IBM on Skills-First

Why the tech giant is bullish on alternatives to the four-year degree.

A look at the decade-plus push by IBM to create more job opportunities for workers without degrees and to develop its own credentials and apprenticeships. Also, how an accreditor seeks to bring quality assurance to the booming alternative-credential space.

On-Ramps to the Tech Workforce

No corporation has been more committed than IBM in trying to create career opportunities for workers without four-year college degrees. The global tech company’s ambitions include becoming a major player in the issuing of alternative credentials and working with other companies on their hiring strategies.

Big Blue began its skills-first push more than a decade ago, under the leadership of then CEO Ginni Rometty. In 2021, five years after Rometty coined the term “new-collar jobs” for middle-skill tech roles, IBM stripped bachelor’s degree requirements from half its job openings.

“It was really born of necessity,” says David Barnes, IBM’s vice president of global workforce policy, citing acute shortages of skilled workers in tech fields like cybersecurity.

Instead of setting a “narrow aperture for a labor pool” with four-year degree requirements, Barnes says, “we try to look at education and skills holistically” and to ask, “What’s really necessary to do this job?”

While skepticism is mounting about whether big companies (and states) can make good on their nondegree hiring pledges, Barnes says IBM’s share of U.S. hires without degrees is approaching 20%. “We believe in the model,” he says. “It’s working.”

Creating entry-level job opportunities for workers without degrees isn’t enough, says Barnes. As a result, the company has sought to create paths to advancement for its nondegree hires, three-quarters of whom go on to earn a college degree later.

IBM’s employees spend a global average of 80+ hours a year on professional development. And the company places skills at the core of its employee performance reviews.

Basic tech skills have become “table stakes” for hires, Barnes says. Meanwhile, IBM has learned from regular interviews with CEOs that STEM skills have become much less of a priority in hiring. Barnes says that’s partially because it often is easier to upskill workers with additional and evolving tech skills than it is to hire IT workers and then train them in finance or HR.

“Today’s hot tech skill is tomorrow’s commodity,” Barnes says.

The ‘Slow Burn’ of Change

IBM has committed to investing $250M globally on registered apprenticeships and other training programs by 2025. That pledge got a shoutout from the White House last year. IBM says it would like to see the federal government do more to boost apprenticeships.

“There’s bipartisan love for apprenticeships,” says Barnes. “That’s something we’ve been stoking.”

Policy recommendations in IBM’s tech workforce playbook include a call for Congress to update the National Apprenticeship Act, which was signed into law in 1937. To expand apprenticeships, the company is seeking:

  • Increased flexibility, including through giving precedence to competency-based programs.

  • Alignment of apprenticeships with other education and workforce laws.

  • Support for the validation of on-the-job learning into college credit.

  • Extension of funding for pre-apprenticeship programs.

  • Elevation of intermediaries that help companies create and administer apprenticeships.

IBM created its U.S. apprenticeship program in 2017. It grew faster than the company anticipated and has expanded to 35 job roles. IBM has hired roughly 1K apprenticeships through its U.S. program, where more than 90% of graduates become full-time employees.

The company partnered with Franklin Apprenticeship to create its IBM Z Mainframe Apprenticeship program. It says an intermediary can help ease a company’s administrative burden with apprenticeships while shaping the experience for participants.

“This is what they do. This is their core competency,” says Lydia Logan, IBM’s vice president of global education and workforce development and corporate social responsibility.

Logan acknowledges that efforts by companies to change how they hire and develop talent are a “slow burn.” The progress IBM has made was possible, she says, because it took on the challenge as part of a “complete agenda” ranging from policy priorities to apprenticeships and consulting to SkillsBuild, the company’s free online course and credential platform, which is a big part of its goal to upskill 30M people this decade.

“Not every company is going to do that,” she says. “Not every company can.”

In the meantime, IBM says it will continue to push governments to help with scaling more pathways to good tech jobs. That includes the company’s advocacy to open up federal Pell Grants to short-term credential programs.

A key reason Logan and Barnes are bullish that big change is coming to corporate hiring and credentialing is the company’s worldwide perspective.

The Kicker: “These same skills conversations are happening globally,” Logan says.

Quality and Noncollege Credentials

A major college accreditor is wading into alternative credentials, with a plan to “bring clarity to the chaos.”

