How Leaders Can Align Talent with Opportunities in the 21st Century

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 employers embracing the digital era need, agreed CEOs gathered for a recent Chief Executive magazine roundtable co-sponsored by Indiana Economic Development Corp. (IEDC).

“The community colleges training people aren’t necessarily imparting the skills that industry needs,” noted Nick Pinchuk, CEO of Snap-on. “And when you talk about that, you get pushback, with technical colleges saying, ‘How dare this CEO tell us what we should teach.’”

That pushback will be hard to overcome without the direct involvement of the business sector, noted Mark Weinberger, global chairman and CEO of EY. “We can’t tell other people what to do. We need to do it ourselves, and that means working with the existing educational institutions to drive change, even though it’s hard.”

When the public and private sector work together on shaping curriculum, everyone wins. 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, where the engineering dean tweaked the engineering program to specifically address what they will need in that facility,” explained Victor Smith, secretary of commerce at IEDC. “We more or less guaranteed a pipeline of talent in perpetuity.”

But educational institutions, particularly four-year colleges and universities, aren’t always receptive to business-sector input, noted several CEOs. “The future of higher education is dismal,” asserted Jay Walker, chairman of Walker Digital. “They’re completely living in yesterday. The professors, not the administrators, run the enterprise, and they grew up with a system that gives them tenure for life. The inmates run the asylum.” Even getting technical colleges to play ball can take perseverance. Recounting his experience working with Georgia Tech on a massive employee-re-skilling initiative, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson described the path he traveled as “long and laborious.”

The journey began three years ago, when the telecom giant recognized that machine learning and other technology advances would drop the number of people needed to run its network from 150,000 to 90,000 by 2020, and the 90,000 jobs left would be very different. “Every form of work is fundamentally changing,” said Stephenson, recounting his decision to embark on a massive initiative to train his workforce in data science, cloud computing and wireless technologies. “This was the biggest logistical issue we dealt with in many, many years.”

To tackle it, AT&T partnered with Georgia Tech and the online-education company Udacity to develop a fully accredited master’s degree in computer science program that students—many of them who were AT&T employees—can do from home addition to making the program accessible, the company had to convince employees to participate. “We put a lot of money and time into a human resources system that tells our people, ‘There’s a job opening here—and if you click on it, you’ll see the specific training you need for that job.’”

At an average cost of $7,000—as compared to the $45,000 that an on-campus student will pay for a similar degree, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)-based programs like Georgia Tech’s can also play a part in addressing the snowballing societal issue of a generation of young people entering the workforce encumbered with insurmountable college debt. Americans currently owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student debt, with the average 2016 graduate emerging $37,172 in the red.

“It’s a scandal, I think, the amount of student debt these kids are left with—and for degrees with which they can’t earn anywhere near what they’ll need to pay off that debt,” noted Glenn Hutchins, chairman of North Island and co-founder of Silver Lake, a $24 billion private equity firm. He went on to urge CEOs to step up to help address some of the issues plaguing the nation’s workforce.

“Looking at where we are today politically, unless we solve some of these workforce challenges, we won’t be able to get to the issues that are important to the business community—issues like tax reform, free trade and immigration—because people are dispossessed from the system because they feel obsolete or at a disadvantage by the global economy we’ve all adopted.”

Workers who once thought that what was good for General Motors was good for America don’t think that anymore, agreed Pinchuk.

“People on the street—and therefore, by extension, politicians—are looking with jaundiced eyes at the motivation of business whenever we propose anything,” he said. “So I think we have to ask: ‘What can we do that wouldn’t be directly self-serving, but would help the country and would therefore restore our image in the eyes of all people?’ Education is one of those issues.”

Communication can also help, noted Ilya Bonic, CEO of Mercer Group, who suggested that companies work more closely with employees to help them understand their options. “I’d like to see organizations being more transparent, like AT&T has been, about how jobs are going to change within their organizations and be much more open to career mobility and to helping individuals make the decisions about what their next steps will be within their own organization,” he said. “They should be open to collaboration, externally, to help people find a landing space when maybe that opportunity will not exist within the organization or the employer that they’re part of now.”

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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, who suggested that businesses consider finding ways to facilitate continual education so that employees can keep pace with technology. “As an employer, I should be willing to say, ‘You work only two-thirds of your time; one-third of your time, you don’t work. And then the college says, ‘That one-third of the time, I’m going to educate you.”

In Europe, a hybrid apprenticeship model has students spending a few years alternately working one week and the next week attending a school funded by the employer. At the end of the program, the student emerges debt-free with all the credentials he or she needs. “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 [versions] will make their way here.”

In the meantime, CEOs need to do their part to push the envelope, summed up Jim Taiclet, CEO of American Tower. “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 at the end of the day, it’s good for individuals.”

Jennifer Pellet: As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.
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