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Reskilling for Tomorrow: New Collar Jobs

The half-life of a skill today is about five years, so that means that a job you’re doing today could be a different job as those skills evolve over the next couple of years…We’re focused on opening the aperture of our candidate pipeline. This means really being more inclusive and not just using a college degree as the only measure of skill or success.

Kelli Jordan, Director of Career and Skills at IBM

According to a recent white paper published by Cerasis, jobs that require workers with STEM skills are likely to experience a significant shortfall of available candidates in the next six to seven years. As a result of the misalignment between requisite skills and the actual skills applicants, the gap is projected to grow significantly. Many of today’s jobs require abilities that are not taught in high school or college—knowledge that used to count only as “soft skills.”

The report indicates that in today’s job market, employers must be more focused on identifying and utilizing skills than hiring only those who have attained conventional credentials through a university. In spite of a robust and growing market—one that boasts over a half-million IT jobs—companies such as IBM aren’t meeting their employment goals when they look only at traditional university degrees.

By 2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be two million vacant American tech positions. Given the rapid advancement of technology in the workplace, jobs will require an even more diverse mix of traditional skills and computer proficiency.

IBM, one of the world’s oldest and most innovative tech companies, is making significant strides to address the changing nature of the American workplace. They are leading the charge to create a professional environment that welcomes recruits with potential, regardless of their educational background. Nestled between the blue and white collar workforces (and helping to bridge that gap), there is an ever-growing class of employee whose experience synthesizes traditional and self-taught skills: the new collar worker.

Featured Interviewees

Kelli Jordan, Director of Career and Skills at IBM

Kelli Jordan is the director of career and skills at IBM. She leads the company’s approaches to skill growth, including their New Collar Initiative and IBM’s US Apprenticeship Program. She has worked in the personnel and recruitment sectors at IBM for 16 years, where she began as a human resources intern.

Jordan graduated from Cornell University in 2002 with a BS in industrial and labor relations. In addition, Jordan was instrumental in onboarding and operations for IBM as they began to devote more resources to their New Collar pathways. She was also a talent leader in New Collar Initiatives from January 2017 to January 2019.

Laura Spawn, CEO and Co-Founder of Virtual Vocations

Laura Spawn is the CEO of Virtual Vocations, a telecommuting jobs board she co-founded in 2007. Since then, Spawn has grown Virtual Vocations into the country’s most-visited site for those seeking remote work, keeping closely in touch with market trends and how candidate requirements have developed.

Before founding Virtual Vocations, Spawn graduated from Northern Arizona University with a BASc in public agency service with a management emphasis. She specializes in personnel and business management, training, customer service theory, and job seeking consultation.

New Collar Initiatives

The phrase “new collar” was coined by IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty to describe an emergent class of workers in the US and globally. Scholley Bubenik has also offered a comprehensive yet concise definition: “A new collar worker is an individual who develops the technical and soft skills needed to work in technology jobs through nontraditional education paths.”

It is IBM’s ambition to change the way businesses approach tech skills and the employment markets show an increasing interest in new collar workers. For Kelli Jordan, director of career and skills at IBM, hiring for tech jobs is not about degrees: it is about skills.

“We always look for soft skills in our recruits,” says Jordan. “That desire and ability to be a continuous learner—that growth mindset, that adaptability—because over the course of a career, skills are changing. The half-life of a skill today is about five years, so that means that a job you’re doing today could be a different job as those skills evolve over the next couple of years.”

As a way to stay on top of all the changes in STEM-related fields, IBM has put forth a number of ambitious programs to encourage candidates and other companies to take the skills gap more seriously. This includes their US Apprenticeship Program, which will boast 450 apprentices by the end of 2019.

They have also pioneered something called P-TECH, which stands for Pathways to Technology Early College and High School. IBM has partnered with existing institutions (e.g., Paul Robeson School for Business and Technology) to offer innovative public school models that follow a grade nine through 12 curriculum, with an emphasis on booming tech fields. At the end of their studies, students will have gained an associate’s degree.

This is one of the many places that businesses could find eager and passionate young talent. Jordan adds, “We’re focused on opening the aperture of our candidate pipeline. This means really being more inclusive and not just using a college degree as the only measure of skill or success.”

