Success in the next decade increasingly will be tied to how well organizations deploy artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and other technologies and processes. On this idea, executives are in agreement, as they are on the importance of the talent required to build out new AI-enabled capabilities. But as to how best identify and nurture said talent, well... executives are divided.
Illustrating the debate, a joke. Two managers are reviewing worker retraining strategies. One asks, “what if we train workers and they leave?” The other responds, “what if we don’t, and they stay?”
There are a couple reasons why some chief information officers may not be amused by the joke.
The first is fear. Conversations with chief information officers have convinced me they continue to believe workers will leave the company once training is complete.
The other headwind to retraining, or "reskilling," is return on investment. “While training is good for business over the long run, managers tend to be obsessed with the short run,” says Pascal Emmanuel Gorby, a fellow at The Ethics and Public Policy Center, based in Washington, D.C. And so the preferred method for many executives remains zero-sum talent acquisition strategies dependent on poaching talent from other firms.
The current challenge is the latest iteration of a decades-old debate about who is responsible for retraining workers: businesses or schools. But this time the stakes may be higher with technological change happening at a rate not seen in decades. A skills gap among current IT staffers today can represent an existental threat to the organization tomorrow. Those concerns were echoed earlier this year in a snap poll of CIOs gathered for WSJ CIO Network’s annual meeting. More than half agreed that they are “secretly worried that their firms don’t have the IT talent they will need to compete.”
Employers claim America’s education system is tone deaf to teaching relevant skills needed in the 21st century workforce. "We’re at a tipping point in U.S. education and we need innovative teachers to show us how to engage and inspire students,” says Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist and author of What Schools Could Be.
Educators counter by depicting corporations as “dogs barking at the caravan,” willing to criticize but not willing to craft solutions with educators. Jason Tyszko, vice president of The Center for Education and the Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, says the problem could be solved if employers are given “the space and the incentive to authentically lead by providing purposeful direction that delivers an ROI for employers and workers.”
This back and forth misses the point, claims Jon Reed, co-founder of Diginomica, a digital consultancy. “The real problem is a lack of imagination in skills development, retraining and sourcing.”
And a significant shortfall of capital.
Budgets for reskilling rose 32.5% to $90.6 billion in 2017, according to Training Magazine's 2017 Training Industry Report. That is quite a jump, but when compared with America’s $19.42 trillion GDP, it means U.S. businesses invested 0.004% of GDP on human capital in 2017. That is not enough. Deloitte Consulting’s Digital Disruption Index reports 84% of companies claim their firm does not have the talent poolto deliver on digital strategy.
A new study from Harvey Nash and KPMG reveals where firms are looking for talent. Chief information officers were asked to indicate the methods they were using to find the right skills. Ranked by “some extent/great extent,” 85% said they used contractors and consultants, 71% relied on outsourcing, 67% used automation "to remove the need for headcount,” 49% train non-technical people for technology roles and 21% acquired companies with "needed expertise."
Researchers at Harvey Nash and KPMG did not offer “reskilling IT staff” as an option. Some would consider that omission as indicative of the low priority reskilling currently has in organizations.
Some companies, however, are placing a high priority on reskilling.
“When you have workers that already possess much of what you need, it makes a lot more sense to retrain them than go out and hire a new worker, who may be more educated and then wait a year, or more, for them to get up to speed on how the company operates,” says Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor, at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce.
McKesson Corp. CIO Kathy McElligott says the challenge is educating employees at the speed of technology change. McKesson does it with its “free agent program” which “allows employees to acquire new skills in a cross-training system where, for instance, a network engineer rotates to the cybersecurity team.”
AT&T Inc. does it through an initiative called “Future Ready,” where 100,000 employees are being reskilled for new jobs by 2020. “We could go out and hire all these software and engineering people and probably pay through the nose to get them, but even that wouldn’t have been adequate,” says Bill Blase, senior executive vice president, human resources. “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.”
If India can reskill 400 million people, America should be able to leverage invention and innovation to reskill the 162 million currently employed, and six million unemployed persons. Starting with their own tech staffs, chief information officers are well positioned to take the C-suite lead in this national imperative. As Mike Gregoire, CEO, CA Technologies, warns, “there is no time to waste.”
Gary J. Beach is former publisher of CIO Magazine and author of “The U.S. Technology Skills Gap.” Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @gbeachcio.