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Here’s How to Break Down Barriers to a Skilled Workforce

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

At the end of the day, we need more people like Nathaniel Meyers.

While I don’t know Mr. Meyers personally, I read his inspiring story on CNBC.com. This father of two young boys went from a “rapidly fading” job in network operations to a data scientist position–the best job in America for the last three years, according to Glassdoor.

While he did the heavy lifting in terms of learning, he was able to transform his career thanks to his company’s forward-looking HR vision. His online master’s degree in computer science was the brainchild of a collaborative effort between AT&T (his employer) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (aka Georgia Tech). The program stemmed from the company’s research, which revealed that only about half of its 250,000 employees had the STEM skills it needed, while 100,000 workers were in diminishing jobs linked to hardware.

How many of us work with companies and employees in similar situations? The good news is that, as CHROs, we are uniquely positioned to drive changes that ensure all workers can be included in the digital, AI-powered economy. Through new-skilling our own talent pools internally, and leveraging private/public partnerships, we can see the path forward for CHROs to lead the automation resiliency charge over the next decade.

When I was CHRO of Gap Inc., we partnered with community colleges to help define the skills needed in our workforce. Community colleges were a natural fit for us, given that some of our employees were community college students. Since the program’s inception in 2010, the company has filled 20,000-plus store jobs with community college students, awarding more than $270,000 in scholarships.

As our world continues to become more digital, faster and ever-changing, all of us have the opportunity to master the art of life-long learning and reinvention. And CHROs are in a unique position to not only ensure that their companies reap the growth promised by intelligent technologies, but also that no one is left behind. And the size of the prize is compelling: if skill building does not catch up with technological progress, Accenture estimates the G20 economies could lose up to $11.5 trillion in cumulative GDP growth over the next decade.

The good news is technology can help us solve the very challenges it creates. Emerging technologies are vastly expanding the array of new-skilling options. Learning, training and career transformation look very different than they did even just a few years ago. I’m excited about the burgeoning possibilities discussed at a recent conference I attended to kick off the National Governors Association’s latest Chair’s Initiative, “Good Jobs for All Americans.” We investigated new solutions for mid-career workers, and how to ensure an inclusive future for rural workers or those whose jobs will be automated.

More good news: Almost 70 percent of highly skilled workers and nearly half of their lower-skilled peers have a positive view about the impact AI will have on their work, according to recent Accenture research. However, there’s work to be done on equipping them with the skills they need. Many workers feel their companies should do more to help. They cite lack of time (48 percent), lack of sponsorship (37 percent) and lack of resources (36 percent) as the biggest barriers to developing new skills.

Some companies are getting creative. At Google, workers move around the organization and learn new skills on the job, not by attending mandatory training seminars. Some 80 percent of all tracked training at Google is now done through g2g (Googler-to-Googler), a voluntary network of 6,000-plus employees who dedicate a portion of their time to helping peers learn. Danone, the French multinational food-products corporation, enables cross-fertilization of ideas through “learning expedition” programs with startups, universities, non-governmental organizations and the public sector.

These strategies appear to be not only helping employees but also employers. Discover Financial sees tangible value in paying for workers to go back to school, in part because its tuition reimbursement program has yielded a 144-percent return on investment.

Successes and experiments like these give one hope. I think of the construction laborer in India who was interviewed in Accenture’s most recent Inclusive Workforce study. He said: “If I try to find something new, I will need to start from scratch. I will have to start from minus.”

My reaction to that statement is not just as an HR executive. It’s as a human being. Who hasn’t felt this way at some point?

If we can meet people where they are, showing them the possibilities for life-long learning and transformation, we not only enhance our companies’ competitive position–we help the Nathaniel Meyers of the world in the most human and humane way possible. In the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?