Train to win

Employee learning, digital upskilling and re-skilling programs offer companies a new competitive edge

Digital upskilling and re-skilling
  • Many companies are training employees to work collaboratively with AI
  • Design thinking and storytelling chops are as important as tech skills
  • Digital upskilling program graduates can help teach other workers

As part of his daily duties as a mergers and acquisitions tax associate at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Knolan Smith provides detailed breakdowns of billable hours for clients. The task used to take him up to two hours to complete. A customized AI program now does it in 15 seconds.

Even more impressive, Smith designed and built the machine‑learning algorithm for that AI tool. Smith had no coding experience before 2018. Now he’s one of 1,078 employees in PwC’s newly launched Digital Accelerator program, part of the company’s ambitious effort to “upskill” its 50,000‑strong U.S. workforce.

Digital upskilling and re‑skilling are hot topics these days as automation tools begin to reshape many business processes, products and services. Sixty‑two percent of corporate executives in the U.S. say they will need to retrain or replace at least a quarter of their current workers over the next five years due to automation, according to a 2018 McKinsey study.

Despite the consensus that closing skills gaps is an urgent priority, just 3% of business leaders plan to boost investment in re‑skilling programs within the next year, according to Accenture.

The reason for the disconnect? Most companies haven’t caught up yet to the realities of what’s needed, says Margaret Ann Cole, an HR consultant with expertise in workforce training. “People are thinking first about the technology they’ll put in place and secondarily about the skills needed.”

That will need to change quickly, says Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media and author of WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. “It’s going to be a combination of humans and machines that do the work,” he says. Learning and re‑skilling, he adds, will be the competitive edge between companies.

A 2018 study by the World Economic Forum that analyzed jobs at risk of technological displacement calculated that there will be “good‑fit” job transitions for 96% of these workers, or nearly 1.4 million employees. But for 70% of them, it will mean transitioning into different “job families” that require new skills to collaborate with AI and other emerging technologies.

That’s one reason why companies across the spectrum will soon need smart, adaptable employees like Smith who are eager to learn.

Hard and soft skills

Smith attended West Point and earned a law degree at the University of Florida. He had been interested in computer science since his middle school days, but never pursued it formally. So when PwC called for applications to the Digital Accelerator program, he jumped at the opportunity.

Unlike many corporate digital upskilling programs where companies pay for workers to earn individual “nanodegrees” from Udacity or study targeted skills via online learning hubs like Coursera and uDemy, PwC’s program is more comprehensive.

For two years, participants dive into a curriculum developed with help from AI experts at Carnegie‑Mellon. Students focus on three main areas: data and analytics; process automation; and building AI applications. They put most of their normal job duties on hold to focus on learning and executing tech projects for clients.

Tech chops are only one aspect of the program, says Sarah McEneaney, digital talent leader at PwC. Participants also learn soft skills such as creative design thinking, flexible problem‑solving and storytelling.

Given rapid advances in AI, cloud computing and other technologies, flexibility is a smart re‑skilling strategy. “There’s such a rapid evolution of what jobs will be that the re‑skilling happening right now should mostly be around ensuring that people are adaptive and ready for change,” Cole says.

Future-proofing the workforce

For large companies like PwC, the push to retrain its workforce is a no‑brainer, although the precise pain points they’re seeking to relieve may differ wildly.

AT&T recently announced a $1 billion investment to retrain half of its 280,000‑person workforce in digital skills. The move is as much a necessity as a choice. As cable and fiber optics give way to cloud‑based and 5G data migration, the company needs more highly skilled workers to navigate the transition.

Amazon is taking a different tack by underwriting the costs of digital upskilling for workers likely to be displaced by its massive investment in automation. The company began introducing robot workers in its warehouses in 2014 and today employs more than 100,000 of them.

Amazon’s new Career Choice program offers hourly warehouse workers up to $12,000 a year for four years to earn certifications and degrees in four fields that Amazon expects to see high job demand in the future: IT and computer science, transportation and supply chain logistics, mechanical and skilled trades (such as airplane mechanics), and healthcare.

Companies must find ways to use AI to augment their workers’ jobs, not replace them, says O’Reilly. “Dumb companies will just use AI,” he says. “Smart ones will use AI to make their people smarter.”

In McEneaney’s view, that’s precisely what PwC is doing with its Digital Accelerators. The company hopes that its re‑skilling initiative will have a ripple effect throughout the company. “The program’s design is to infuse more advanced skills in more places,” McEneaney says. “We don’t believe all 50,000 employees need to take it to the level that [Smith] is getting to, but he can distribute what he’s learning. He can teach other people.”

For his part, Smith is delighted by his new role. “My career has a new trajectory,” he says. “And it’s more cemented in my mind that PwC is the place to do it.”