As Good As It Gets?

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.