How to solve the skills gap: Apprenticeships in the digital economy

Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens USA and Chair of the Siemens Foundation

Skills gap has embedded itself into the national conversation.


We heard it when unemployment was high. And record-low unemployment has not reduced the challenge- the skills gap has actually grown.


What have we learned then?


We’ve learned that the skills gap cannot be corrected by a strong economy; it can only be corrected by a strong community, which expanding U.S. apprenticeships will help to build.

It takes businesses being willing to lead. It takes leaders in government helping to forge the right policies and connections. And it takes educators opening the pathway to good-paying careers – whether that’s coding or welding – as wide as possible.


Such a community is now growing stronger across America thanks to the Apprenticeship Forward Collaborative – which is why I was excited that Governor Murphy and New America invited me to attend one of its regional conferences Friday at Rutgers University.


During the event I heard Governor Murphy’s vision for a new apprenticeship network in New Jersey, where Siemens has more than 2,000 employees. I met a number of leaders working like we are to close both the skills and opportunity gaps. I also had a chance to share that – over the past year – Siemens has expanded our U.S. apprenticeship program to a total of nine states.


We’ve also granted billions of dollars worth of industrial software to academic and training institutions. Just last month, Siemens granted our design software to Rutgers’ engineering school. Students there will have access to the digital tools of the future before they even enter the workforce.


Siemens also has hired nearly 250 additional U.S. military veterans – including 29 in New Jersey. And we intend to continue hiring as many veterans each year for at least the next two years.


Then there’s our Siemens Foundation’s STEM Middle-Skill Initiative. Our foundation is working with a number of partners like the Apprenticeship Forward Collaborative to build the support system needed to scale apprenticeships nationwide.

But here’s a real challenge…


As an apprenticeship movement picks up speed, the digital transformation just keeps accelerating faster and faster. How can apprenticeships not only catch up to where the world is now, but focus on the skills we need 3, 5, 10 years down the road?


Siemens has already seen two distinct phases of digital jobs in less than a decade.


In Phase 1, jobs long thought of as traditional jobs from the old economy quickly evolved into technology positions. (This became Siemens’ impetus for launching our U.S apprenticeship program focused on advanced manufacturing skills; learn more here.)


Phase 2 is showing us digital jobs that have never existed before in the markets we serve. Software skills and data analytics are moving from informational technology into operational technology for industry, cities, and infrastructure. We’re on the hunt for people with backgrounds in computer science, software development, and programming.


Apprenticeships can help develop these new skills by expanding into new industries and occupations – and there’s a real need: Only 40,000 new computer science graduates are entering the workforce annually at a time when there’s roughly half-a-million open tech positions nationally.


But another goal needs to be growing the tent and inspiring more people to participate in the next frontier of the digital economy. Within the burgeoning tech industry, less than a third of workers are women. African-Americans and Latinos together make up only 5 percent of the workforce. It will be impossible to build a skilled 21st century workforce if the talent pool isn’t even half full, or if the only way to participate is to have a PhD or four-year degree.


That’s where apprenticeships – and the community – can again play a big role. Together across the public and private sectors we can marry the business need for skilled workers with the societal need to increase access to fulfilling, good-paying careers.


With that as our foundation, we not only attract talent, we develop it. We not only create more pathways to success, we help more people find them. We achieve a win-win for business and society as we train our people and improve our world.