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Global tech giant IBM published a letter Thursday to the U.S. secretaries of Education and Labor with ideas and policy recommendations on how the country can lead in education and build a more equitable economy.
IBM's letter proposes collaboration with the new administration to give Americans more pathways to skills-based careers, expand access to federal student aid and create a national credentialing system — using blockchain — to reimagine the resume.
The shift to online learning disrupted 77 million students in the U.S. And with nearly 70% of Americans without a bachelor's degree, which often means their work can't be performed from home, the economy tanked as businesses were forced to shut down. "When we look at the unemployment rate and we juxtaposed that with the number of opportunities that remain open because of the need for specific of type of skills, we see that as a paradox and challenge that we need to overcome," said Obed Louissaint, IBM's SVP for transformation and culture.
Outside the traditional forms of demonstrating job qualifications to future employers through a resume or a degree, there is no standard way to prove job readiness. But Louissaint explained that "new-collar jobs" would require in-demand skills, rather than a college degree, and would eliminate bachelor's degree requirements for more than half of U.S. job openings. By modernizing the Higher Education Act and working with policymakers; allowing federal student loans to be used for apprenticeships, certificate programs or other mid-career training; and removing restrictions on student use of federal work-study funds for off-campus work experiences like internships at companies, students could build career-relevant skills, Louissaint said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the technology sector accounts for 10% of U.S. GDP and is the fastest-growing segment of the American economy. But there are not enough skilled workers to fill the 500,000 open high-tech jobs in the U.S. And in the Consumer Technology Association's Future of Work survey, tech executives report that by 2025, they will struggle to fill jobs in software development, data analytics and engineering.
If the new administration partners with the private sector, the $130 billion provided in federal student aid to undergraduate students pursuing a bachelor's degree or higher could be redirected toward part-time students and mid-career professionals, used to fund Pell Grants and similar financial assistance for apprenticeships or internships. IBM also suggests allowing federal funds to be used for skills education and removing restrictions so that students can use federal work-study funds for other off-campus work experiences.
"By taking investments that are already being made in things like Pell Grants or federal loans, and redirecting them into things like apprenticeships, it enables individuals to have access to well-paying jobs," Louissaint said. "And by thinking differently about the resume, government and academia can set a real standard for what are credentials for a skill-first economy."
By working with the government, IBM aims to set a standard and national infrastructure that job applicants and potential employers can reference. But what would that look like?
"We would love to see state governments play a much more active role, rather than funds being restricted to local districts where only students in wealthier areas will benefit," Louissaint said. "And by way of the federal government, we can really lean in to use these funds in different types of ways to complement skill-building in this country."
Penelope Blackwell is a reporting fellow at Protocol covering edtech. She reports on the developments in tech that are shaping the future of learning. Previously, she interned at The Baltimore Sun covering emerging news and produced content for Carnegie-Knight's News21 documenting hate and bias incidents in the U.S. She is also a recent graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Morgan State University.