A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Oct 30, 2019

How Workforces Are Retraining Themselves For the Cloud

Companies continue to treat retraining as an expense rather than an investment. So many employees are re-skilling themselves.

The long term question is whether this further reduces employee commitment to employers. JL

Vanessa Fuhrmans reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Entire industries are embarking on a digital transformation akin to the industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but at a much faster speed. Getting the kind of workforce needed to survive in a more automated world will require companies to retrain—or replace—tens of millions of midcareer workers. People in all sorts of jobs will have to learn entirely new skill sets or risk obsolescence.  Many companies opt to replace people rather than invest in retraining.The trouble is, “you just won’t find enough of them.”

Warren Atchley, 59, spent more than 30 years working with mainframe databases, technology that many in his field call “the dinosaur.” Then, about three years ago, he found out his job risked extinction.
His employer, TSYS, one of the world’s biggest processors of credit-card and other cashless payments, was future-proofing its business with a shift away from mainframes to the cloud—and asked its aging workforce to do the same. Mr. Atchley considers himself an avid learner but was still wary.
The Alabama native attended a town hall meeting in 2017 with nearly 400 co-workers, many over 45, and asked executives whether he would ever get to use the intense retraining his bosses wanted him to take on.
“Or am I the old sheep dog you’re going to take out back and shoot in the head once you’ve got some young puppies ready?” he said.
From banking to manufacturing, entire industries are embarking on a digital transformation akin to the industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but at a much faster speed. Getting the kind of workforce needed to survive in a more automated world will require companies to retrain—or replace—tens of millions of midcareer workers, labor economists say. People in all sorts of jobs will have to learn entirely new skill sets or risk obsolescence, even in the autumn of their careers.
“Most of us are going to have to face this rebuilding, revamping, reinventing question—and at frequent intervals in our careers,” said William Kerr, a Harvard Business School professor and co-director of the school’s Managing the Future of Work project.
Many companies opt to replace people rather than invest in retraining. Two-thirds of U.S. executives recently surveyed by McKinsey & Co. said they anticipated new technologies would upend the jobs of 25% of their workers over the next several years. More than a third said they would mostly hire new workers with the skills they need.
The trouble is, “you just won’t find enough of them,” Mr. Kerr said, especially in a labor market already in short supply of emerging high-tech skills such as cloud-computing and artificial intelligence.
That was a problem for TSYS, based in a former textile-mill hub 100 miles southwest of Atlanta. The company’s geography, and its lack of a tech brand like an Amazon or Google, made it challenging to recruit the thousands of cloud-skilled workers it would need. So TSYS turned itself into a laboratory for reskilling a workforce en masse.
To retrain its more than 4,500-strong tech staff, or 35% of employees, TSYS had many of them take dozens of hours of online courses. Many also have gone through an immersive two-week digital boot camp, where they use the online training to create a new product or feature.
Mr. Atchley took an even more intense route. Months after putting his bosses on the spot at the town hall, he was toggling between two jobs, his old one as a senior mainframe expert and a side role on an early cloud-computing team.
For nearly a year, Mr. Atchley often arrived at work at 6 a.m. and left around 9 p.m. After putting in 12- to 15-hour days, he’d come home, say a quick hello to his wife, Elaine, who is also a TSYS employee who has retrained, and then sign onto one of the many online courses he was required to take.
He spent much of a family road trip to New Mexico in the passenger seat, doing coursework on his laptop or his phone while Ms. Atchley drove. His coffee intake, around six cups a day, doubled to 12 on many days in the office.
“This is what I need to do to stay in the game,” Mr. Atchley told his spouse.
As a veteran of the old mainframe team, he often gave advice to his manager. Yet in his side gig, he was stumped about how to best connect to Amazon Web Services to do his cloud work. “I had to go to someone who is younger than all of my children and say, ‘Can you help me get this done?’ ” Mr. Atchley said.
Mr. Atchley, an early adapter, made the transition and now works full time in the cloud, helping more recently retrained colleagues learn the ropes. He has since received his certification as an Amazon Web Services solutions architect-associate, which required even more hours of studying.
“I like being out there, learning something someone else might not feel bold enough to try,” he said.
Early on in the process, though, enthusiasm for training wasn’t as easy to muster with some of his cohorts. TSYS leaders said they expected hundreds of workers to sign up for one of the first digital boot camps; fewer than 50 applied. Many veteran employees feared that if they struggled with the training, they’d end up with no job, or a pay cut if they were moved into an entry-level cloud-computing position, company officials said.
Some new-product launches for clients were delayed as the first team of retrained engineers had to do their new jobs while also helping retrain the second and third waves of co-workers behind them. Having employees pull double duty, though, meant TSYS spent just $1.5 million a year to reskill.
“This is not easy, going away from what many people here have done for 20-something years,” said Patricia Watson, who as TSYS chief information officer spearheaded the retraining effort. “But we knew what we had to do, and it was important that we take our people with us on this journey.”
The message she delivered to staff boiled down to this: We’re facing the biggest technological shift in our history. We will give you the tools to retrain, but it’s up to you to decide and put in the time.
“We’ve been very transparent, that ‘If you still want to do what you’re doing, that’s okay,’ ” she said. “Just know that in about five, six years, we plan to be doing something completely different, and there are certain jobs that will go away.”
Ms. Watson is leaving the company at the end of October. Last month, more than two years into the retraining, a rival payment-technology provider, Global Payments Inc., bought TSYS for $21.5 billion in an all-stock deal.
The combined company, with dual headquarters in Atlanta and Columbus, aims to cut $300 million in annual costs by 2022. Executives say there’s little overlap with the part of the TSYS business that supports card issuers, where much of the retrained technology staff works, and the reskilling will continue.
Darrel Schumm, 63, is among the 9% of the original TSYS tech staff who chose not to retrain. Now a few years away from retiring, he hopes his mainframe job exists until then. He figures that he can add more value keeping the old technology humming while younger colleagues transition to the new.
“I can concentrate on what I’m doing, make sure there are no slip-ups,” he said. “The others can progress.”

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