Unequal burden for training

As Good As It Gets?

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Putting the burden of retraining in a digital world on the backs of the workers may be as ‘enlightened’ a policy as we’ll see, in the postnormal economy.

Reading a piece on AT&T’s CEO, Randall Stephenson, and his plans to retool the company for an accelerating and vastly different world, one in which his company will be competing with Google and Amazon, not just traditional phone companies. And to get there, the company will have to retrain — or replace — many of its 280,000 workers.

But today’s businesses are not going to take on the burdens of such a massive training effort: they will instead expect workers to dig their own hole and sharpen their own shovel, as I put it. Before anyone can get reengaged with their job, they have to get reengaged with their work, on a personal level. As I wrote,

This is where a truce has to be called and each individual commits to personal program of engagement in what they consider their calling, which may only obliquely line up with the job that the company has that person doing. This involves reading, reflection, discussions with other like-minded people, and sharing and growing those thoughts in groups, offline and online. My expression for this investment, where the individual reengages with their own work, in a sense independently of the company (or companies) they may be working for, is this: Dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel.

And this will involve time. Each person will have to carve out time for this engagement: it won’t just happen.

AT&T seems to be making this corporate policy.

Quentin Hardy, Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else

In an ambitious corporate education program that started about two years ago, he is offering to pay for classes (at least some of them) to help employees modernize their skills. But there’s a catch: They have to take these classes on their own time and sometimes pay for them with their own money.

To Mr. Stephenson, it should be an easy choice for most workers: Learn new skills or find your career choices are very limited.

“There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop,” he said in a recent interview at AT&T’s Dallas headquarters. People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning, he added, “will obsolete themselves with the technology.”


Companies’ reinventing themselves to compete with more nimble competitors is hardly a new story. Many have tried, and a handful have even succeeded. Mr. Stephenson wants AT&T to be among those few.

In the last three years, he has spent more than $20 billion annually, primarily on building the digital business. DirecTV was acquired in a $63 billion deal last year, and several billion more was spent to buy wireless businesses in Mexico and the United States. Even for a company with $147 billion in 2015 revenue and over $400 billion in assets built up over more than a century, it’s a lot.

That can’t happen unless at least some of his work force is retrained to deal with the technology. It’s not a young group: The average tenure at AT&T is 12 years, or 22 years if you don’t count the people working in call centers. And many employees don’t have experience writing open-source software or casually analyzing terabytes of customer data.

If you don’t develop the new skills, you won’t be fired — at least AT&T won’t say as much — but you won’t have much of a future. The company isn’t too worried about people leaving, since executives estimate that eventually AT&T could get by with one-third fewer workers.

Mr. Stephenson declined to project how many workers he might have by 2020, when the cloud-based system is supposed to be fully in place. One thing about cutting people in an aging work force, he noted, is that “demography is on our side.” Other senior executives say shrinking the work force by 30 percent is not out of the question.

AT&T’s Vision2020 program for employee education is based on workers giving up time on nights and weekends — uncompensated — but with the company reimbursing the cost of courses up to $8000/year.

My bet is that this is the new basis for strategic commitment to an educated workforce: the company will pay the out-of-pocket costs, but the worker still has to hold down a full-time (or more than full-time) job, and to dedicate serious amounts of ‘leisure’ time to coursework, time that normally would be spent on outside interests, family, or moonlighting. Depending on your perspective, this looks like a fair deal, an additional encroachment of work into the personal time of workers, or just the way things are, now.

And this might be the best deal workers can get, in an economic climate of endemic recessionary philosophy mixed with the threat of becoming obsolete in a marketplace driven by high technology, and being hollowed out by automation, AI and algorithms, and free-trade outsourcing of work abroad.

Originally published on medium on 13 February 2016.

4 Responses to “As Good As It Gets?”

  1. Have you ever stopped to think that the more time passes, the more we work and earn less? A long time ago we invented the technology to make life easier, we thought that one day we would be working half and gudagnato twice and instead we put just the opposite. I greatly fear what I think, I fear a great revolution or world war.

    • exhibit44

      Meh. I feel bad for people who were deprived of an education for whatever reason, and have to work cleaning hotels or in fast food, but the rest of us have had a lot of education. Literally a million dollars worth. We should be able to realign ourselves, although it will take effort. Prosperity is more broadly distributed than ever. A greater percentage of people than ever have a middle-class existence. Structural impediments to prosperity a disappearing as scientific and medical progress continues apace. Lifespans continue to lengthen everywhere. Literacy rises everywhere. Theres a refugee crisis in the Middle East, but that’s because that’s the only region in the world that is resistant to modern thinking and ideas.

      The chance of social disruption that you imagine is zero.

  2. exhibit44

    Growing up near Bedminster NJ, I saw the ATT layoffs that occurred in the 80s. Layoffs by the thousands. And also Bell Labs/Lucent. Of course, these management/executive workers can sell up their very valuable homes and retire comfortably in South Carolina or Arizona. There is more and more power concentrated at the top, enable by powerful analytical tools and outsourced marketing and branding.

    Educational options are better than they used to be. For retrainable managers, there are more short-time certificate programs, instead of expensive new degrees. And there is a gigaton of free learning on the web. I can get nearly any question I want answered by a quick query to W3Schools or Slashdot.

  3. Digital? Digital what?

    As a programmer, for the last 20+ years, this is what i have been doing. Learning on my own and paying for it. And as things change, doing it again. And guess what, people who didn’t do this are left behind. This is nothing new. It just affects more people.