The silver thread of technology that runs through future jobs

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America is a country of two labour markets, with jobs aplenty for PhDs and even more for burger flippers, but not enough in between. This is a problem in an economy that consists largely of consumer spending. Donald Trump rose to office promising to bring back those middle-class jobs. But even if the US president were able to reverse globalisation and technological job disruption, the homegrown problem remains: the skills gap.

Deloitte points to 3.5m well-paid manufacturing jobs that will need to be filled in the US by 2025. Yet 2m will remain unfilled by Americans because neither high schools nor colleges are turning out enough technology literate and communications savvy students. The missing workers include everyone from factory workers who know how to use robotics equipment to entrepreneurial middle managers who can navigate across a variety of technologies, industries and geographies. Andrew Liveris, chief executive of Dow Chemical, and Ginni Rometty of IBM, both advisers to the president, are promoting a workforce-training programme. Their scheme could help bridge those skills gaps and become a significant lever for the two politically contentious areas of education reform and industrial policy. A cornerstone of the plan is career-focused education, an example of which is the six-year high school programme founded by IBM in 2011, in which 300 partner companies, such as SAP, GlobalFoundaries and Regeneron, work with 60 local schools in six states to shape curriculums that will educate students to a high school diploma and on to a two-year associate’s degree. Given that 99 per cent of the jobs created from 2008 to 2016 required more than a high-school certificate, this will be crucial. In 2015, less than half of all US young adults had an associate’s degree or higher. Many go into debt for expensive but arguably useless credentials in subjects such as sports marketing or business administration. “Technology is the silver thread running through the jobs of the future,” according to Ms Rometty. Whatever else they study, students need to graduate with basic science, technology, engineering and maths skills. She has an important White House supporter in this crusade: Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. “In partnership with private sector leaders like Ginni, the administration intends to support and amplify industry efforts to educate and train the workforce of tomorrow,” says Ms Trump. Workplace-oriented education aims to rebuild the connection between educators and employers that was broken in the 1970s. At the time, liberals fought to do away with vocational education on the grounds that it was racist and classist: reformers believed that everyone had a right to study Herman Melville rather than welding. The problem comes to the fore again, says Ms Rometty, since what she has dubbed the new-collar jobs of the future will go between the former categories of academic liberal arts or science and vocational skills. A highly trained machinist with two years of college education could easily make a higher starting salary than a four-year political science graduate from a second- or third-tier university. With the rise of online education, not every student has to accumulate debt to pursue a four-year degree. Education should be sliced and diced to suit the needs of individuals. We can, after all, read Melville on our own — or watch a Harvard professor teach Moby-Dick via streamed lectures or mass participation online courses. This trend goes well beyond the US. Every political leader is “grappling with how to prepare a 21st-century workforce”, says Ms Rometty. Last week’s UK Spring Budget called for an overhaul of technical education. The same is true in Australia, which has seven IBM schools. Other firms, such as Siemens, GE, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft and Google, have their own iterations of such programmes. Most, including IBM’s, are different from the Germanic-style vocational education, which tracks students more narrowly and earlier. At IBM’s school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I met literary, articulate students who wanted to be screenwriters and entrepreneurs as well as software programmers. “There are lots of models that can work,” says Ms Rometty. “The point is that they have to scale.” In the US, one way would be to revisit the Perkins Act, which aims to provide $1bn of federal funds for vocational training. The act was held up due to partisan squabbles in Congress before the presidential election. Betsy DeVos, Mr Trump’s education secretary, has called for Congress to reauthorise the act and link subsidies more closely to skills such as technology that are in high demand. Business leaders are also pushing for the $1bn federal work study programmes to allow students to work in private sector jobs along with their studies in college libraries or cafeterias. IBM has hired the first graduates from its schools, many of whom have completed their six-year degrees in four. As they take on $50,000-a-year salaries, these students will be the consumers needed to trigger a real and sustained economic recovery. [email protected] Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don’t cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.