Why I’m Not Put Out by IBM’s Remote-Work Pullback; Wharton Wants More MBAs to be Artsy; Entry-Level Jobs Need Not Require College Degree

IBM’s marketing department is asking employees to colocate into several of the company’s offices. Some employees might be peeved, but the move isn’t entirely unreasonable. Also, why Wharton made a smart move reaching out to liberal arts majors, and the reason behind employers’ need to hire for skills regardless of formal educational background.

I can’t think of a better way to end the first quarter of 2017 than with a robust discussion on remote work.

If you haven’t heard, IBM has been in the news of late for shuttering some of its remote-work programs.

As Quartz reported last week, the technology giant is ending remote work in favor of colocation for about 2,600 employees in its U.S. marketing department. Less than a year into her tenure as IBM’s chief marketing officer, Michelle Peluso announced that teams would now work together “shoulder to shoulder” from one of six different office locations, including Atlanta; Raleigh, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Boston, San Francisco and New York. Employers who previously worked from home would be required to commute into one of those offices, and others who worked entirely off-site would be required to move or look for another job. Unsurprisingly, many employees are upset.

The news is significant for two reasons. One, IBM has long been a pioneer in remote work — as of 2009, when remote work was still a new concept, roughly 40 percent of the firm’s 386,000 global employees worked from home, according to Quartz. And two, it comes at a time when the prevailing notion around remote work is overwhelmingly positive, thanks to the availability and effectiveness of new collaboration technologies and new attitudes on work.

Still, as I wrote about in a column earlier this year, things like remote work can be a touchy subject that require a strong dose of nuance to evaluate properly. In IBM’s case, it’s important to note that this isn’t a companywide policy, but moreover an initiative within one department led by a new executive. Dedicated remote work — where employees work from wherever they want, regardless of that location’s proximity to a central office — is a privilege, not an entitlement, in my view, and it’s not entirely ridiculous that IBM is asking those employees to move to a city with access to one of the company’s central offices. For some companies, exclusively remote work works great, but I can’t argue with IBM wanting to colocate its marketing department if its executives feel there is a legitimate business case for having people working face-to-face. Sometimes creativity is best served when there are spontaneous interactions in person. Not everyone will agree with me.

Business schools could use some more liberal arts majors, which might by why a new program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is specifically looking to draw these types of students back to campus to earn an MBA.

As The Wall Street Journal wrote about this week, the esteemed business school is set to launch a program for undergraduates studying liberal arts, science and nursing who are looking to gain early admission to the graduate program. The Moelis Advance Access Program, as it’s being called, is open to the school’s seniors aiming to work for up to four years after graduation before returning to study business.

The main idea, as the Journal points out, is to “broaden the mix of students beyond typical MBA-seekers, who tend to apply after working in finance or consulting roles.”

I’ve already written about how I think those with liberal arts backgrounds will find new value in the forthcoming age of automation and robotics, so I’m happy to see that business schools are becoming more welcoming to this crowd. It’s important that today’s business environment — and, by extension, formal business schools — are more welcoming to diverse thought. Part of this is creating the perception that people with nontraditional undergraduate backgrounds are invited to participate in formal business education. Put simply, too many leaders in business come from fields like finance and accounting. For business to evolve to the next level, it’s imperative that those with liberal arts backgrounds are given an equal opportunity to learn and contribute.

Finally, we often hear about how companies are struggling to find talent with the right skills — primarily, they say, because colleges aren’t equipping graduates with the right skills — but a Wall Street Journal article from this week suggested companies are being needlessly stingy in their requirement of a college-level education for many entry-level jobs.  

The story highlighted a new survey from the Rockefeller Foundation and Edelman Intelligence showing that some 70 percent of employers said they screen entry-level applicants’ résumés for bachelor’s degrees — while 40 percent of companies complain that “high employee turnover is the result of workers feeling overqualified for their beginning roles.” The problem: a university degree has now become a “blunt proxy” for ability, Abigail Carlton, a management director at the Rockefeller Foundation, told the Journal. Carlton added that this leaves many young people who are capable of learning entry-level job skills boxed out.

I could not agree more. Many employers have become too stuck in the thinking that traditional university degrees equal a set expectation on skills and aptitude. The irony is that, while many companies feel like universities are not preparing their students enough in some cases, those very same companies have pigeonholed their thinking into only looking at candidates with those traditional college degrees. Meanwhile, there are many people with those skills — or the ability to learn them quickly — that are out of the labor market because they don’t necessarily have a traditional degree. We’ve entered an era of business — and education — where the ability to learn is probably more important than skill, given the pace of change in technology and other disciplines. It’s also an era when more and more nontraditional higher learning resources are at our disposal, making it more accessible to learn new skills without the high cost and formal commitment of going to college or graduate school.

In my opinion, entry-level jobs are the perfect opportunity for companies to hire more outside-the-box candidates. Sometimes that means looking for people without traditional college degrees and digging deeper throughout the interview process to find out if they have a high aptitude for learning. This will also help companies ensure they’re incorporating a more diverse pool of applicants in their hiring process, since many prestigious universities and colleges are out of reach for many minority groups.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.