Ginni Rometty: How businesses can help fix America's talent problem

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Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, discusses how IBM's apprenticeship program aims to provide workers with the skills needed to keep up with rapidly developing technology.

Posted: Jan 28, 2019 4:30 PM
Updated: Jan 28, 2019 4:30 PM

This week, IBM participates in CES, the annual technology exhibition where we interact with the latest innovations and ask, "What's next?"

Yet this question extends well beyond the technologies at CES each year. It's even more important to understand what's next for society. That includes building a workforce that is 'tomorrow ready.'

I believe that 100% of jobs will change in the era of AI and that productivity gains resulting from these technologies will ultimately create more jobs than they replace. The priority right now is to help people around the world prepare for these jobs and benefit more from the prosperity that new technology creates.

After all, the benefits of a booming US economy and low unemployment rate have not reached all Americans, and we face a skills gap that threatens long-term growth. At last report, released Tuesday, there were 6.9 million open jobs in the United States, yet over 6 million Americans are unemployed. If we don't do more now to equip workers with skills to fill more of those jobs, one study estimates that the United States could miss out on $162 billion in annual revenues from the tech sector alone.

Many of today's most in-demand jobs require the right skills but not always a traditional bachelor's degree. We call these new-collar jobs, and they're well-paying careers in fast-growing fields. Apprenticeships are one proven way for both students and working professionals to build new-collar skills — not just in technology, but across industries. And with data showing that 91% of apprentices find work after completing their programs, it's a model that should be scaled up much faster than is happening today.

IBM's apprenticeship program, launched in 2017, has grown nearly twice as fast as expected. Our apprentices have diverse backgrounds, from former teachers to firefighters. They're people like Tony Byrd, whose first job after high school was in the coffee shop at IBM's site in Raleigh, North Carolina. Seven years spent getting to know IBMers sparked his interest in tech. After teaching himself to code and taking community college courses, Tony was accepted into our software engineering apprenticeship.

They're also people just starting their career journey. People like Suriana Rodriguez, who graduated two years ahead of schedule from the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), a grade 9-14 education program pioneered by IBM. P-TECH combines high-school, community college and work-based learning to better prepare students for career success. After graduation, Suri, a DACA recipient, was unsure of her options. Her IBM mentor pointed out a new Electronic Lab Tech apprenticeship in Poughkeepsie, New York, which gave Suri a chance to continue learning on the job while earning a paycheck.

Yet no one company can launch enough apprenticeships to solve America's skills challenge. Businesses' shared goal should be to create a national corps of skilled workers to fill millions of open new-collar jobs, accelerate American innovation and expand economic prosperity — especially in communities that feel tech has left them behind.

At CES this week, a group of 17 leading businesses is stepping forward to do just that. The newly launched CTA Apprenticeship Coalition brings together CTA member companies, including IBM, Ford, Bosch, Walmart and others to create thousands of apprenticeships across 20 states and the District of Columbia. Together, we will help close our nation's skills gap, build a pipeline of talented workers to thrive in technology's fastest-growing fields and restore trust in tech as a force for good.

Those of us advancing new technologies need to share an obligation to ensure technology's benefits are felt broadly across society. I encourage my fellow business leaders to join this coalition's effort and, more broadly, do their part to equip workers asking "what's next" with the skills they need to be successful in our exciting new era of innovation.

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