AI’s role in hiring, recruitment

Laura Leatherwood (left), president of Blue Ridge Community College in North Carolina, chats with Jennifer Dame of Apple Education at AACC's Workforce Development Institute. (Photos: Ellie Ashford)

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t just transforming the workforce, it is becoming a major force in how companies hire and retain workers, according to corporate leaders. At the same, companies are letting go of the idea that only graduates of four-year colleges are qualified for professional jobs.

Those are two of the main trends in hiring and recruitment identified by corporate leaders at a plenary session of the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Workforce Development Institute.

IBM is using Watson, its powerful AI-focused computer system, to give each new employee a tailored learning plan and recommendations for further training, said David Barnes, vice president for global workforce policy. Watson also uses analytics to measure employee engagement and retention outcomes.

During the hiring process, the “Watson candidate assistant” can infer applicants’ skill sets even if they don’t articulate them on their resume, Barnes said. If job candidates are not right for the job they are applying for, Watson can point them to another position at IBM they might not have considered.

Watson also comes up with alternative questions if the tool detects an unconscious bias against women or minority job applicants, Barnes noted. In addition, the tool uses machine learning to determine with a high degree of accuracy that an employee is at risk of leaving – and suggests incentives to keep the person at IBM.

Such innovations have greatly enhanced the HR process for a company that receives 3 million job applications a year, Barnes said, adding that they also save IBM $50 million annually worldwide.

The human element

Despite all these algorithms, “humans have the final say,” Barnes noted. “We take a strong values-based approach to bolster human capacity and decisions — not to replace them.”

Human involvement is important in the hiring process, he said, because “you don’t want to lose the wild duck,” meaning those people who don’t fit a conventional mold but who come up with the best innovations.

IBM also focuses on continued learning among its employees, all of whom must take at least 40 hours of learning a year, Barnes said. Last year, employees, on average, logged 60 hours of learning. The company has already issued 1.5 million badges to employees for completing learning modules.

A new innovation at IBM allows employees to use an AI chatbot on their phone to get advice on how to reach the next rung in their career ladder and how to attain the skills they’ll need.

Multiple paths

A growing number of companies are rethinking whether a bachelor’s degree is the credential of choice for their workforce. Apple, for example, is “no longer locked into the idea that the only path to success is a four-year degree,” said Jennifer Dame, market segment executive for Apple Education. It looks for people who fit the culture and who want to continue to learn and advance themselves, she said. Those qualities don’t require a degree.

Apple is also developing programs that help individuals leverage the company’s products. For example, when the iPhone debuted in 2007, it led to the creation of a huge developer industry, as anyone can build apps and distribute them through the Apple Store. In response, Apple started developing a curriculum to help people learn how to code and develop apps. About 100 colleges are leveraging this into their curriculums.

In one example, Dame said, a group of students at Mesa Community College in Arizona who took the course as a cohort, developed an app with resources to help students struggling with homelessness or food insecurity.

Changing the mindset

Although many large companies are examining what they seek in employees, it’s not an easy task. Some hiring managers at IBM “still want to prioritize people with four-year degrees,” Barnes said, and dealing with that “requires a cultural change.” To overcome that challenge, the company is scaling up its recruiting at community colleges, he said.

A four-year degree is no longer necessary for what Barnes calls “new-collar jobs.” Within the past two years, the number of IBM employees in this category has grown significantly, now comprising 1.5 percent of the company’s workforce.

IBM has changed its “hiring ethos” to focus on skills, Barnes said. “We test candidates’ ability to learn. We look for people with relevant job and life experiences.” And because technical skills only have a half-life of three to five years, “there’s a heavier emphasis on soft skills,” he added.

A powerful message

All jobs today have a technology component, noted AACC President Walter Bumphus, and leaders in government, as well as employers, must understand that a community college degree is the ticket to many high-paying careers.

Community colleges are playing a larger role in setting the nation’s policy on workforce training. For example, Bumphus, Sheree Utash, who is president of WSU Tech in Kansas, and Jay Box, president of Kentucky Community and Technical College System, serve on the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board created by the White House.

(From left): AACC President Walter Bumphus, David Barnes of IBM, Jennifer Dame of Apple Education, and Sheree Utash, president of WSU Tech.

“That is giving all of us an opportunity to advance community colleges and the work we do,” Bumphus said.

Being at the table with top corporate CEOs has given community colleges a chance to stress the importance of access and equity in the drive to make sure everyone has opportunities for upskilling, Utash said.

It’s important for community colleges to make sure students have the soft skills they need to succeed and to understand why that is important, she said.

The Ad Council is expected to roll out a campaign next month, one of several recommendations from the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, to educate the public about the importance of career and technical education.

“This will be another tool to amplify the message that there are multiple pathways to a career,” Utash said.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.