IBM has taken matters into its own hands to grow workers who could actually perform its jobs. Like a lot of tech-related firms, IBM recognized a few years ago that it had a habit of hiring people with bachelor's degrees for openings that only require associate degrees, according to Robin Willner, vice president of IBM's Global Community Initiatives, who talked to me last year when I profiled the firm's education operation.
IBM teamed up with New York City's education department and the City University of New York to form an unusual hybrid of a high school and a vocational community college. The first Pathways in Technology Early College High School opened in Brooklyn in 2011. This year, P-TECH has expanded to 16 other schools in the state, and IBM hopes the model will spread across the nation. At P-TECH, students who complete four years of high school and two years of college emerge with a technical associate degree and a priority shot at any IBM opening for which they are qualified.
The company knows that the graduates will be able to perform its jobs because it has had a heavy hand in directing the curriculum. The partnership between IBM and city's education department is the type celebrated by outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has worked to replace struggling high schools with career-oriented academies. The idea is not without controversy, however. If these kinds of partnerships take off, neighborhood schools could suffer from lack of enrollment and find themselves closing.
On Friday, President Obama visited P-TECH, toured a classroom, and charmed the students. "When I was living here, Brooklyn was cool, but not this cool," he told them, which delighted the New York Daily News. His trip was intended to illustrate "the importance of ensuring that the next generation of middle class American workers and entrepreneurs have the skills they need to compete and win in a global economy," according to the White House.
P-TECH goes a step farther than the White House's community college focus by including high school students in its vocational education universe. For a disadvantaged teen, the prospect of a technical degree after six years of school is a distinct incentive to stay in school—one that IBM, other tech companies, and Obama hope will be replicated elsewhere. P-TECH also caters to students that otherwise might not find themselves in a post-secondary school. It does not academically pre-screen the school's enrollees. Applicants need only express interest in science or technical careers to be accepted. Willner told me there have been cultural adjustments in orienting students to a professional career because most of their parents didn't go to college. But IBM executives know that's all part of the game.
Should more high schools offer students the ability to earn associates' degrees with a few extra years? Should high school students be exposed to the idea of a two-year college degree earlier than their senior year? Is there any reason to steer them away from an associate's degree? How different are hybrid high school/community colleges from "regular" high schools? Should businesses be intricately involved in local schools, as IBM is with P-TECH? And most importantly, just how cool is Brooklyn?