AT&T to Employees: Learn or Burn

In an interview with the New York Times’ Quentin Hardy, AT&T’s chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson discusses the new companywide training initiative he is spearheading to get his workforce ready for the telecom giant’s future as a cloud-based computing company. Unlike guided programs that hold employees’ hands (or drag them along) through the process, Stephenson is encouraging his employees to self-start, prodding them with the simple fact that if they don’t adapt to the new technological realities, they will become obsolete:

AT&T’s competitors are not just Verizon and Sprint, but also tech giants like Amazon and Google. For the company to survive in this environment, Mr. Stephenson needs to retrain its 280,000 employees so they can improve their coding skills, or learn them, and make quick business decisions based on a fire hose of data coming into the company. 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.” … 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.

With the World Economic Forum projecting over five million jobs lost to automation in the next five years and with a tight market for tech talent, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the good jobs of the future will be reserved for employees who understand how to use and develop new technologies. Stephenson is clearly right in warning his employees of the risks of not keeping up with the times, but is AT&T going about reinventing its workforce the right way, or should they be more hands-on?