Workforce Development

Does success hinge on a four-year degree? Lessons on workforce development we should take into a new decade

By: Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens USA

As I look back on this past year, there’s one question that captures the many conversations I’ve had about the future of work in the United States: Does everyone really need a four-year degree?

And as I’ve explored that idea with people – sharing my own perspective that a four-year degree is just one path to success, not the only path – a whole world of possibilities opens up about how we can prepare people for well-paying jobs in today’s digital economy.

We’ve seen from recent jobs reports that there’s a need to cultivate multiple career pathways. Although the unemployment rate has hovered around historic lows, the number of U.S. job openings has surged to record highs.

What we’re also seeing is the impact of digital technology on every industry, advancing what we’re calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A World Economic Forum report estimates that some 75 million jobs will change around the globe as a result. But there’s a silver lining: The same report predicts nearly double that number of jobs could be created.

So I’m even less convinced that robots will take over, as some have feared. These job opportunities – particularly in technical fields like manufacturing, healthcare, energy and transportation – need human applicants. What’s essential right now is creating and sustaining the education and training pathways that will enable workers to become qualified candidates.

That mission has been a major focus of mine, whether it’s in my role as CEO of Siemens USA, chair of the Siemens Foundation or a member of the White House’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board. And the more I’ve engaged with other leaders across industry, government and education, the more excited I am about the workforce that we can build for the 21st century and the shared prosperity we can drive. Here are just a few of the key things I’ve learned:

  1. The future of work is about purpose. This is especially true in STEM middle-skill positions, which require some technical training beyond high school. Take a building automation professional as an example. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of the world’s energy use. By making them more efficient, these specialists are playing an instrumental role in the fight against climate change.  
  2. Diversity keeps us competitive. In manufacturing, closing the gender gap by just 10 percent could close the industry’s overall skills gap by 50 percent. So let’s draw people to these careers who may not have considered them before and expand access to these opportunities. Let’s showcase the bold and cutting-edge innovations happening in our factories and the change they’re driving.
  3. It’s impossible to learn everything you need to know in school. Technological change is happening too quickly, making support for professional development throughout a person’s career – which now may last three, four or five decades – all the more imperative. It’s why Siemens supports lifelong learning, dedicating $50 million annually to continuing education for our U.S. employees.  
  4. Technology is inspiring workers young and old. Imagine if using our digital tools at work were like playing a video game. As these tools become more accessible, they’re also becoming more intuitive and user-friendly. They’re connecting manufacturing veterans and digital natives on the factory floor. And they’re enabling high school students to build things that used to take a team of engineers.  
  5. We’re stronger when we work together. And businesses have a leadership role to play in building this ecosystem for workforce development across the public and private sectors. Siemens has pledged to expand its U.S. education and training opportunities to more than 75,000 workers and students over the next five years. We’re also exploring opportunities to partner with trade organizations and community colleges to foster company-led training programs.

To return to my initial question, the pathway to the American Dream doesn’t always require a four-year degree. What these insights show is that approaches to workforce development are evolving as industries transform themselves in the digital age. What connects them is not a single degree or requirement but a focus on human talent.


The technological advances shaping the future of work might demand new skills or capabilities. But what I’ve come to realize is that, if you’re a person who is curious and takes initiative – if you dare to wonder and then put in the effort to learn more – you’ll have what it takes to succeed and fuel a long, rewarding career.