By Matthew Heimer
June 22, 2018

Unemployment may be stunningly low today, but many managers fret that their workers don’t have the right skills for tomorrow. The Business Roundtable, the association of U.S. CEOs, is taking a step toward addressing that anxiety. Later today, the group will launch a program called the Workforce Partnership Initiative (WPI) that aims to get America’s biggest employers to collaborate, with high schools, colleges, and each other, on closing the workforce skills gap.

The WPI will involve about 35 companies and their CEOs, organized in seven different regional groups; they’ll work with local governments and schools to develop and share best practices for building a better worker-training pipeline. The initiative will focus largely on STEM skills, and particularly on improving opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities within STEM fields; the BRT companies are pledging both to help shape the training curriculum and to create more internships and apprenticeships for students.

Individual companies and schools “have been doing stuff about work skills for years, but everyone is doing their own things,” Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase and chairman of the BRT, told Fortune editors on Thursday afternoon. By partnering, the WPI groups can “set better standards, make sure we’re going to create a lot more jobs, and have far more impact.”

The WPI’s launch is a culmination of a couple of years of behind-the-scenes work led by Wes Bush, the CEO of defense contractor Northrop Grumman, who chairs the BRT’s education and workforce committee. Other CEOs serving as regional group leaders include Greg Case of Aon and Julie Sweet of Accenture (Chicago); Blake D. Moret, of Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee); Mark Weinberger of Ernst & Young (North Carolina); Ginny Rometty of IBM (New York/New Jersey/Connecticut); Lisa Davis of Siemens Corp., the U.S. division of the German conglomerate (the Southeast); and Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing (Utah).

Taking a stab at STEM

CEOs broadly agree on what kind of workers they don’t have enough of. In a 2016 survey of roundtable members, for example, 44% of the respondents said they were struggling to find workers qualified for “skilled trades”–typically jobs that require technical skill but no college degree, like truck driving or robot-assisted assembly line work. (Under Dimon, JPMorgan Chase has made major investments in skilled-trade training at the high school level, most notably in the South Bronx and Detroit.)

But the real action and the real anxiety, of course, are in STEM. Fully 59% of the Roundtable CEOs reported having a hard time finding students with fundamental math skills; and three-quarters said they couldn’t find workers with the chops to fill jobs in specific STEM-related fields ranging from cybersecurity to data analytics.

The seven WPI groups (there may eventually be more) are aimed at tackling the specific needs in their own respective regions. The Chicago group, for example, hopes to build a better pipeline in that area for HR, software engineering and health care; the Washington, D.C., group, led by Bush, will focus more intently on skills in high local demand like data analysis and cybersecurity.

The commitment to collaboration is particularly refreshing because worker-training and retraining programs often end up “siloed” at the company level. Consolidated Widgets might work with Widgetville Community College, for example, to train a generation of employees who are well-suited for the widget industry — but only for that industry.

Indeed, the WPI leaders apparently want to avoid reinventing the wheel: The regional groups aim to build on lessons and best practices from companies that have already had some successes. IBM’s P-Tech digital training programs for high schoolers are one model; Siemens’s advanced-manufacturing apprenticeships, which guide students toward jobs and help pay for engineering-related degrees, are another. (Tyson Foods and Owens Corning are among the companies partnering with Siemens in the Southeast, the BRT says.)

A difference of degree

Among the more urgent ideas that the WPI is exploring is the creation of new “industry-recognized education credentials.” These bona fides would essentially validate workers’ proficiency in skills that existing academic programs don’t address. “Companies’ needs outweigh credentials,” says Dane Linn, Vice President of the BRT. “CEOs and their HR teams have specific needs that often don’t match up with specific degrees.”

Many economists and labor experts love this credentialing idea because it would make job skills both more portable — a worker’s credentials at Consolidated Widgets could quickly demonstrate her qualifications for a related job at BlockchainWizards.ru — and more attainable, since workers wouldn’t have to leave their jobs or shell out big bucks to get new training. (Many of the credentials would take much less time to earn than even, say, an associate’s certificate from a community college.) Reducing that affordability barrier, in turn, could help make the training pipeline more accessible to working parents and people in disadvantaged groups.

The WPI groups aim to support mid-career workers as well. “People may immediately think about talent pipelines into the companies, but there’s a big upskilling opportunity here, especially in digital skills,” says Jennie Sparadara, head of workforce initiatives at JPMorgan Chase. (For a taste of how important, and how difficult, such “up-skilling” can be, read Aaron Pressman’s masterful 2017 account for Fortune of AT&T’s massive worker retraining effort.)

The BRT companies haven’t made a specific financial commitment to the initiative, though a spokesman says they’re each individually allocating money and staff now. More details about each regional partnership should emerge in the coming months. “Every one is committed to putting resources there,” Dimon told Fortune. “These seven or eight groups are tests. We’ll live and learn.”

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