AT&T had a problem. As the era of hardware and landlines faded into the age of mobile phones and the cloud, the global telecom company's offerings had changed—but the skill set of its workforce had not.
AT&T is not alone: Nearly two-thirds of global CIOs say a lack of talent is holding their organizations back, according to KPMG. A tight labor market is only exacerbating the ongoing struggle. In the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance, unemployment rates have hit their lowest points in over four decades.
AT&T's lack of talent was widespread. Internal research showed only half of the company's 250,000 employees had the science, tech, engineering and math skills the company's work required. Plus, more than 100,000 workers were in hardware-related jobs that probably wouldn't exist in the near future.
“We could go out and try to hire all these software and engineering people and probably pay through the nose to get them, but even that wouldn't have been adequate,” Bill Blase, senior executive vice president of human resources, AT&T, told CNBC. “Or we could try to reskill our existing workforce so they could be competent in the technology and the skills required to run the business going forward.” They chose the latter, launching a US$1 billion global “reskilling” program that aims to retrain 100,000 employees by 2020.
In India, the IT industry association NASSCOM says that 40 percent of the country's 4 million IT workers will need reskilling to keep up with evolving technology. In 2018, NASSCOM, along with member organizations, launched the FutureSkills program to reskill 1 million IT professionals along with 1 million students and potential employees over five years. They'll be taught skills around emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Global consulting firm PwC, meanwhile, has started a company-wide program to improve the digital skills of its 50,000 employees.
But for these efforts to succeed, organizations will need to fully commit to the programs—and to securing C-suite buy-in. “This [retraining] would have been nothing more than an HR exercise that sat on a shelf if our leadership didn't become its biggest advocates,” Mr. Blase said.
At PwC, moonlighting isn't the answer to retooling the workforce of the future. The Digital Accelerator program, launched last year, gives 1,000 employees the opportunity to leave their usual duties full-time for two years to take courses in digital skills—everything from robotics to machine learning—for about 10 hours each week. The rest of the employees’ time is then spent applying those skills to new internal and external digital-intensive projects. It's one part of the organization's larger training initiative.
Through in-person and virtual training, the program bolsters the three sets of digital skills most critical to PwC's products and services, says Sarah McEneaney, partner and digital talent leader, PwC, Chicago, Illinois, USA: digital upskilling, talent transformation, data and analytics, robotic automation and AI.
“For us, it was super important that we pair all of the tech training with the human skills that add insight and value to the technology,” Ms. McEneaney says. Those human skills are design thinking, storytelling with data and an agile approach to project management.
For PwC, agile goes hand in hand with innovation. “There needs to be a framework and discipline for innovation,” she says. “We want employees to innovate, but not for two years without interim, near-term milestones.” Ms. McEneaney adds that an agile approach ensures that PwC projects benefit from an iterative process and user feedback.
Before officially launching the program with the first class of over 1,000 people in June 2018, PwC conducted a pilot test with about 75 employees. Through the pilot, Ms. McEneaney's team gathered valuable lessons learned on the importance of “time protection,” she says—making sure the accelerators could devote all their time to the program without getting pulled back into their prior roles.
Her team has also tracked the program's success financially—for instance, noting the number of tasks that people in the program learn to automate. They also track how participants are responding. Surveys and other enterprise data assess retention rates and employees’ engagement levels. Ultimately, though, Ms. McEneaney says: “If this wasn't a priority at the senior leadership level, I don't know if we'd have the success we've had.”—Novid Parsi
—Sarah McEneaney, PwC, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Amount organizations in the United States could lose in revenue annually unless they fill their tech skills gap
Top four skills in short supply, according to global CIOs:
Sources: Future of Work Survey, Consumer Technology Association, 2018; CIO Survey, Harvey Nash/KPMG, 2018; Future of Work: The Global Talent Crunch, Korn Ferry, 2018