Upskilling programs take several different forms, but most adhere to one of the following five models:
Internal training. Walmart opted for in-house upskilling. The Walmart Academy was created in February 2016 to provide needed training to 8,000 new managers. Then the retail giant turned its attention to the workforce as a whole—2.2 million employees—and the Walmart Academy evolved. Today, the company has 201 academies inside Walmart Supercenters and modular classrooms in store parking lots where employees, called “associates,” receive training. On average, each academy has five classrooms and serves associates from 25 stores. The company says its upskilling effort resulted in the promotion of 215,000 employees in 2018.
“We view a store as an extension of the classroom,” explains Ayreann Luedders, senior director of the Walmart Academy. “The majority of our training is experiential on the sales floor.”
So far this year, the Walmart Academy has trained 245,000 associates in the classroom and 1.1 million associates using virtual reality (VR) technology. The company has 17,000 Oculus GO VR headsets—four in every Supercenter. “When VR was incorporated, retention increased 10 percent,” Luedders says. She also credits VR with less time spent in training. “We didn’t realize it’d have such a huge impact.”
Similarly, PwC’s upskilling relies heavily on virtual simulations. “We have digital quest games every Tuesday and Friday at 2 o’clock where a couple of thousand people play,” Duarte explains. “You can get some small monetary awards, and, if you participate as a team, you can get a multiplier award.” The quests lead employees through real-life client scenarios.
Duarte says one of the keys to PwC’s upskilling program is asking employees to nominate themselves. “Those are the people who will be the most excited. Historically, we have a top-down way of identifying high-potential talent. But by getting people to self-identify, you find the people who are the most curious.”
PwC created an internal training tool and marketplace called Digital Labs. When employees develop a bot or streamlined process, they post it in Digital Labs, where it becomes available to the entire workforce. When other employees download it, the creator receives a small monetary award. “Employees have earned tens of thousands [of dollars] by having their bots used,” Duarte says. “People are excited and committed.”
This increases employee efficiency and gives workers an incentive to share their ideas. Heinen has created nine different products for Digital Labs, and they have been downloaded a total of 3,600 times. “It’s motivating to see thousands of people use your work,” he says.
Apprenticeships. The American Hotel and Lodging Association Education Foundation sponsors a formally registered lodging management apprenticeship program. “Eighty percent of participants are front-line or midlevel associates selected for an upskilling program to advance them into management careers,” says Shelly Weir, senior vice president of career development for the foundation in Washington, D.C.
The apprenticeship program has a 94 percent retention rate among the 1,000 lodging and restaurant industry employees who are enrolled or who have completed the program, and the apprentices see an 18 percent wage increase, on average, as they upskill.
“Our industry is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, so 90 percent of our apprentices take classes online,” Weir says. “The rest take classes at a local community college.”
Partnerships with vendors. Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, a mutual insurance company headquartered in New York City, partners with training company General Assembly to train its workers. The program has provided more than 1,000 employees a variety of upskilling opportunities, including a data science for data professionals program, says Diana Scott, executive vice president and chief human resources officer.
“We have large teams of actuaries that quantify and analyze risk,” Scott says. “Technology has helped make that work more efficient, but we need data-science skills. We have an enormous amount of data and not enough people with the skills to operationalize it. Because our actuaries are highly analytical people with skill sets complementary to data analytics, we saw an opportunity to offer development programs to fill that gap.”
The company selected participants based on their math-intensive roles, and in nine months they learned Python fundamentals, machine learning, AI, and data extraction and wrangling. Learners also created capstone projects, such as new ways to analyze customer claims.
The hotel and lodging foundation also partners with an outside company—Pearson, an educational organization that manages the day-to-day logistics of the organization's debt-free college program. AT&T partners with several online learning organizations, including Udacity.
Partnerships with universities and community colleges. AT&T has partnered with both online and brick-and-mortar institutions. “With Georgia Tech and Udacity, we helped create the first-ever online Master of Science in computer science degree in 2014,” Oliver says. “We worked with Udacity to offer nanodegree credentials to our employees.” The self-paced, fast-track technical credentials are in areas such as data analytics, he adds.
Partnering with a university or a community college is different from offering traditional tuition reimbursement—a practice that some experts encourage employers to reconsider. “When you have an employee working a minimum-wage job, it’s unrealistic for her to [pay upfront for] a semester of tuition and wait months to be reimbursed,” the Aspen Institute’s Fall says. Instead, he recommends that companies consider tuition disbursement, with employers paying education providers directly.
These partnerships place a strong emphasis on career counseling. “Programs use success coaches to help people think wisely about job opportunities available at the end of the program to motivate them and help them make better choices,” Fall says.
Multiple career training programs. Over the next six years, online retailer Amazon plans to train 100,000 employees—about one-third of its workforce—through a $700 million investment.
“Upskilling is important because the American workforce is changing,” says Ardine Williams, vice president of workforce development at Amazon. “There’s a greater need for technical skills than ever before. We have multiple programs, including Career Choice, Associate2Tech and the Amazon Apprenticeship.”
In the 90-day Associate2Tech program, associates receive virtual instruction and get paid study time during their workweek to prepare for an industry-recognized entry-level PC computer service technician exam.
Career Choice may be the most unique program Amazon offers. “Career Choice trains our hourly employees for in-demand roles in the community that pay more than their current jobs,” Williams says. “People frequently ask why we’d train people for jobs outside the company. While we’d love for all employees to grow a career at Amazon, at some of our locations there aren’t a wide variety of roles available.
“Providing a skilled talent pipeline for local employers makes good business sense,” she continues. “Career Choice helps us attract strong talent and adds upskilling to a good wage and robust benefits.”
Rosanny Valerio credits upskilling with changing her life. “I started with AT&T as a wire technician in field operations,” she says. “It was a great place to start, but I aspired to do more.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in technical management while working full time by taking advantage of AT&T’s tuition assistance program. Then she used the organization’s Career Intelligence online portal to see which skills were in demand at the company and chart a training path in data analytics
“Employees search for jobs based on their current competencies,” Oliver explains. “They might identify 20 jobs for which they’re at least 50 percent qualified, pick those they’re most interested in and link to the training required for the jobs they’d like to pursue
“In August 2018,” Valerio says, “I began a data analyst nanodegree through Udacity. I got promoted into data and mechanization, and less than six months later I moved to Atlanta to be a technical business manager.” She continued to learn new skills. Now she works as a technology development program engineer.
“Every time I took on a new educational goal and completed it, I was overwhelmed with excitement,” Valerio says. “The skills and confidence I gained helped my career take off in ways that would never have been possible had I not continued my education. There were times I felt so unprepared, but I always found a course, tool or mentor to help me through it.”
The new digital revolution is much the same as the industrial revolution of 100 years ago. If companies are going to thrive, leaders need to prepare employees to keep pace.
“You have long-standing, valued employees whose skills no longer contribute in the same way they used to because of advances in what we can do with technology or new ways of working,” Guardian Life Insurance’s Scott says. “We’re focused on ensuring everyone sees opportunities for themselves.”
Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.
Illustration by Gary Neill.
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