Business modernization is never easy. Think: compatibility issues, cybersecurity concerns, budget limitations. Change comes with anxieties and, in the current climate of talent scarcity, the challenge of recruiting the right people.
With salaries on the rise and businesses aggressively pursuing cloud, AI, analytics and other IT upgrades, tech leaders are now looking inward for talent.
“We talk a lot about hiring instead of thinking about workforce planning and talent management; we tend to forget about the people we have we still need to develop and retain,” said Wafaa Mamilli, EVP and chief information and digital officer at Zoetis, on a panel at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in May.
Mamilli, the recipient of the MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award at this year’s symposium, has done her best to put action behind that insight since taking over tech operations for the pet and livestock pharmaceutical company in January of 2020. Workforce training and upskilling were a top priority.
“You don't wake up one day and say, ‘Oh, today I need cybersecurity or analytics or whatever,’” Mamilli said. “You need to go and develop the existing workforce.”
Last year, under Mamilli’s direction, Zoetis launched a digital fluency program and partnered with Accenture to offer in-house training in Agile, cloud, cybersecurity, and data science.
The immediate aim is workforce engagement. The long-term goal is to create a workplace learning culture that prepares employees for advancement and improves retention.
Now, more than ever, companies need tech talent. With competition driving up salaries, managing employee retention became a board-level concern.
While technological innovation, economic uncertainty and the disorder of a worldwide pandemic have reconfigured business priorities, one thing hasn’t changed: workers want to be valued.
“People want to be heard,” Mamilli said in an interview with CIO Dive. “They want to be making an impact. They want to be fulfilled in what they aspire to do. It's not just about training; it’s about development.
"When you have that, you see a much better level of engagement," she said. "Engagement drives loyalty. Engagement drives retention.”
Retrain to retain
Upskilling isn’t a new idea. But, with demand for talent eclipsing supply, tech leaders are wise to see training not just as a practical solution to skills gaps, but as a means to cultivate workforce engagement and loyalty.
From an employee perspective, training is just one career consideration of many, and it doesn’t necessarily top the list. Career advancement is important.
Links between training, growth opportunities and employee retention were found in several recent studies, including a 2022 Pluralsight report that polled over 750 technologists and a Udacity/Ipsos poll of 6,000 tech managers and employees.
One-third of respondents to the Pluralsight report cited a lack of opportunities to develop new skills as a reason for leaving, and four in 10 cited a lack of room for career growth. Almost half of the employees polled by Udacity/Ipsos said that training opportunities would encourage them to stay in their jobs.
"People want to be heard. They want to be fulfilled in what they aspire to do. It's not just about training; it’s about development."
EVP and chief information and digital officer at Zoetis
Salary and a flexible work environment top the list of what job seekers are looking for, according to Tim Herbert, CompTIA’s chief research officer. “But right after that is career growth and opportunity,” he said
Compensation is key, but the half-life of specific tech proficiencies can be between three to five years.
“Every technologist knows this,” said Art Zeile, CEO of the software products and talent acquisitions company DHI Group. “Any company that is focused on training is going to win the war for talent, provided they also have the right compensation in place.”
How to rise to the upskilling challenge
Upskilling doesn’t happen overnight — it’s a process, not an acquisition. Workforce development, along with recruitment and retention, have traditionally fallen to HR functions.
Nearly two-thirds of HR professionals have put upskilling at the top of their agenda to offset the need to hire, according to CompTIA’s 2022 Workforce and Learning Trends report.
Word has reached the C-suite, where 70% of more than 1,600 senior executives surveyed for a recent report by global consulting firm EY say they are focused on upskilling.
"Some companies think that training is only about formal learning and sit-down courses, and that no longer fits the current environment."
VP and research analyst at Gartner
CIOs and other tech leaders are learning that training can be a cheaper and more effective way to achieve modernization goals than hiring in the current environment, according to Melissa Swift, U.S. transformation leader at the consulting firm Mercer.
Nisha Iyer is a data scientist who spent two years training in a master’s program prior to entering the tech workforce. She now leads a team of technologists and educators at Data Society, providing workforce data science and AI training programs that can be compressed into a one-week bootcamp or spread out over several months.
Companies need data scientists but don’t want to compete for talent in a tight market. “They want to grow these people who are using Excel into capable data scientists,” Iyer said.
One size doesn’t fit all
At Zoetis, Mamilli has an HR senior leader on her advisory team, which has helped facilitate the rollout of a broad workforce development and upskilling strategy.
Self-service training modules allow Zoetis workers to upskill at their own pace in 10-minute segments that cover topics in Agile, cloud, cybersecurity, and data science.
Cross-functional assignments are used to further challenge select employees, provide hands-on training and prepare them for advancement.
Siloing infrastructure, application, cyber and data leaders is easy, but it inhibits growth and opportunity. “I believe in breadth as much as depth,” Mamilli said. “So, someone who has been in manufacturing operations for the last ten years, we give them a job in enterprise or on the data science team.”
The advantage of the cross-functional assignment strategy is that it leverages in-house training capabilities and helps integrate otherwise siloed tech functions. But it takes time, energy and commitment on the part of IT leaders to implement and sustain.
"Any company that is focused on training is going to win the war for talent, provided they also have the right compensation in place.”
CEO at DHI Group
The module approach is less individualized but far easier to integrate into the workday and scale across a larger organization.
“The key – and the biggest challenge – is to tailor these programs around the unique needs of each organization and the diverse set of needs and skill sets of its people. In fact, organizations often fail when they attempt to pursue a one-size-fits-all training program,” said Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at consulting firm EY.
Adopting a broad view of what upskilling looks like in practice is key to finding the right approach.
“The reason people think training is hard is that they don’t think they have the resources to do it,” said Lily Mok, VP and research analyst at Gartner. “Some companies think that training is only about formal learning and sit-down courses, and that no longer fits the current environment.”
Formal training and actual classes remain part of the equation, particularly for companies that need upskilling in new technologies. Absorbing the cost of vendor certifications and other types of tech training represent short-term investments that can pay longer-term retention dividends.
“One of the most important things that any company can do right now is to have a strategy about how to retain tech talent,” Zeile said. “You definitely don't want to be in a place where you're not only having to fill new positions, but you're also trying to fill positions because people have left your company.”
The key is to get to your most valued workers before they decide to leave, Mok said. By the time they’re in an exit interview, it’s too late.