Facing one of the tightest labor markets in living memory, US retailers and other companies staffing up for the holiday season have had to get creative about finding and attracting the extra workers they need for the seasonal rush. Some retail chains started hiring for the winter holidays all the way back in the early summer, raised entry-level wages for store employees, and offered a variety of bonuses and perks like store discounts.
The retail sector was already feeling pressure to bump up pay, the Star-Tribune reported this week, citing a survey by the hiring platform Snag that found retailers expected wages to rise by 54 percent this year. That’s partly a product of a labor shortage, but also reflects the growth of online shopping:
As more shoppers order online and opt to have items shipped to the store or their front door, retailers’ backroom operations are changing. Mass merchants still need cashiers, salespeople and shelf stockers. But they need more people to package orders for store pickup and to work in warehouses and distribution centers, which increasingly requires more technology skills.
Target is doubling the number of staff it needs to handle digital orders. Macy’s, which is hiring about the same number as last year, will shift its mix and add 5,500 more people for its fulfillment centers. Best Buy says it, too, will bulk up on workers to package up online orders.
Labor market competition, the need to attract and retain more skilled employees, and “HR-as-PR” considerations are all coming to bear on retailers’ decisions to raise pay for their hourly employees. They are also courting hires with new benefits, including intangible benefits like flexibility, Steve Bates notes at SHRM:
Building cutting-edge technological capabilities within their existing workforce is among the most pressing business challenges organizations face today. The accountancy firm PwC is taking a notably aggressive approach to this upskilling project, giving employees as much as 18-24 months to devote to immersive learning of new skills, with half their time spent training in these skills and the other half working with clients to put them to use. Ron Miller recently profiled the PwC’s Digital Accelerator program at TechCrunch:
[Sarah McEneaney, digital talent leader at PwC] estimates if a majority of the company’s employees eventually opt in to this retraining regimen, it could cost some serious cash, around $100 million. That’s not an insignificant sum, even for a large company like PwC, but McEneaney believes it should pay for itself fairly quickly. As she put it, customers will respect the fact that the company is modernizing and looking at more efficient ways to do the work they are doing today. …
Members of the program are given a 3-day orientation. After that they follow a self-directed course work. They are encouraged to work together with other people in the program, and this is especially important since people will bring a range of skills to the subject matter from absolute beginners to those with more advanced understanding. People can meet in an office if they are in the same area or a coffee shop or in an online meeting as they prefer. Each member of the program participates in a Udacity nano-degree program, learning a new set of skills related to whatever technology speciality they have chosen.
The program focuses on a critical set of digital skills that are increasingly in-demand and where expertise is in short supply: data and analytics, automation and robotics, and AI and machine learning. McEneany and PwC’s Chief People Officer Mike Fenlon expanded on their philosophy in a recent piece at the Harvard Business Review, detailing the process through which the program was designed and touting its success at fostering innovation and a growth mindset throughout the organization:
Microsoft has added a series of new AI and mixed reality services to its enterprise software product line Dynamics 365, VentureBeat reported last week, including tools based on its HoloLens augmented reality headset:
Mixed reality services from Microsoft for the workplace were first made available in preview in May and will become generally available in the coming weeks, a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat. Remote Assist allows technicians and experts within companies to see what frontline workers can see, then help them solve problems using HoloLens while they work with their hands. It’s a scenario as old as the corporate VR/AR craze itself.
Layout, another mixed reality tool, helps people visualize the placing of items in commercial or industrial settings, working with 3D models to resize, move, and quickly edit layouts with real-world scale. Companies like Chevron currently use Remote Assist today for facility inspections.
The new AI services include a program to help sales managers analyze and improve their associates’ performance, as well as new customer service and market research tools. Microsoft first began presenting the HoloLens as an enterprise tool last year, when it unveiled a second-generation design incorporating a powerful AI coprocessor. That announcement came within a week of Google unveiling the enterprise version of its own AR headset, Google Glass.
The applications for these mixed-reality devices are wide-ranging, with some companies already using them in manufacturing, shipping, and health care. One of the clearest use cases for VR and AR in the workplace is in learning, where it offers a way to immerse new employees in real-life work scenarios with drastically lower risk and expense than real-life immersion training. Walmart has been among the vanguard of large employers experimenting in this area; last year, the retailer announced plans to expand VR training to all 200 of its training centers after a successful pilot project. Now, it’s taking its commitment to VR training one step further and planning to deploy Oculus Go headsets at each of its 5,000 stores to allow for more frequent training, TechCrunch reported last week:
Google on Monday introduced a feature in its job search functionality specifically geared toward helping veterans find jobs. Matthew Hudson, a program manager for Google Cloud who previously served in the US Air Force as a civil engineer, announced the news in a blog post:
Starting today, service members can search ‘jobs for veterans’ on Google and then enter their specific military job codes (MOS, AFSC, NEC, etc.) to see relevant civilian jobs that require similar skills to those used in their military roles. We’re also making this capability available to any employer or job board to use on their own property through our Cloud Talent Solution. As of today, service members can enter their military job codes on any career site using Talent Solution, including FedEx Careers, Encompass Health Careers, Siemens Careers, CareerBuilder and Getting Hired.
