenticeship program came in as well. What can we do to help people build some additional skills so that they’re qualified for those roles?

Q: How many jobs, and at what skill level, fit the new-collar billing?

A: The level of skill does vary a bit by roles. Every particular role that we hire for might have a specific list of skills that we’re looking for. What you’re looking for in a software engineer is going to be different than what you’re looking for in a design or a project management type of role. For us, about 15 to 20 percent of our hires each year are coming in with this sort of new-collar background. So without a traditional four-year degree.

That’s the big focus over the last couple of years. The number of jobs that we post that don’t have that degree requirement has vastly increased. And the number of candidates that are coming in with these new channels -- new schools, the boot camps, veteran recruiting -- has really opened up that aperture for us.

Q: What is IBM doing to expand apprenticeship opportunities?

A: It’s one of the first adaptations of a traditional registered apprenticeship program in the technology industry. Apprenticeship has been around for centuries. But in the U.S. in particular it’s very much historically been linked to the trades and to those blue-collar types of roles. For us, we’ve adapted that model and really modernized it, so that you can be an apprentice as a software engineer, as a cybersecurity professional, as a designer. We’ve worked with the Department of Labor to register a 12- to 18-month program that really incorporates 200 to 300 hours of learning and instruction along with this on-the-job experience. We started with a really small cohort, a handful of apprentices back in October 2017, and by the end of 2018 we had over 200. We’re on track to have over 400 this year alone. So we’ve seen exponential growth in the adoption of this, the interest in it that we’re seeing across the industry as well. We partnered with the Consumer Technology Association to create the CTA Apprenticeship Coalition. We shared our competency framework, all of the playbooks that we’ve developed to help other companies have a leg up on that ladder to start their own apprenticeship programs.

Q: Are there limits to apprentices' ability to sign on permanently with the company?

A: Absolutely not. It’s a huge upside. While we don’t guarantee a full-time role at the completion, we’re at over a 96 percent rate of converting our apprentices. We’ve had apprentices coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. One of my favorite stories is about Tony, who actually worked in the coffee shop in our lobby. He was a barista. And he really expressed an interest in learning how to code. He started working with an IBMer here who was mentoring him and got into our second class of apprentices, recently graduated and accepted a full-time job with us.

Q: How big of a lift was it to create the apprenticeships?

A: Standing up the program was certainly a significant piece of work, because there wasn’t really a lot of information available about what an apprenticeship could look like in the technology industry. And that’s why we felt there was such value in sharing everything that we had learned, because we knew how much time and energy that we had invested in the program to stand it up. We’re still investing that time and energy. We’re iterating constantly, adding new learning, listening to the apprentices and their managers and their mentors about new topics that could be of value, new projects that they could take on to really continue to refine their skills. Across the corporation, we do have some level of competency mapping. But it’s not something that we’ve stretched fully across the organization at this point.

Q: Is there a college credit component for IBM's apprenticeships?

A: It can be something that is done as part of the registered apprenticeship model. We currently are not issuing college credit as part of our program. But we do have a really robust digital credential program here at IBM. We’ve issued more than a million and a half badges to date. It’s been a big driver for us, for our entire population to really help demonstrate that they’ve got the skills of the future. We’ve gone from a third of our employees having those skills to 80 percent of IBMers having those skills of the future. And we demonstrate that through our digital badge program. An apprentice, when they graduate from the apprenticeship, does receive a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor. So they’ve got this registered apprenticeship credential. And then throughout the course of the apprenticeship, they’re earning more of these IBM digital credentials that are issued through our third-party partner. It could vary from five different badges or credentials to 10 or more. We had one apprentice who earned something like 18 of them during the course of her 12-month apprenticeship because she was such a continuous learner. In addition to all of her required learning, she kept going above and beyond, seeking out new courses and new skills that she could build.

Q: How important are badges for employee advancement within the company, or for looking elsewhere?

A: When we started the program, because it was such a new concept as well, there was a lot of change that was just around what does a badge mean, what does it represent? The adoption that we’ve seen just in the few years that the program has existed is quite significant, when we talk about a million and a half badges being issued. Probably all IBMers have multiple badges to their name. We’ve really shifted the focus from a simple knowledge badge to a skill badge as well. And because of the metadata, the ability to share them, they are fully portable, fully linked to you. You can share them on LinkedIn -- it’s a way to show the skills that you’ve learned. It’s really driving a lot of value in the industry when we have IBMers who earn them. And in fact, they’re not just limited to IBMers. Many of our badges are available to anybody who wants to go out and take a free course on our IBM training site. It’s a great way to show your industry skills. For somebody who might be earning that badge and trying to find a role, they’re able to use that skills metadata that’s part of the badge to understand what types of roles that exist in the entire marketplace, that they could use those skills.

Q: How is the company’s relationship with traditional colleges changing?

A: My team has really been partnering with the community colleges in particular. We’ve got at least 19 community college partners across the United States, very active partners in the areas where we do a lot of our hiring, and we have really established that presence. It could be anything from the recruiting efforts that we’ve launched there, to a bigger presence around in-classroom subject matter experts providing curriculum reviews -- working with the head of a department on the content of a course, providing case studies or critiques of where else we could infuse some more industry contemporary data into a curriculum. And really helping to provide those pathways to employment.

We recruit a lot of our apprentices directly from our community college partners. We’ve also partnered with many of them on some of the apprenticeship grant opportunities that have been published through the Department of Labor.

Q: Can you describe IBM's work with K-12 through P-TECH?

A: P-TECH’s a great example of a new-collar model. And it’s a great demonstration of the fact that there does need to be partnership between industry and academia. We can’t be all doing it in a vacuum. We’ve got to be partnering and collaborating. P-TECH has grown very rapidly since we launched that first school in 2011. By the end of the year, we’ll be in more than 200 schools across 14 countries. It’s really that starting point. These are schools that might be in underprivileged, underrepresented communities. So IBM or any of our industry partners are coming in and starting to work with them really at the grade-nine level, with mentorship and job-readiness courses, whether it's soft skills, internships or other things that are going to help those students either become career ready or college ready. P-TECH has also been a great pipeline to helping these students perhaps consider and attend college when they might not have done that in the past.

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