IBM CEO Ginni Rometty: The Future of Work Depends on Education Reform

June 12, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC

I am often asked about artificial intelligence and the future of work. My answer is that A.I. will change 100% of current jobs. It will change the job of a factory worker. It will change the job of a software developer, of a customer service agent, of a professional driver. And it will change my job as the CEO of one of the biggest technology companies in the world.

Yet notice my choice of words: A.I. will change jobs but it won’t replace all of them. A.I. will also create completely new jobs we haven’t even dreamed up yet.

The recent jobs report from the Labor Department paints only a partial picture of the current U.S. economy. While unemployment is at 3.6%, there are still nearly 6 million unemployed workers in the U.S. And even though the technology industry alone has more than 700,000 open jobs, tech employers can’t fill these jobs because people aren’t equipped with the right skills.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department projects that computer and I.T. occupations will be the fastest-growing type of work through 2026, adding 557,100 well-paying jobs in fields like A.I., cybersecurity, digital design, and software development.

Ultimately, our challenge as a society isn’t about A.I. replacing jobs—it’s about people and skills. If we introduce new technology into the world but don’t equip our workforce with the necessary skills, we’re not living up to our obligation as responsible innovators.

Smart policies are needed to prepare today’s workforce for 21st century careers. That’s why I’m visiting Capitol Hill this week, with some fellow Fortune 500 CEOs, to ask Congress to reform the Higher Education Act (HEA). Government and industries from manufacturing to tech need to come together to create a new skills paradigm: a culture of lifelong learning.

The HEA authorizes nearly $130 billion yearly in federal grants, loans, and other benefits to undergraduate students pursuing a bachelor’s and other higher education degrees. But around 67% of America’s adult population does not have a bachelor’s degree, and 44 million have pursued a degree without ever finishing.

For too long we’ve focused on bachelor’s degrees as the pathway to a good job, while not providing enough access to learning for those at different stages in their careers. This is where we can do more: Reform of the HEA, centered around these three priorities, would open up opportunities for workers to refresh their skills—or learn new ones—in order to better prepare for a changing workforce.

The first priority should be focused on loosening federal work study restrictions so that students can work off-campus in the private sector and gain real-world work experience. Right now, only 1% of students benefiting from federal work study are working for companies in the private sector.

Second, Pell Grants should be expanded to cover skills education for part-time students and mid-career professionals. Pell Grants currently are awarded only to students attending programs involving 600 hours or more. If a working parent wants to attend a part-time coding bootcamp or cybersecurity course, they should still be able to use the need-based grant to help fund their education.

Finally, the HEA should make all federal student loans available for career-oriented education aside from bachelor’s and other traditional education degrees. These loans today are only for those attending school full-time and enrolled in a formal degree program, meaning many other forms of modern education, such as apprenticeships or other skills-based training programs, aren’t eligible for loans. If a mid-career professional wants to enroll in a program to learn new A.I. skills, they should be able to take out federal student loans without taking time off work to enroll full-time in a degree program.

The practical benefit of these HEA reforms could have an impact across the country, simply by refocusing education dollars to help more students and mid-career professionals build in-demand skills for the A.I. era.

Today, more than 550 business partners, including Dow, AT&T, and Bank of America, are already partners in a new approach to education called P-TECH, pioneered by IBM, which combines high-school, community college, skills training, professional mentoring, and paid internships to better prepare students for career success.

And earlier this year some of America’s top employers committed to providing apprenticeship programs to prepare the workforce for tomorrow’s high-tech jobs. The CTA Apprenticeship Coalition, of which IBM is a founding member, includes companies like Walmart, Toyota, and Sprint, and will create on-the-job learning opportunities for thousands of Americans. These apprenticeships, which are based on a model launched by IBM in 2017, are particularly attractive to mid-career workers who want to build new skills or break into new industries without incurring student debt or taking time off work.

Around the world, companies spend more than $200 billion annually on skills training programs. At IBM, every employee completes 60 hours of ongoing education per year, for instance. The investments we make in people at all stages of their careers are just as important as the investments we make in technology. If businesses and policymakers pool their expertise and work together to invest in people, we can look forward to more good jobs for U.S. workers, a stronger economy, and a renewed era of innovation.

Ginni Rometty is chairman, president, and CEO of IBM.

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