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Reskilling for Tomorrow: Public-Private Partnerships

Our goal is to make sure that students are earning a degree that has value in the 21st century.
Grace J. Suh, Vice President of Education and Corporate Citizenship at IBM

The jobs landscape is changing and industry leaders have taken note. The trend toward an increasingly new collar workforce has emerged as one of the strongest signs of how technology has changed—and will continue to change—the American jobs market.

In recent years, many employer-led approaches to address the evolving needs of our economy have been deployed. Public-private partnerships, sometimes also known as P3s, aim to create viable pathways from education to career. Versions of these models have been used in technical and vocational training for decades. More recently, places like coding boot camps have made it part of their business model that they have robust P3s in place.

As an exemplar of the new collar mindest, IBM continues to take trendsetting steps to develop a new model of education that properly serves the students and workers of the American economy. The research suggests there are several cornerstones of a successful model: training for both soft and hard skills, internship experience, and the completion of at least a two-year degree. Public-private partnerships encourage rich environments of collaboration and on-the-job learning, preparing high school age students for the economy of tomorrow.

Featured Interviewee: Grace J. Suh of IBM

Grace J Suh

Grace J. Suh

Vice President of Education and Corporate Citizenship at IBM

Grace Suh is vice president of education and corporate citizenship at IBM. In her position, Suh manages IBM’s global education portfolio, including the P-TECH 9-14 School Model, a public education reform initiative spanning 110+ schools and four countries, as well as Teacher Advisor with Watson, which uses AI to enable K-8 math teachers to better meet the individual learning needs of their students.

Prior to IBM, Suh worked at the Children’s Defense Fund, a national child advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., where she focused primarily on child welfare policy. In addition to the corporate and nonprofit sectors, Suh has worked in New York City government at the Department of Juvenile Justice. She has served on a number of education committees and boards, including the Cahn Fellows Programs and Schools That Can.

Suh holds a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.

Please note that this biography was contributed by an IBM spokesperson.

IBM’s P-Tech Model

The growing interest in public-private partnerships has been encouraged, in part, by governmental policies put into effect. These are policies that propel reskilling and new collar job initiatives, and help prepare high school students for immersion in the new collar economy.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, the fifth iteration of the Perkins Act, was authorized by the President in 2018. States are getting in line with new collar models because there’s an incentive for them to create a talent pipeline. All states in the American economy stand to benefit from these kinds of public-private partnerships, now and going forward into the technological future.

Grace Suh manages a number of innovative education programs at IBM—all of which address how the value of traditional high school diplomas and college degrees has changed.

“Our goal is to make sure that students are earning a degree that has value in the 21st century. A degree that is really gonna enable them to get a job,” says Suh. “Teaming with education partners, from K12 through community college, we came up with a high school model that was not grades 9 through 12, but that was grades 9 through 14.”

The structure of the curriculum means that high school students can graduate from a P-Tech institution with both their high school diploma and any number of new collar acumens. The integrated two-year degree programs span a broad array of technical vocations. P-Tech schools are studious institutions that make a commitment to each student to graduate them with a diploma and a two-year degree in no longer than six years. The schools have no admissions test and thus do not discriminate against underserved youth. They are also cost-free.

Suh views the P-Tech credential as a passport that will help students as they move through the economy. The combined study of the P-Tech model allows students to exercise autonomy over the course of their high school career. It also provides a door to a tech jobs market that many prospective students have difficulty breaking in to.

“We started the model in 2011, in Brooklyn, New York,” says Suh. “It was a partnership with the City University of New York and the public school system. It’s really a new way of thinking about high school. Knowing that the high school diploma is no longer enough to get a well-paying job, what are the credentials or skills required to get into a new collar career?”

As a public education reform effort, IBM has made P-Tech connections with a significant number of high school institutions. “By the end of this year, it will be in at least 200 schools. We have ten states that are signed up, and eight states have schools set up now. We have 13 countries signed up as well because this idea of the skills gap and education equity is really a global issue,” says Suh.

“Students are graduating with both their high school diploma and their two-year associate’s degree,” says Suh. “It’s one that’s tied to STEM and is recognized by the industry. It’s also no cost and that’s because the P-Tech model historically serves young people. This is really a public education reform effort.”

She continues, “We’re seeing graduation rates with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at three and four times the on-time national community college graduation rate, which as you know, is only 13 percent.”

IBM values both the credential of a degree and modern, new collar skills in equal measure. Students graduate from a P-Tech school with real-world skills and hands-on abilities: “Ultimately, when students graduate, they have technical, academic, and professional acumens,” says Suh. “That’s going to enable them to garner a new collar job and perhaps move on successfully to college. We have students who do both. By ‘professional,’ IBM means those evergreen skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication.”

Such skills form the core of a resume that will be a defining force in the lives of P-Tech students and the new collar employees they could become. Recent research has shown that employers benefit from investing in reskilling initiatives and that it’s in their best interest to partner with elements of the public sector to create what Suh calls a ‘seamless pathway:’ “The industry is there to really make the learning relevant. We provide workplace experiences, beginning the first day that students are at the school. They get mentors, we take them on site visits, and we do project days with them, with hands-on projects like hack-a-thons.”

Suh adds, “When students turn 16, we go from exposure activities to applications, and they participate in skills-based, paid internships. They are immersed in teams at IBM and other industries during the summer for six to eight weeks.”

The Future of Public-Private Partnerships

The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships (NCPPP) defines a public-private partnership as “a contractual agreement between a public agency (federal, state, or local) and a private sector entity. Through this agreement, the skills and assets of each sector (public and private) are shared in delivering a service or facility for the use of the general public.”

In keeping with this approach, Suh’s vision for the future of education reforms like these is grounded in collaboration.

“P-Tech is defined by the partnership,” she says. “It really is all about public-private partnerships. It’s about the public education system coming together with industry. It’s about everyone providing their best expertise—a full partner at the table—to ensure that students are moving smoothly and seamlessly from high school to community college to degree completion. There are more than 600 business partners now participating in P-Tech schools, so industry is coming to the table, ready to participate as part of their effort to build their talent pipeline, and build it early.”

IBM works with the government at any level necessary in order to get the funding and policy changes in place that will allow the P-Tech model to function best. It’s about ease of access as much as it is enriching the talent pool.

Suh says, “We really have to make sure that the policy is in place for long-term sustainability to enable this new type of high school. So, we are working very hard, having conversations with different policymakers, building advocacy with industry and educators for the model.”

“We’d love to see this pathway available to as many students as possible,” she says.

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.