It’s Time for a C-Level Role Dedicated to Reskilling Workers

Although corporate leaders have talked about skills gaps for years, the spread of automation and artificial intelligence is prompting some of the biggest companies — including Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, SAP, Walmart, and AT&T, to name just a few — to take action, not with small pilots but with comprehensive plans to retrain large segments of their workforces. These programs signal that the “future of work” is no longer an event on the distant horizon. It’s already here.

Our latest research finds that the occupational mix of the economy is already shifting in ways that will accelerate over the next decade. Although we estimate that only 5% of all occupations can be fully automated, the activities in nearly all jobs will evolve. As intelligent machines take over many physical, repetitive, or basic cognitive tasks, the work that remains will involve both more technical and digital skills and more personal interaction, creativity, and judgment. The rising premium on these skills means that companies may not always be able to hire the talent they need to execute growth strategies. Increasingly, they need to develop talent from within. This approach helps organizations gain new capabilities while preserving in-house functional knowledge, experience, and understanding of company culture.

Companies need to retrain workers

The challenge is much bigger than creating one-off training modules or helping people learn how to use a specific type of new software. A narrow focus on the specific tasks you need today can leave your company ill-prepared to be agile in the future. In an age of rapid technological change and industry disruptions, organizations need to learn how to keep learning — not just today but on an ongoing basis.

But how to do it? Companies need to build the next new professional corporate function: reskilling. This capability needs to be elevated and institutionalized like finance, marketing, and risk before it. Many organizations need to add full-fledged systems for continuous learning through teaching, training, and assessing — and they need to do it more effectively and on a larger scale than they have ever attempted before. While the details will vary in each organization, some guiding principles are emerging from the companies in the first wave.

Learning new skills and abilities

First, starting a journey of this complexity requires a road map that links the jobs and individuals in the organization today to the roles needed in the future. Individuals are likely to fall into several categories: those who need to learn a few new skills and technology to remain in their current or similar roles; those who need more substantial reskilling to move into new types of jobs within the organization; and those for whom there is no clear immediate next job in the organization. Retailers, for instance, will need fewer cashiers and stock clerks as automated check-out and robotic inventory scanners are more widely deployed. But some of the workers who have held these roles are already being trained to roam the store floor and answer questions, improving customer service; others are moving to fulfillment centers to handle e-commerce and delivery orders. Meanwhile, workers in the back of the store are learning to maintain and supervise robots that load and unload pallets. New roles are also in demand, such as data analysts who can mine reams of data on purchases and customer behavior to hone marketing strategies.

employees must be prepared to change roles

Taking a detailed skills inventory can identify roles with overlapping requirements, revealing logical moves. New technology-based tools can assess the skills that each employee has today and how those overlap with skills and roles needed in the future. Firms with diverse sets of occupations and multiple physical locations will have more available options for moving people around internally. Once the pathways are identified, companies will need to create different types of learning journeys for employees based on how much their job is changing. Employees will need to prepare for roles that are different from the jobs for which they were originally hired.

effective ways to reskilling

Second, companies must decide on how to deliver training. This can take a number of different forms: from traditional classroom courses and online courses to blended programs that combine classroom or online work and experiential learning to new ways of learning, such as intensive bootcamps, team learning, gamification, and one-on-one coaching in rotational stints. Technology greatly expands the possibilities for reaching large numbers of employees in multiple locations, giving them flexibility to learn on their own schedules, assessing their understanding of the content, tracking completion, and surveying them to ensure effectiveness. Online modules can incorporate multimedia, interactive content, and newer approaches such as virtual reality that can create immersive experiences.

Companies may need dedicated physical spaces that are conducive to learning. Amazon, for instance, is setting up classrooms in some of its fulfillment centers so that warehouse workers can attend certification programs qualifying them for roles as data technicians. CVS has built regional learning centers, each with classrooms and a full mock pharmacy. These facilities act as hubs not only for onboarding new hires but also for training thousands of current employees each year to help them add new skills and stay current.

Use training platforms

Not all training is effective. There is an art to balancing theory with hands-on practice, creating instructional materials at the right level, setting the right pace, and making the entire experience engaging. Involving some employees in designing learning programs can help find the right balance. Companies may need to turn to outside partners with educational expertise or capability-building programs. Online providers such as Coursera and Udacity are working with companies to develop customized training programs. Another option is partnering with local educational institutions — whether technical schools, community colleges, or universities — to develop relevant curricula, degrees, or certificates to create a local pipeline of future talent. Arizona State University, the University of Florida, and Georgia Tech are just a few of the traditional universities that are working with companies to offer online courses and degree programs.

Role C- may become a reskilling manager

Third, companies will need dedicated leadership to sustain this effort. For some companies, this may involve adding a new role to the c-suite: a chief skills and learning officer (CSLO). Just as the role of chief technology officer became commonplace over the past two decades, the CSLO role may become more common in the decade ahead as organizations need to retrain, redefine, and redeploy workers. Dedicated leadership in reskilling may also mean a formalized and funded “talent hub” that designs and delivers individual learning journeys and helps manage people through training or movement to other roles.

Finally, CEOs must be realistic about results and the time it will take to build this new function. Workers who have had few chances to learn, grow, and stretch themselves may rise to the occasion. Not every employee will want to take on a new type of work or will be suited to it. But a larger share of employees can succeed than is commonly assumed. Offering them learning opportunities and a clear path toward moving into new roles can reduce attrition — a major cost and a perennial headache in many industries.

Training programs for workers

For years, many companies have debated the business case for training employees who can take their newfound knowledge and leave. But now a growing number of America’s largest employers are not only investing in their own training programs but offering tuition assistance programs — some of which allow participants to pursue a degree or training in any field. These programs not only prepare employees to assume more challenging internal roles, but they offer a way for companies to do their part in creating pathways to upward mobility and tackling the bigger societal questions that automation poses.

From our conversations with executives, we sense that the United States is at a turning point. Polarization — between high-growth cities and struggling rural areas, and between high-wage workers and everyone else — is beginning to feel unsustainable. The recent announcement by the nearly 200 CEOs of the Business Roundtable committing to considerations beyond shareholder value reflects a growing recognition of the need to invest in people.

The Conclusion

Beyond their own workforce needs, employers have a critical role to play in preparing Americans for the jobs of the future. Many are joining coalitions with education providers and nonprofits to expand training programs and define career pathways across their industries and regions. Working with local educators and government leaders, they can help to revitalize communities and ensure that prosperity is shared more broadly across America’s people and places.

André Dua is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company.

Liz Hilton Segel is McKinsey’s managing partner for North America.

Susan Lund is a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute.

First published in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2019/09/its-time-for-a-c-level-role-dedicated-to-reskilling-workers?ab=hero-main-text