Former IBM CEO says employers should stop hiring based on college degrees and focus on this instead

IBM President and CEO Virginia Rometty delivers a speech at a 2019 technology conference in Paris, France.
Chesnot | Getty Images

Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty says the best thing employers can do to improve their business, their workforce and their community is to stop hiring based on four-year college degrees. In fact, the company's current executive chairperson shared that 43% of IBM's open job requisitions today don't call for a traditional college diploma, she said at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit last week.

Rometty, who has been with the company for nearly 40 years, has been vocal about the need to rethink hiring in the tech field, particularly during a time when four-year college can be cost-prohibitive, while associate's programs, vocational schools, certification courses, bootcamps and other skills-based training are available and may be more accessible and adaptable to the rapid speed of tech innovations.

As she stepped into senior leadership as the company's first female CEO in 2012, Rometty said she saw the digital era "was not going to become an inclusive era, ironically. There was going to be haves and have-nots." Without equal access to tech training and opportunities, "it would leave a lot of people behind."

The pandemic, which has caused the most unequal recession in modern history, has exposed and exacerbated this divide. According to reporting from the Washington Post, white-collar jobs have mostly rebounded from the spring's economic free-fall. Roughly 6 in 10 college-educated employees have been able to continue working from home during the crisis, compared with about 1 in 7 workers with just high school diplomas. Far fewer low-wage in-person jobs, which tend to be held by women and people of color, have recovered.

Some demographics hit hardest by the current recession include mothers of school-age children, Black men, Black women, Hispanic men, Asian Americans, younger Americans ages 25 to 34, and people without college degrees.

With the impacts of the pandemic accelerating labor market trends such as widespread automation and digitization, employer investment in workforce reskilling is even more important than ever. Rometty shared three things employers should prioritize instead of college degrees.

First, "value someone's propensity to learn more than their skills," Rometty said. Focusing on someone's ability to learn, rather than what they've already learned, has "completely changed" how she looks at hiring.

"Now, I want someone to be curious," she said, "and you can test that when you hire."

Next, she believes companies should offer their employees an AI-driven learning system. She likens it to a "Netflix for learning" type of platform. A company can provide workers with a few starter courses in skills they need training for. Based on their performance, as well as their interests and goals as a worker, the platform would serve them with additional courses tailored to their career path with the company.

Finally, Rometty said, employers must be transparent about the skills they really need from their workers and guide them to either learn them, refine them, or steer their career path in a new direction depending on their goals within the company.

"The people are out there with the skills," Rometty said. "We can teach them the hard skills, but it's the soft skills they need to come in with."

She views the priority as a business imperative as well as a social one: "It is actually in our hands to change society forever."

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