This is just one of several steps the search giant is taking to support veterans. To help those who start their own businesses, Google will now allow establishments to identify themselves as veteran-owned or led when they pop up on Google Maps or in Google search mobile listings. Additionally, Google.org is giving a $2.5 million grant to the United Service Organizations (USO) to incorporate the Google IT support certificate into their programming. Google first made the certification available outside the company earlier this year through a partnership with Coursera.
McDonald’s announced plans last Wednesday to give $2 million to non-profit organizations working to build skills and improve employability among young people in Chicago, where the fast food giant is headquartered, the Chicago Tribune reported last week:
In Chicago, about $1 million for pre-employment training will be split among Phalanx Family Services, based in West Pullman neighborhood; After School Matters, situated in the Loop; Central States SER, a workforce development nonprofit in Little Village; and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, which began as a career training program through World Business Chicago with support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Those nonprofits, vetted and selected by the International Youth Foundation, McDonald’s partner in the initiative, will teach soft skills like communication, problem solving and anger management.
An additional $1 million will go solely to Skills for Chicagoland’s Future to support a new two-year apprenticeship program at City Colleges of Chicago that will allow students to earn associate degrees in business for restaurant management jobs, the company said. That program is intended to build careers for young people, specifically at McDonald’s.
David Fairhurst, McDonald’s executive vice president and chief people officer, told the Tribune that the company was making this investment in an effort “to be a good neighbor.” McDonald’s moved its headquarters to central Chicago’s West Town neighborhood in 2016, trading its original suburban campus in Oak Brook, Illinois for the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios.
The initiative announced last week is not the first investment McDonald’s has made this year in workforce development: In March, it expanded its Archways to Opportunity employee education program, increasing the value of the benefit and making it available to employees after just 90 days on the job. The company has committed $150 million to the program over the coming five years.
The US Department of Labor announced last week that it was making available $100 million in “Trade and Economic Transition National Dislocated Worker Grants,” which will fund training and career services programs for workers affected by “major economic dislocations.” These grants will be disbursed to states, outlying areas, local workforce development boards, and other entities, by the department’s Employment and Training Administration, and are meant to address a variety of workforce challenges, including:
- The economic and workforce impacts associated with job loss or employer/industrial reorganization due to trade or automation;
- The loss, significant decline, or major structural change/reorganization of a primary or legacy industry, such as a manufacturing downturn due to technological advances, including impacts on the agricultural industry due to trade or other economic trends;
- Other economic transition or stagnation that may disproportionately impact mature workers, putting them at risk for extended unemployment, lower wages, and underemployment.
Applications for grants are due by September 7, and the administration plans to begin awarding funds by September 30. It will continue to fund qualifying applications in the order they are received until all of the allocated funds are spent.
This is the first major initiative from the Trump administration focused on protecting the workforce from automation-related displacement. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took criticism last year when he downplayed the potential impact of automation on job loss, arguing that technological displacement would not be an issue for another 50 years or more.
Google and the online learning platform Coursera are launching a five-course machine learning specialization to teach developers how to build machine learning models using the TensorFlow framework, Frederic Lardinois reports at TechCrunch:
The new specialization, called “Machine Learning with TensorFlow on Google Cloud Platform,” has students build real-world machine learning models. It takes them from setting up their environment to learning how to create and sanitize datasets to writing distributed models in TensorFlow, improving the accuracy of those models and tuning them to find the right parameters.
As Google’s Big Data and Machine Learning Tech Lead Lak Lakshmanan told me, his team heard that students and companies really liked the original machine learning course but wanted an option to dig deeper into the material. Students wanted to know not just how to build a basic model but also how to then use it in production in the cloud, for example, or how to build the data pipeline for it and figure out how to tune the parameters to get better results. …
It’s worth noting that these courses expect that you are already a somewhat competent programmer. While it has gotten much easier to start with machine learning thanks to new frameworks like TensorFlow, this is still an advanced skill.
The new series is a continuation of Google’s longstanding partnership with Coursera, through which the tech giant went public with its internal IT support training curriculum earlier this year.