Asking employees to buy into training is by no means unique. Many of the world’s most successful companies recognize that training existing staff to take on more high-skilled positions is good for employees and good for business. Ikea, for example, has long worked on the premise that all employees should be trained for multiple positions and trained with the goal of moving up the ranks over time. In many respects, AT&T is taking this a step further. At AT&T, employees are being asked to retrain and in some cases are even being asked to pay for their courses. In this post, we examine why AT&T is encouraging retraining, even when it comes at a cost to employees, and how the company hopes to use its ambitious training program to become increasingly known and competitive as a digital company.

Asks Employees to Buy into TrainingA Company with a History of Adapting and Retaining Employees

AT&T has been adapting for many years. Once, its competition was other phone companies. Later, it found itself competing with Internet providers. To stay afloat, the company has changed its focus many times, even acquiring other companies to diversify. Today, its competitors include not only Verizon, but also tech giants like Amazon and Google, and again, it is looking ahead to the future, but this also means having the right talent on hand, which it doesn’t. Indeed, AT&T currently employs approximately 280,000 employees. The problem is that too many of the company’s employees have late twentieth-century rather than twenty-first-century skills.

In an attempt to keep up with the times, AT&T has initiated a corporate education program. The program, designed to “modernize” employee’s skills, pays for some but not all of its employee’s classes, which they are also expected to take on their own time. The program has a specific goal. In the past there years, the company has spent more than $20 billion building its digital business arm. The new AT&T includes DirecTV as well as several wireless businesses located across the border in Mexico. The goal is to see AT&T sail into the future as a full-fledged high-tech company managing all things digital from phones to television to cloud-based software.

As a business plan, AT&T’s bold dash towards future technologies makes sense. The problem is that the company also has great employee retention. While this is normally a plus, in AT&T’s case, its amazing record of employee retention also means it has an aging workforce. Indeed, the average AT&T employee tenure is 12 years. If you eliminate call center employees, the average tenure at AT&T is 22 years. This means that AT&T’s workforce hews to the old rather than young and a high percentage of workers have skills that were more relevant in 1990 than they are today. In short, writing open-source software and managing data are not necessarily part of most AT&T’s employees’ skill sets.

The Role of eLearning at AT&T

In response, AT&T has created a new education program to help employees bring their skills into the twenty-first century but it isn’t without a catch. Employees must take the courses on their own time and even pay for certain courses. The program, part of the company’s Vision 2020 initiative, is a hybrid classroom and online learning program that offers coursework on data science and digital networking among other subjects. While AT&T may be unusual insofar that it requires employees to pay for at least some courses, what it is offering is more than training—some employees are currently gaining a master’s degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the nation’s top computer science and engineering schools, through the company’s retraining initiative. The two-year online program costs employees $6,600 since much of the program is still subsidized by AT&T.

Other employees are enrolling in one-off courses in data analysis, web development, and app development. This, notably, is part of the company’s commitment to offering “nanodegrees.” The name reflects their size and scale: they are designed to be completed in less than 12 months, can be completed anywhere one has a broadband connection, and cost approximately $200 per month. These “nanodegrees,” offered through AT&T’s partnership with Udacity, lead to entry-level software jobs at AT&T. As AT&T’s CEO emphasizes, the company’s nano degrees represent an innovative way to develop industry-relevant skills within the company’s existing ranks. While not yet fully instituted, the plan is to eventually also base promotions (and layoffs) on the successful completion of the company’s retraining program.

How Older AT&T Employees are Responding

Not surprisingly, not all AT&T employees are equally eager to retrain. While younger employees at the company have been getting on board and appear happy to accept the subsidized courses leading to a university degree, for veterans engaged in more technical or call center work, buy-in has been low. Some older employees do not even appear to be aware of the retraining program. In a sense, however, this may have little consequence. In the end, it may prove less expensive to buy out older employees who are close to retirement and resistant to retraining.

The Role of eLearning at AT&T

What can we learn from AT&T’s Approach to Retraining?

While AT&T’s training program has raised some questions (after all, employees typically don’t need to pay for training courses), it also is gaining praise in both the education and training communities as a new and innovative model with great potential.

Training Employees for Higher-level Positions

While call center staff frequently only have access to training that will lead to other call center positions, at AT&T, ambitious employees are taking advantage of training programs that hold the potential to lead them from the call center to entry-level programming and data management jobs. The potential to move up within AT&T or to eventually find a higher paying position at a competitive company is great.

Bite-size Learning

Recognizing that employee’s time is limited, AT&T’s nano degrees deployed through their LMS, have been carefully designed to respond to the needs of working adult employees. In short, they recognize that bite-sized modular courses are a better fit for employees whose time is already stretched. However, rather than simply offer courses focused on helping employees do their existing job better, AT&T is offering series of courses that are designed to prepare workers to enter new positions—ones that can move the company forward with a skilled and educated twenty-first-century workforce.

Partnering with Higher Education

In addition to offering nano degrees, AT&T is offering its employees a chance to complete an online master’s degree through its partnership with Udacity and Georgia Tech. On this level, AT&T’s training program also recognizes that training and higher education and go hand and hand and that workplace training can even be paired with postgraduate training. In short, workplace training doesn’t need to focus simply on training workers to do what they are already doing better. It can also be used to develop an entirely new workforce.

If there is a single lesson we can all take form AT&T, it is that training workers shouldn’t simply be about the present but also the future. While AT&T is clearly investing in training, what it is spending on training now may save the company substantial costs in recruiting and onboarding skilled workers down the line and worse yet, buying out older and/or under-skilled workers.

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