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Opinion: IBM CEO: The biggest challenge holding back our economy right now

Whether it is cloud-based platforms or AI-powered software, businesses across every industry are reshaping their future around the possibilities of these powerful and exciting technologies. In manufacturing, a factory floor operator now relies on AI-powered robots to detect defects in products that are invisible to the human eye. In health care, AI-powered virtual agents can now handle millions of calls at once. And, in telecommunications, cloud-based networks can now quickly adapt to massive shifts in traffic patterns — almost overnight.

As the world continues to grapple with the effects of the global pandemic and the economic strain it has caused, technology must be part of the solution. Digital technologies such as hybrid cloud, artificial intelligence and eventually, quantum computing, can rewire our economy, unleash more productivity and spur business and societal growth. But to get there, there is one challenge we must overcome: We must take big and bold steps to increase access to digital skills training for workers — regardless of their background — so they can take advantage of this new era.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, as many as 375 million workers will need to learn new skills for their jobs by 2030. And most jobs will require some form of digital skills. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 85% of respondents cited digital skills as either extremely important or very important to succeeding in today’s workplace.
But here’s the challenge: Talent is everywhere; training opportunities are not. If nothing is done to broaden access to digital skills, we run the risk of not only increasing socioeconomic inequities but missing what may be one the biggest opportunities of this decade: The World Economic Forum found that closing the skills gap could add $11.5 trillion to global GDP by 2028.

No government or industry can meet this challenge alone.

Through our IBM SkillsBuild program, we are partnering with more than 30 high-impact organizations globally, including governments, community colleges, non-profits and employment agencies, to broaden access to skills and employment opportunities, especially among underserved populations. IBM SkillsBuild provides job seekers with online coursework, credentials, coaching and marketable skills within three to six months of enrollment, readying people for in-demand IT and non-IT roles in many industries. This new partnership builds on IBM’s goal to train 500,000 people through the IBM SkillsBuild digital learning platform by the end of the year.

Efforts to expand access to digital skills must be coupled with a complete rethink of the conventional wisdoms that shape corporate hiring practices. For a long time, the way companies hired candidates was based on the job they had, the degree they earned or the people they knew. This needs to change immediately.

To democratize opportunity and fill the skills gap, we must urgently move to skills-based hiring and invest in ‘new collar jobs’ for workers who have in-demand technology skills but not necessarily a traditional bachelor’s degree.

A new social contract

As in the past, the advent of powerful new technologies requires a new social contract to ensure more equal access to opportunity.

Sparked by the Industrial Revolution, reforms such as universal access to education, state-funded education and training programs for workers led to growing prosperity and stronger economic systems.

The world is now facing a similar opportunity. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to build stronger, more equitable economies. Policies that expand “earn while you learn” apprenticeship programs, make government education grants eligible for students and workers outside the traditional bachelor’s degree path, and let work-study students build career-relevant skills in the private sector are important first steps.

Technology is arguably the greatest engine of wealth that the world has ever seen. But if new technologies are being created to lift everyone up, they need to go hand in hand with bold efforts to broaden access to digital skills.


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