But IBM is aware that young candidates are not the only possible source of new collar know-how. For that reason, the company invests can invest up to $500 million annually in skilling, learning, and development to help employees expand their tech repertoires.

IBM being more inclusive also means allowing its older generation of employees to build the same soft and tech skills that many new collar workers already possess. This is as much about staying abreast of industry trends as it is accepting that the nature of business administration has changed.

Job-Seeking in the New Collar Era

Laura Spawn is the CEO and co-founder of Virtual Vocations, a telecommute jobs board that gathers job postings into a database. Job seekers can then apply to these positions individually, as well as store their resume and receive consultation on how to better tailor their applications for remote positions. It is no coincidence that most of these remote positions (given the requirements listed) qualify as new collar jobs. Time management, self-direction, and enthusiasm for technical processes are all skills considered integral to both remote and new collar jobs.

New collar positions make up nearly all the jobs posted on Virtual Vocations. Spawn notes the overlap between the sectors of new collar work and telecommuting in the wide variety of the 20,000 jobs currently listed: “Thirty-eight percent of the jobs on our site fall under the ‘information technology’ category, which amounts to just over 7,800 jobs,” she says. That means that of all the IT positions available on Virtual Vocations, only 7 percent ask that the applicant have a four-year degree.

This suggests that the employment market has changed drastically in the last ten years. “We’ve found that employers are doing a lot of skills testing nowadays to find people with specific skill sets, rather than just looking for someone with a certain degree,” she confirms. This is in contrast to the traditional path from high school to college to career—ignoring many of the factors that make the conventional path to middle-class employment so much more difficult in 2019.

Only 21 percent of positions listed on Virtual Vocations require a bachelor’s degree, but nearly all of them require new collar skills such as time management, information systems understanding, cloud computing, data science, and even artificial intelligence.

Spawn reiterates that looking at and assessing individual skills allows employers to choose from a wider pool of candidates. “These applicants are qualified in the specific areas they need rather than requiring staff to have conformed to a cultural standard that may be going extinct due to the fact that you can learn most tech-related skills online.”

A $1 Billion Dollar Investment

The corporate world can best utilize the new collar workforce by adopting models that account for the variety of soft skills that, while not taught in traditional university courses, are nevertheless seen as employment requirements. Computer skills are requisite for the modern college student, which means that many students are already well on their way to being a new collar worker.

“Think about the changes we’re seeing. Every company is becoming a technology company. Every company is becoming a data company,” says Jordan. “ Over the next four years, IBM is investing $1 billion in training and development programs for its US workforce. If more people can get into tech without huge college debt or having to spend four to eight years studying for advanced degrees, it’s a win for everybody—especially for IBM.”

If corporations cannot learn to embrace non-traditional skill sets, this high-tech skills gap will severely hamper the US’s competitive capabilities on the global market in the coming decade.

For its part, IBM plans to continue to grow those apprenticeship programs focused on building skills in software development, project management, and mainframe administration. Because apprentices are paid, they will be able to avoid student loan debt and earn the skills to work in the tech industry almost immediately. The program is projected to include as many as 450 apprentices nationwide by Q4 in 2019 and is jointly overseen by officials in the US Department of Labor.

IBM has even opened a reskilling division called the Artificial Intelligence Skills Academy, or AISA. It has two educational tracks (one for the layperson and one for software engineers), with the ultimate goal of helping IBM’s employees find useful ways to integrate AI into their daily work schedules.

The skills gap is not an issue limited to the tech fields. In sectors such as healthcare and manufacturing, employers routinely struggle to find candidates with the optimal mix of skill types. It’s clear that the occupational environment has been thoroughly upended by the prevalence of technology and data sciences in the modern workplace.

Citing labor economist Tony Carnevale’s recent study, 99 percent of the jobs created between 2008 and 2016 required training or some postsecondary education—not necessarily a four-year degree. These are all new collar roles.

IBM continues to lead by example in its various new collar initiatives. “We’ve been working with the Consumer Technology Association on a coalition to help other companies across the industry adopt an apprenticeship model focused on new collar employees,” says Jordan. “When the United States has over half-a-million open technology jobs, our universities are producing just over one-tenth that number of computer science graduates. IBM is at the forefront of the growing awareness of this new and talented group: the new collar worker.”

Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by BustedCubicle.com, MedicalTechnologySchools.com, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.