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What Divides America? Job Skills, Says IBM CEO

These are times of great division, as the political climate in the U.S. and abroad makes clear. Not coincidentally, these are also times of great economic and technological disruption.

Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, chief executive of IBM, sees these trends as fundamentally linked, stemming from an underlying cause. “I believe so much of the division in our country and other countries roots down to this skills issue,” she said Monday evening at Fortune’s CEO Initiative, a forum that convenes corporate leaders committed to addressing social problems through their businesses. The event took place at the Wagner Hotel in lower Manhattan.

The wedge separating layers of the social strata? Jobs. The challenge, as Rometty described it, is to make the transformations of the digital era inclusive, “so people can participate in it and not feel threatened by it,” she said. “We want society to feel there’s a good way forward on this.”

“It can’t just be about college degrees,” the executive said. “The system has got to work for everyone.”

To her point, IBM helped design an education program in 2011 geared toward providing disadvantaged populations with an opportunity to get ahead in the technology industry. At its heart is a Brooklyn school, called P-Tech, that blends high school and college level courses with an emphasis on vocational training and internships.

The technology industry has long struggled with diversity, equitably representing minorities across its workforces. Programs such as P-Tech aim to cultivate talent from these segments of the population, Rometty said.

IBM’s chief executive calls this type of education training for “new collar” jobs, a play on the term “blue collar,” which refers to working-class gigs. In her view, people should be able to make a good living without needing a traditional 4-year degree.

Rometty said 500 companies have since joined IBM as partners on the initiative. “I think we’ll get to a couple million kids in a few years,” she said.

“This is not corporate social responsibility,” Rometty added. “It’s more of an economic responsibility.”

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