AUSTIN, Texas — About a decade ago, nearly all — 97 percent — of IBM’s job listings required a four-year college degree, according to David Barnes, vice president of global human resources policy at the tech giant, who was speaking at the annual SXSW EDU conference here this week . That requirement disqualified the roughly two-thirds of Americans in the undocumented workforce pool from applying for a job at IBM, Barnes said. As a result, IBM struggled with significant, ongoing staff shortages.
“We decided to do some self-help,” Barnes said. “We call it skills-first hiring.” First, IBM’s hiring managers needed to address some prejudices they had about candidates who hadn’t earned a college degree. Next, they rated job applicants on their skills and ability to acquire new skills, regardless of their degree status. The company also invested heavily in an online learning platform for employee training.
“It’s powered by artificial intelligence,” Barnes said of IBM’s training and retraining efforts. “It’s a Netflix-like interface that pushes content. Or an employee can select content… We can no longer use Charles Dickens learning models.” Today, less than half of IBM’s job advertisements require a college degree. The company is now better positioned, Barnes said, to maintain its global leadership in quantum computing — a technology that has the potential to revolutionize computing power.
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Barnes and other academic and industry leaders spoke with conviction and passion during the Online Backlash: Bad Policy Holds Students Back panel at SXSW EDU. Leaders discussed ways universities, policymakers and employers could work together to help more Americans find viable employment or advance, while addressing the skills gap in the workforce. However, some “bad” online learning policies and attitudes undermine their efforts to collaborate, expand access, and deliver results to motivated, capable learners.
“Bad” Policy #1: Separate education and training
IBM isn’t the only company to respond to societal dissatisfaction with traditional college degrees. Cengage, a textbook publisher for over 130 years, now offers educational experiences that lead to certificates and certifications, according to Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage Group.
“Employers said, ‘We have openings that we can’t fill and we want to work with the education system, but it’s so incredibly frustrating because they’re very rigid and don’t want to adapt to our needs,'” Hansen said . Those employers were looking for workforce training that could produce a pipeline of learners who become employees, and Hansen said they told him, “If you can do that, I’ll pay you.”
In response, Cengage produced online educational experiences that lead to certificates for in-demand jobs. The typical student is a woman in her 40s with an income of about $45,000 who wants to get back into the workforce or grow in her career, Hansen said. Today, this Cengage initiative enrolls approximately 250,000 people annually, which accounts for 10 percent of the company’s business. Hansen assumes that this will increase to over 30 percent within a few years.
“The first bad policy is that [higher ed] separates education and training,” said Jane Oates, President of Working Nation and moderator of the panel. “We call them very separate things and some [in higher ed] don’t even like the word ‘train’.”
Certainly, some higher education institutions believe that educational experiences should have a market value. For example, Western Governors University offers stackable, job-related credentials.
“We sort of live by this mantra that an ID with no market value is just a scam,” said Scott Pulsipher, President of Western Governors and another speaker on the panel. “It doesn’t matter whether you acquire knowledge through an academic path, or whether you acquire it through an experiential path or through a professional path. At the end of the day, the question is still, “What skills do you have and how well does that skill match what is needed in the workforce and in a specific role?”
“Bad” Rule #2: Assuming online learning is “next best.”
Some policymakers, perhaps due to previous efforts to root out for-profit online institutions seen as abusing government grant programs, may continue to view online education as a “stepchild” in the higher education ecosystem, Oates said. Given the advances in developing and understanding online best practices, particularly during the pandemic, such a view is unwarranted, Oates said.
“It’s a red herring when you focus on the mode, the method, or the teaching model,” Pulsipher said. “Good policies would actually drive implementation and incentivize outcomes, not inputs.” Some federal virtual learning guidelines, such as Others, such as regular and substantive interaction with instructors in online courses, rely on input to determine quality, Pulsipher said. He suggests that policymakers ask questions about whether students are proficient in a subject, earning degrees and getting jobs.
One panelist was even more opposed to the idea that in-person learning is best.
“Learning online is the only way to scale learning,” Barnes said, adding that the half-life of his employees’ technical skills is about three years. “Otherwise we could not keep our employees up to date. We wouldn’t spend $300 million on online learning every year if it didn’t work.”
Successful IBM candidates hired without a college degree can pursue training with the company in areas such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and digital design. The apprenticeships have online learning components and many offer the opportunity to earn college credit through the American Council on Education. Ninety percent of the more than 1,000 people who have completed IBM-sponsored training have become full-time IBM employees, and more than 40 percent come from underrepresented minority groups, Barnes said. The fact that hiring does not require a college degree has enhanced the company’s efforts to hire and retain a diverse workforce.
“They have a real hunger and a real intensity to succeed in a job that they thought they had no way of doing,” Barnes said. “The people who go down these paths are incredibly loyal.” The program has also been very good for IBM, which is why the company has invested over $250 million in its apprenticeship programs through 2025, Barnes said.
“You have to be able to understand both talent and potential,” said Ruth Simmons, President’s Distinguished Fellow at Rice University, in her keynote address. Although Simmons’ talk focused on higher education and American democracy, she reiterated some themes in the “bad politics” panel. Simmons, President Emeritus of Smith College and Brown University, currently serves as senior advisor to the President of Harvard University on working with historically black colleges and universities, among other national higher education positions. “If you understand both [talent and potential] and you don’t have a narrow idea of what humans can do, you can escape in all sorts of ways.”
Online college credits earned in an IBM-like apprenticeship could be carried over to college if the learner ultimately wants to pursue a college degree. However, some colleges are erecting barriers to accepting transfer credit, possibly to maximize their revenue, Pulsipher said.
“In the government student aid model, you fund the consumption of credit rather than the delivery of value,” Pulsipher said.
Barnes urged university leaders to think less about inputs and more about outputs, which he believes students and employers want.
“As an employer, we don’t measure ourselves by what we spend,” Barnes said. “We measure ourselves by what we create, what we produce, what we deliver and whether it is quality.”
But Hansen had a different take on the apparently misaligned priorities.
“A lot of people say the education system in the United States is broken,” Hansen said. “It’s not broken. It does exactly what it was designed to do, which is to create graduate recipients. It is our job to question that and say that maybe there must be alternatives.”