The Higher Learning Commission last week announced the creation of its Credential Lab. As an institutional accrediting agency, HLC’s approval is needed for its member colleges and universities to be eligible for federal aid.

The accreditor won’t be providing that sort of oversight to external content providers. But the goal is to kick the tires with a wide range of quality checks for issuers of certifications, professional certificates, and bootcamp-style training. The move was motivated in part by the strong growth and interest in these credentials that HLC found in a recent survey of its college members.

“It’s a bit of a wild, wild West,” says Barbara Gellman-Danley, HLC’s president. She says the accreditor will offer voluntary reviews of the institutional integrity of content providers, including checks of their financial viability. “It’s a great time to look at outcomes.”

HLC is in the early phase of tapping a wide range of experts to help develop these quality assurance structures, with input from outside providers as well as traditional colleges. Gellman-Danley also says HLC is looking for guidance from state officials, particularly those who are focused on economic development.

“We don’t just want to hear from higher education,” she says.

Melanie Booth is the new Credential Lab’s executive director. Just as colleges say they need help making sense of alternative credentials, Booth says noncollege credential issuers are interested in quality assurance. She says participation in the Credential Lab’s work will help with their visibility and legitimacy.

The goal is about building bridges between colleges, content providers, and employers, Booth says, and to “hold up the quality standards that we would want for learners.”

For universities, much of the action on alternative credentials happens in continuing education. That can include the quick creation of workforce-oriented programs and efforts to convert noncredit programs to transfer credits for students. HLC hopes the Credential Lab will help the agency to bulk up its support for this often-overlooked segment of higher ed.

“By working with folks who are active in this space, it will help us identify where the challenges are,” says Gellman-Danley.

Open Tabs

Gainful Employment
“Career training programs should lead to careers, not dead ends,” Miguel Cardona, the U.S. secretary of education, said as the Biden administration released its final gainful-employment rule. The debt-to-earnings and high school wage metrics remained largely unchanged from previous versions, administration officials said. The rules also included expected public disclosure requirements—covering all programs at all federal-aid eligible colleges—on student costs, debt and earnings.

Skills-Based Hiring
The Office of Personnel Management has completed a major step needed to move a wide array of federal agencies to skills-based hiring—creating a list of “critical general competencies” for common professions government-wide. The effort took more than two years and resulted in definitions of 32 skill sets required across more than 200 job series, Erich Wagner reported in Government Executive.

Upward Mobility
People are becoming more zero-sum in their thinking, and weaker economic growth may explain why, writes John Burn-Murdoch, a data journalist at the Financial Times. Older generations grew up with high growth and formed aspirational attitudes, he writes, citing a recent study, while younger ones have faced low growth and are more zero-sum. The risk is that we’ve tipped into a negative cycle, with more adversarial thinking.

Diversifying Careers
Corporate America made good on its promise to hire a lot more people of color in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, according to a new analysis by Bloomberg. S&P 100 companies added just over 323K jobs in 2021, and 94% went to people of color. The biggest shifts occurred in lower-paying roles, such as sales workers and admins, but the general trend also held in well-paid managerial and professional roles.

Combining Agencies
By creating a singular higher education workforce agency, governors can give citizens the full range of options for education and training beyond high school, Scott Jenkins, strategy director for state policy at Lumina Foundation, writes for a policy catalog from the American Enterprise Institute. Missouri made this move in 2019, which has helped it to expand apprenticeship opportunities and education for incarcerated learners.

Federal Fragmentation
The primary federal agencies charged with equipping Americans for future jobs are not in sync, write Julian Alssid and Kaitlin LeMoine of J. Alssid Associates. That fragmentation persists at the local level, where schools, training organizations, employers, and economic development agencies remain siloed. They cite Real Jobs Rhode Island as a state-level example of the cross-sector collaboration that’s needed in workforce development.

Big Gifts
The National Skills Coalition announced that it has received a “transformational” onetime $6M donation from Yield Giving, MacKenzie Scott’s charitable organization. Yield Giving also made a “catalytic, unrestricted” gift of $5M to SkillUp Coalition.

I’ll be at C-BEN’s annual meeting next week. So the next edition of the newsletter might be skinnier. If you’d like to see more in-depth reporting on connections between education and work, please consider supporting Work Shift. I’d like other reporters to join me on the beat. —PF