SAN FRANCISCO — Back in August, GE CEO Jeff Immelt criticised Donald Trump over his racist comments on Muslims and Mexicans, calling them “unacceptable.”
Now, Immelt tells Business Insider that while he stands by his view of Trump’s comments, he reaffirms that he’s only ever had positive interactions with the President-elect, and says he “[looks] forward to working with him.”
And there’s one issue that Immelt and Trump seem to agree on: There’s room for growth in the United States’ GDP. From Immelt’s standpoint, this is a technology problem.
“As our productivity has decreased, so has our GDP growth,” Immelt tells Business Insider.
He’s not talking about business productivity, the kind you solve with software like Microsoft Office. He’s talking about industrial productivity, from the more efficient manufacturing of goods, to smarter ways of shipping them around the world, to maximizing the yield (and minimising the environmental impact) when drilling for oil and gas.
That’s where GE comes in, with its fast-growing software and services business, helping industrial companies modernise and revamp their business models for the digital present. With the so-called “Internet of Things,” or IoT, comes the “reinvention of productivity,” and new ways for companies to tackle the world’s biggest problems, Immelt says.
“I think what we have is a big idea,” says Immelt.
When it comes to actually finding that talent, Immelt says that GE’s grand vision is actually a big plus.
First, the industrial internet presents the Silicon Valley programmer set with a set of interesting challenges that can only be solved with huge machines, Immelt says. Second, those problems can actually have a huge impact on the real world.
That goes all the way up to huge problems like global climate change, which Immelt says can be tackled by the Internet of Things — as connected power plants, factories, and buildings can more intelligently manage their power consumption, and companies build massive power batteries, making sure nothing goes to waste.
‘The workforce of the future’
The flipside of the trend towards more connected, automated machines, as many have noted, is anxiety that these machines will replace humans, destroying industrial jobs.
That’s not how Immelt sees it. From his point of view, the shift towards that industrial Internet of Things will actually create higher-paying jobs.
As factory equipment, jet turbines, and all the other machines of industry become “more advanced than they ever have been before,” he says, it creates opportunities for workers skilled in both the science behind the machines, and the art that goes into programming and running them.
“That’s the workforce of the future,” Immelt says.
To that end, Immelt says, new employees at GE will spend their first several months splitting their time: 4 hours a day at the office, and 4 hours a day at a local university or community college, either learning about machines or about programming, depending on their skill set. The result is a well-rounded employee who can handle the digital side and the industrial side.
“That makes them awesome, that makes them valuable,” Immelt says.
The new business plan
There are challenges ahead, Immelt says, as the company works to meet the growing challenges of digital industry.
For starters, there’s cybersecurity — in October, a hack that took advantage of unsecured Internet of Things devices took the Internet down for the better of the day. It was a huge setback for the concept of the IoT, as consumers and enterprise alike suddenly had cause to rethink their reliance on connected devices.
Immelt calls this “mammothly important,” and says that GE is continually working on shoring up not only its own security, but that of all the partner devices and software that plug into the GE ecosystem of products.
Another challenge is in figuring out how the IoT affects GE’s own business model. With the proliferation of connected devices comes the chance to explore new ways of generating revenue.
For instance, GE itself is famous for charging not for its jet turbines themselves, but rather billing the airlines per pound of thrust generated.
Immelt says that the company is still figuring out how that kind of business model interplays with its more traditional business models: Selling equipment, and selling the services required to maintain and monitor it.
With the IoT so new, Immelt doesn’t want to commit to privileging any one model over the other two.
“I think we gotta take this as it goes,” Immelt says.