As legacy businesses fade, AT&T looks to retraining

Sept. 28, 2016

AT&T is overhauling itself as it evolves from its legacy businesses related to telegraph and telephone infrastructure toward a focus on the Internet and the cloud. With an emphasis on wireless technologies, the company forecasts that by 2020, a software-defined architecture will control 75% of its network. That’s according to John Donovan, chief strategy officer and a group president at AT&T, and Cathy Benko, vice chairman and managing principal at Deloitte, writing in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review.

They report that most of AT&T’s 280,000 employees received their education and foundational training in an earlier era, and the company is mounting an effort to rapidly retrain its employees and “engender a culture of perpetual learning.”

They cite a Deloitte survey showing that 39% of big company executives being “barely able” or “unable” to find the talent they needed, and they call AT&T’s retraining effort “without precedent.”

They write, “If AT&T succeeds, it will provide a blueprint for how legacy technology companies can compete against younger, digitally native firms such as Google and Amazon. If it fails, it may deter other companies from attempting internal transformation, putting further pressure on the global labor market.”

They quote Scott Smith, AT&T’s senior vice president of human resources operations, as saying, “You can go out to the street and hire for the skills, but we all know that the supply of technical talent is limited, and everybody is going after it. Or you can do your best to step up and reskill your existing workforce to fill the gap.”

The authors report that since 2013, AT&T has annually spent $250 million on employee education and professional development programs and $30 million in tuition assistance to train 140,000 employees for new roles.

The AT&T initiative—called Workforce 2020, or WF2020—involved identifying needed skills and consolidating 250 roles across the company into 80, thereby increasing job mobility and promoting interchangeable skills. “Reliability engineers, who previously only tested equipment, write software that keeps systems operational,” the authors note by way of example. “This broadening of roles makes AT&T’s resources more flexible and the company more agile.”

The downside for employees? They must invest their own time—and sometimes money—in the retraining effort, the authors report. Nevertheless, even the union workforce, representing about half of AT&T’s employees, supports the initiative. To help employees participate, AT&T offers an online self-service platform for performance management, career development, and talent planning.

Retraining options range from individual courses (the majority of which are online) to fully accredited online master’s degree programs in computer science in conjunction with Georgia Tech and Udacity. Yet another option is the nanodegree. The authors explain, “Nanodegrees usually take six to 12 months to earn. The cost to students is $200 a month for unlimited courses with no deadlines for completion. AT&T refunds all the tuition when a course is successfully finished.”

In a Q&A with Harvard Business Review’s Eben Harrell, Benko elaborates on points made in the article. “A mere 20% of today’s workforce has the skills needed for 60% of the jobs that will be coming online within the next five to ten years,” she says, adding that the educational system has a role to play by “…expanding programs that take place along the continuum of a career, rather than just in preparation for one. The notion that education ends at the undergraduate level, the master’s level, or even the Ph.D. level is a pretty dated concept.”

She further explains that the industrial-age corporate-ladder approach has given way to a digital-age lattice with multidirectional career paths.

What can the individual do? Benko advises that you periodically “mark to market” your skills and capabilities: “Go through online job posting sites from time to time to keep a pulse on which skills the market is looking for, and which ones are emerging.”

She further advises that in the lattice world, you must embrace professional reinvention as a core competency. “The capabilities, experiences and relationships that got you the job you have today are transferrable in the future,” she writes. “Instead of climbing the ladder as you might have in the past, you’ll be well-served to also consider lateral or diagonal moves.”

See related articles, “Evidence for skills gap among manufacturing workers is lacking” and “Greenville Technical College targets manufacturing education.”

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