Over the past two months, several countries across the world have experienced various forms of remote work and distance learning as governments were coming to grips with COVID-19. Quarantine, lockdown, shelter in place, countries gave this isolation different names, but this time was characterized by the same need to transform many businesses from retail to education.
Tech CEOs have been very vocal about the amount of digital transformation they have supported their customers with. What was postponed or deemed impossible before was prioritized and executed. The more change we see, the harder it is to believe businesses will go back to how things were before this crisis. This “no going back” attitude is not just coming from the reality that COVID-19 will impact many in-person activities and spaces from open offices, to travel and events. The desire to change is also the result of seeing the positive impact digital transformation has on a business.
Humans have been transforming too during this time. We have been tested every day while we try to work, teach and live from home. Much harder tests come from losing jobs and a steady income. As our social norms change, some of us might spend some of the extra time we have to learn to bake, cook, speak a new language. Others might want to learn new skills to re-enter the workplace after the crisis. Two very different attitudes to learning: one helping us with mental health and one is helping us build a more marketable skillset. The good news is there is plenty of content that has been made available by different organizations: webinars, digital college courses and even Instagram classes. In a LinkedIn Official Blog, Hari Srinivasan shared that in the first week of April, people watched 1.7M hours of learning content on LinkedIn Learning vs. 560K hours in the first week of January — a 3X increase in time spent learning.
The need to acquire new digital skills that better prepare the workforce for the workplace of the future might have accelerated during COVID19, but the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. Such a need to train and retrain affects the generations still in school as well as the current workforce. The current crisis is accelerating digital transformation, but it also has the potential to accelerate the digital divide. Just think of distance learning and the thousands of kids who did not have access to broadband or a device. Of course, this point only considers the technical aspect of the challenges many kids are facing when trying to learn under tremendous phycological stress as they deal with the impact COVID-19 is having on their day to day and their family.
Pathways to Technology
Many tech companies have been working in collaboration with colleges and STEM-focused non-profits to offer funding and tools to widen the reach of these courses. Last week during its Think 2020 conference, turned digital due to the pandemic, IBM launched Open P-TECH, a free digital education platform focused on workplace learning and digital skills.
Open P-TECH is not a new concept for IBM but rather an expansion of an existing and well-established initiative. Back in 2011, IBM, in collaboration with 600 corporate partners, introduced P-TECH (Pathways to Technology Early College High School), a model adopted in 220- schools across 24 countries touching 150,000 students. It’s a four-year high school program with a two-year Community College, basically, a six-year program during which you get your Associate Degree for free with a curriculum that helps you prepare for the kind of careers available today.
Open P-TECH takes that idea and scales it by going digital so that the program can reach an additional 250,000 students across Australia, Brazil, India and the United States. Open P-TECH provides modules for students and teachers that include courses on emerging technologies and classes on professional competencies. Using the platform, students preparing for internships and “new collar” jobs earn the same badges as professionals in the field.
Delivering New Collar Jobs Skills
IBM’s Executive Chairman, Ginni Rometty, coined the term “new collar” job years ago referring to roles in fields such as cybersecurity, cloud computing and artificial intelligence that don’t always require a traditional degree. What these roles need is a new mix of skills that draws from different areas. These are the roles that Open P-TECH is focusing on because for Rometti, the issue is very straightforward: “IBM is a builder of technology it’s our job also to prepare society interact with that technology. That’s responsible stewardship,” she said during Think 2020.
Outside of the more traditional school path, IBM is prioritizing apprenticeship and “returnship” for people returning to work. The first addresses the need people might have to want to learn new skills without the luxury of not having to work while they study. Rometti calls these 21st-century apprenticeships where you get paid while you learn through about 24 apprenticeships formally set up with the US Department of Labor.
The Returnship program focuses on technical professionals who have been out of the workforce for at least 24 months and are looking to re-enter the workforce. The program provides participants training, access to tools and technology, mentorship, and work assignments on technical projects that are matched to their expertise.
Rethinking Traditional Education
IBM is not alone in thinking that the roles of the future might not require traditional degrees. In 2017, Microsoft announced that it would give a grant to Skillful, a program that encourages skills-oriented job training. Some large tech companies like Apple and Google have stopped asking for college degrees for some of their technical roles.
To move the needle, however, the private sector must work with the public sector so that we can create a proper skillset supply to match the demand. The current education system is simply not doing enough to help mold an appropriately skilled talent pool. I hope that, as digital transformation is positively affecting enterprises across the world, all the millions of schools that overnight had to design and deploy their curriculum remotely will think of this as a springboard to start re-evaluating those curricula to be better suited for the future needs of the workplace in all industries.