How CEOs Can Align Talent with 21st-Century Opportunities

As technological advances continue to transform both companies and the way they do business, CEOs face an endemic problem: a widening gap between the skills their companies need and those their current workforces have to offer.

Across industries and geographies, companies big and small desperately need workers with technical proficiency. Meanwhile employees tethered to legacy technologies are threatened with the prospect of their current jobs becoming obsolete.

At the same time, too few of those just entering the workforce have the skill sets to fill the jobs of tomorrow, largely due to a disconnect between the skills being taught in educational institutions and those that employees embracing the digital era need.

“We can’t solve government policy here, but we can keep making the case as industry for value-added education—not because it’s good for companies, but because it’s good for individuals.”

At a recent Chief Executive magazine roundtable, co-sponsored by Indiana Economic Development Corp. (IEDC), CEOs discussed how to address these issues, in particular by partnering with educational institutions to shape curricula not only for future employees, but for current employees as well.

In Indiana, for example, programs jointly developed by the business community and educational institutions are enabling students in some regions to graduate from high school already certified for tech-oriented jobs at places like Subaru, GE or Honda. “Part of the reason GE chose to build its new jet engine facility in Indiana was because of what we’re doing with technical education at places like Purdue University,” explained IEDC’s secretary of commerce, Victor Smith.

However, the path to cooperation between the private and the educational sectors is not always smooth, noted AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, as he recounted the large-scale employee re-skilling initiative that the company worked on with Georgia Tech.

Realizing that “every form of work is fundamentally changing,” Stephenson decided to embark on a massive initiative to train his workforce in data science, cloud computing and wireless technologies.” AT&T partnered with Georgia Tech and the online-education company Udacity to develop a fully accredited master’s degree program in computer science that students—including many AT&T employees—could do from home for a fraction of the cost of a traditional computer-science degree program. “We’ve had 100,000 of our people get ‘badges’ in new skill sets, from machine learning to web-based development,” said Stephenson, who noted that in addition to making the program accessible, the company had to convince employees to participate. “We put a lot of money and time into an HR system that tells our people, ‘There’s a job opening here—and if you click on it, you’ll see the specific training you’ll need for the job.’”

While partnering with educational institutions to help workers join the digital economy is effective, more action on more fronts will be required to truly move the needle on a national level. “Employers, employees, government and institutions all have to come together on ways to adapt the model,” said Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO of Genpact.

One suggestion: a hybrid apprenticeship model that has been tried successfully in Europe, where students spend a few years working one week and the next week attending a school funded by the employer. “Models that are very different from the U.S. model are working in different places around the world,” reported Greg Cappelli, CEO of Apollo Education Group. “Within the next year or two, those will make their way here.”

In the meantime, CEOs need to do their part to push the envelope. As Jim Taiclet, CEO of American Tower, put it, “We can’t solve government policy here, but we can keep making the case as industry for value-added education—not because it’s good for companies, but because it’s good for individuals.”

This article was adapted from an article in the September/October 2016 issue of Chief Executive magazine. 


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