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You don’t need to be a college grad to work in tech

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The technology industry has a lot of jobs to fill. IBM’s solution to that problem has been to change where it recruits. The company has a program called New Collar that focuses on getting more employees without four-year college degrees. Sam Ladah, a vice president for human resources at IBM, talkes to host Kai Ryssdal about the company’s special hiring push. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Who are the people who were applying for these New Collar jobs? 

Sam Ladah: Well, we see people coming through new pathways to IT. In fact, about 15 percent of the people we hire each year in the U.S. don’t have a bachelor’s degree. They’re coming from coding boot camps, community colleges. And there’s also the new approach to high school called P-TECH. 

Ryssdal: Is it a supply-demand thing? Are you just not finding college grads to do these jobs? Or do the jobs themselves require a different thing than you learn in college? 

Ladah: Well, it’s a little bit of both. About half a million technology jobs go unfilled in the U.S., and it’s because employers can’t find what they’re looking for. Now, the country is only producing about 50,000 computer science grads each year, and that’s the skills gap. Half a million unfilled jobs is definitely about supply and demand. The other dynamic is the industry has changed. So we’re looking for people who understand things like cognitive computing, understand cloud, and cyber security has become more and more important over the years. 

Ryssdal: The trend you are seeing now in these New Collar jobs and the requirements that IBM has, does it decrease the need for a four-year college degree in this economy?

Ladah: Well, I don’t think that will happen, Kai. I think we’re going to continue to have a need for people with four-year degrees, with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s. We’re saying that if we’re going to address the skills gap, we’ve got to think differently about where we’re recruiting and who we’re recruiting. 

Ryssdal: Well, to that end actually, and this is a little trickier question. Actually, the question’s fine, the answer is going to be tricky for you. Mostly white guys getting these jobs? How do you address that part of what everybody in tech acknowledges is a problem? 

Ladah: No, not at all. I would say it’s been a very diverse group of people that we’ve recruited into New Collar jobs. In fact, based on the locations that we put many of these jobs, it allows us to tap into markets that we ordinarily wouldn’t be in, places like West Virginia, Louisiana, Missouri, Iowa and Michigan. We have thousands of IBM-ers working in technology centers across those states, which is what New Collar is all about. 

Ryssdal: When did you know, and this is the larger IBM question, and I will say here we’ve invited [IBM CEO] Ginni Rometty on many times, when did you know that this was going to be a big chunk of your workforce of the future?

Ladah: Well, we’ve been recruiting a pretty significant percentage of the workforce to IBM without traditional four-year degrees for quite some time. The trend that we identified and named was very specifically in November of last year, and Ginni Rometty wrote an open letter saying that we can partner with the current government on creating jobs in the U.S. to address the skills gap by doing many of the things that I describe here.

Ryssdal: So that brings up actually an interesting question, which is are you getting the political support for this new trend that you have spotted? 

Ladah: First of all, there are things that we need to do in the private sector. We need to shift the mindset on whether a four-year degree is really required. There are also things that we can do in the public sector. So we’re looking forward to seeing the funding for vocational and technical training being reauthorized. And we’re also looking forward to seeing the federal degree work-study program modernized so it allows students to work in companies like IBM at sites that are very close to their campus. 

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