Are Skills the New Degrees?
March 28, 2023 | Power Skills
by ExperiencePoint

Earlier this month, on International Women’s Day, we explored ways that design thinking is making a small contribution to the ongoing struggle for gender equality. In this month’s post, we wanted to stay on the topic of women in the business world and highlight the enormous contributions of an important leader. At ExperiencePoint, we’ve taken an ongoing interest in the work and career of former IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty. Not only has Rometty shattered countless glass ceilings on her rise to senior leadership, but she’s also advanced our understanding of the importance of skill-based learning and the role that skills will play in the future of work.

The topic of skills versus college degrees has been all over the latest news cycle. In the U.S., a wave of states announced this month that they are eliminating the requirement for four-year degrees for most state government jobs. It’s a move that Barack Obama has endorsed enthusiastically, calling it a “smart policy” that “reduces barriers to good paying jobs.” It’s also something that IBM has been doing for a long time.

Ginni Rometty and the SkillsFirst initiative

When Rometty became IBM’s CEO in 2012, she was facing a serious labor shortage in the tech sector. The company needed to fill dozens of highly skilled positions, but with growing industry competition compounded by a widening gap in who had access to tech, there wasn’t enough talent to go around. The shortage was further exacerbated by a couple of factors; tech skills themselves had a short half-life and two-thirds of Americans didn’t have college degrees. Rometty realized that in order to redress the labor shortage, she needed to completely rethink the way that IBM hired and trained employees.

So Rometty launched the SkillsFirst initiative, a movement that overhauled hiring and training practices across the company. She eliminated the requirement for a college degree from any position where it seemed superfluous and, through collaboration with the HR department, figured out what skills and aptitudes to look for instead. On-ramp programs were introduced to offer substantive training to new hires, and pipelines for new un-degreed talent were established through internships and apprenticeship programs. Since employees needed to be able to use and build new software, hard skills such as programming and coding were the starting point for training.

But Rometty quickly realized that new hires needed a range of softer skills to keep IBM at the top of its game. People needed to be able to problem solve, collaborate and generate creative ideas. With technology evolving rapidly, it wasn’t enough to train people to “do” the work they were assigned. Employees needed to understand how to think critically about what they were doing and they needed agility to shift swiftly to new projects. Rometty needed an effective way to train her employees with power skills. She found a solution in design thinking.

The soft-skill revolution

In the past, there’s been a tendency to think that soft skills are innate and can’t really be taught. That thinking has changed radically with the impact of design thinking over the past decade. Problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, leadership, collaboration and communication – soft skills that can seem impossible to acquire – are actually the fundamental elements of any successful design project. So when employees go through a design sprint, it’s a crash course in vital power skills that can enhance their every day work.

More importantly, design thinking workshops are often designed around a specific challenge or problem. This approach allows employees to hone important skills in a way that is meaningful to their work, which has a huge impact on retention. When employees know they’ll be using their new skills to tackle a preexisting work challenge, they are more engaged in the learning. This learning model creates a virtuous cycle of learning and development that ensures employees have the soft skills they need and recognize the value of using them on the job.

Rometty’s thinking was ahead of her time. New research shows that hard skills are only responsible for 15% of an employee’s success on the job. Data compiled by Harvard University, Carnegie Foundation and the Stanford Research Center reveals that 85% of career success comes from having well-developed soft skills. Of course, abilities such as people skills, empathy, creativity are more nuanced and can be trickier to measure. But with automation taking over tasks that are data-driven and routine, these more “human” skills are in the spotlight because they enable people to do things that computers can’t. In many ways, in an age of AI and ChatGPT, how we work is becoming more important than what we do. 

A culture of learning

Rometty’s SkillsFirst initiative meant that IBM was able to attract and hire scores of talented people who had been historically overlooked for skilled positions. Today, more than 50% of U.S.-based IBM jobs don’t require a four-year degree. Other companies have taken note of IBM’s ability to capitalize on raw talent and have started to prioritize skill-building, too. Bank of America has developed an internal training program called The Academy, which allows employees to upskill for new positions within the organization. In 2021, 65,000 employees participated in the program. That same year, more than 50% of vacant positions were filled internally, an increase of 20% from the pre-Academy figures.

At ExperiencePoint, we’re obviously also big believers that skill-building should happen at work. Our training helps employees understand and build critical power skills that empower them to work with creativity and dexterity every day. Building power skills on the job has been proven to prepare employees and companies for the future and attract and retain top talent. It’s also a great way to increase your company’s talent pool, letting you hire curious people with aptitude who might not check every traditional box on their CV. The approach also gives you control over how you hone and develop your employees’ abilities, allowing you to target training to meet a range of organizational challenges. But don’t forget what the stats indicate: soft skills are as important, if not more important, than the more concrete hard ones. 

Want to read more about the importance of soft skills in today’s workforce? Read our blog post on human-centered design and the future of work.