Forbes - - CONTENTS - By Leonard Brody

It’s a well-told sto­ry­line: Em­ploy­ees have his­tor­i­cally felt threat­ened by tech­nol­ogy mak­ing them ir­rel­e­vant. To­day, ro­bots in the fac­tory and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in the of­fice are mak­ing them­selves ever more use­ful to busi­ness man­agers — and rewrit­ing job de­scrip­tions for mil­lions of hu­man work­ers.

Canny com­pa­nies, how­ever, are fig­ur­ing out how to use tech­nol­ogy to ad­vance work­ers rather than re­place them. Re­tain­ing and em­pow­er­ing em­ploy­ees isn’t just about good cor­po­rate cit­i­zen­ship — com­pa­nies rang­ing from com­mu­ni­ca­tions gi­ant AT&T to the startup on­line re­tailer Boxed have de­cided it makes sense for their busi­ness too. The key is equip­ping work­ers with the skills they need to make the most of these emerg­ing tools. A new era is here, led by the en­able­ment of the very val­ued skills of hu­man be­ings.

“With ad­vanced AI eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble through the cloud, es­tab­lished busi­nesses can put em­ploy­ees to work on higher-value ac­tiv­i­ties and let tech­nol­ogy handle the repet­i­tive tasks. Star­tups and chal­lengers have op­por­tu­ni­ties to lever­age in­tel­li­gent au­to­ma­tion to punch way above their weight,” said Cliff Jus­tice, prin­ci­pal in In­no­va­tion & En­ter­prise So­lu­tions at KPMG LLP.

It’s an on­go­ing process. AT&T had a mo­ment of reck­on­ing about six years ago, when it looked at emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and the chang­ing mar­ket­place and saw how im­per­fectly its work­force aligned with the fu­ture.

“Our lead­er­ship team was wit­ness­ing sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tional trends across all our busi­nesses,” said John Palmer, AT&T’s chief learn­ing of­fi­cer. “When we stepped back and looked at the skill sets of our em­ployee base, nearly 250,000 em­ploy­ees, we re­al­ized that we simply did not have the skill set nec­es­sary for the prod­ucts of the fu­ture.”

AT&T started a mas­sive em­ployee “reskilling” pro­gram, spend­ing $200 mil­lion to $250 mil­lion a year.

“We lit­er­ally took ev­ery job across our cor­po­ra­tion — we have around 3,000 of them — and mapped spe­cific com­pe­ten­cies re­quired to be suc­cess­ful in those jobs,” Palmer said. “And then, in part­ner­ship with the busi­ness units, we mapped spe­cific cur­ricu­lums to all of those com­pe­ten­cies.”

Em­ploy­ees now know ex­actly what skills it takes to get and keep any job. They can see where a job func­tion is headed: Is it grow­ing or shrink­ing? What’s the salary his­tory?

“I can pull up the job that I’m in­ter­ested in, see the com­pe­ten­cies that are nec­es­sary, en­gage in learn­ing I need at no cost and pre­pare my­self for the fu­ture,” Palmer said. “We want to be fully trans­par­ent with our em­ploy­ees so they can make bet­ter de­ci­sions. Full trans­parency can be scary at times. You may be telling peo­ple that their job will not be as preva­lent as it was. But we be­lieve it’s much bet­ter to have those con­ver­sa­tions proac­tively and give em­ploy­ees an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing about it.”

Em­ploy­ees who fin­ish the train­ing they need get credit as “skills piv­ot­ers,” and staffing teams are made aware of it. “We see that skills piv­ot­ers are two times more likely to get new jobs, and they’re four or five times more likely to get a pro­mo­tion or a pro­gres­sion,” Palmer said.

When com­pa­nies like AT&T of­fer em­ploy­ees a chance to stay rel­e­vant, it’s up to em­ploy­ees to take ad­van­tage, says Alexan­dra Le­vit, au­thor of forth­com­ing book “Hu­man­ity Works: Merg­ing Tech­nolo­gies and Peo­ple for the Work­force of the Fu­ture.”

“Peo­ple who are pay­ing at­ten­tion and re­al­iz­ing they need to pivot are the ones who are go­ing to be suc­cess­ful,” Le­vit said. “Peope have to be ex­tremely vig­i­lant WE SEE THAT SKILLS PIV­OT­ERS ARE TWO TIMES MORE LIKELY TO GET NEW JOBS, AND THEY RE FOUR OR FIVE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO GET A PRO­MO­TION OR A PRO­GRES­SION. ã JOHN PALMER, Chief Learn­ing Of­fi­cer, AT&T about where is the tech­nol­ogy go­ing — ‘how can I change my skill set so that I’m do­ing mean­ing­ful, valu­able work that the com­pany is go­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate?’”

Boxed sells bulk gro­ceries on­line — the five-year-old com­pany has been called “Sam’s Club for mil­len­ni­als.” CEO Chieh Huang started the com­pany in his garage and was thrilled to reach $40,000 in sales in his first year. To­day Boxed does nearly $100 mil­lion a year.

At its ful­fill­ment cen­ter in Union, New Jersey, Boxed added so much au­to­ma­tion that by last year the com­pany re­al­ized it could do with­out 75 work­ers there. But the com­pany didn’t lay off a sin­gle per­son. Even while es­tab­lish­ing its own ro­bot­ics depart­ment, it has been re­train­ing its peo­ple to man­age and co­op­er­ate with the tech­nol­ogy.

“Ev­ery­body was freaked out when we started build­ing the ro­bot­ics and the con­veyor belts,” Huang said. “But what we said was, ‘We’re go­ing to train you. You don’t need a col­lege de­gree. You don’t even need a high school de­gree. What you need is a will­ing­ness to learn.’ Within this next year, we’ll ba­si­cally have re­trained the en­tire work­force.”

Some ware­house work­ers have moved into cus­tomer ser­vice or cor­po­rate po­si­tions. Oth­ers do sim­i­lar work with bet­ter tools. Pick­ers who as­sem­ble or­ders used to spend the day walk­ing around with carts and a list. Now work­ers are sta­tioned at set lo­ca­tions along 2.5 miles of con­veyor belts, and the prod­ucts come to them. Work­ers have been trained to use head­sets that tell them when an item ar­riv­ing at their sta­tion needs to be picked.

Au­to­ma­tion doesn’t need to mean elim­i­na­tion. The fact is that U.S. un­em­ploy­ment is at a 17-year low de­spite the digital rev­o­lu­tion. Hun­dreds of new oc­cu­pa­tions didn’t ex­ist years ago, from robot tech­ni­cian to app de­vel­oper.

“ATMs didn’t fully re­place bank tell­ers; now the tell­ers are well-versed in the bank’s prod­ucts and fo­cus on broader cus­tomer ser­vice,” said Mike DiClau­dio, prin­ci­pal in Peo­ple & Change Ad­vi­sory at KPMG LLP. “They’re tak­ing on dif­fer­ent re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, sup­ported by bet­ter data, bet­ter an­a­lyt­ics and bet­ter train­ing. That cre­ates a bet­ter user ex­pe­ri­ence for the cus­tomer and a more re­ward­ing ca­reer op­por­tu­nity for the teller.”

As is of­ten the case, tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment al­lows peo­ple to fo­cus on their higher-value pur­pose.

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