Betting Big on Employee Development

Ardine Williams, Amazon HQ2 vice president for workforce developmentArdine Williams, Amazon HQ2 vice president for workforce development

Talk about how technology will affect the workforce of the future, and Amazon is likely to enter the conversation. In June 2019, the giant retailer announced that it would upskill 100,000 employees — a third of its U.S. workforce — over the next six years by spending as much as $700 million. Leading the initiative is Amazon HQ2’s vice president for workforce development, Ardine Williams, who has 35 years of product development, marketing, corporate business development, M&A, and HR experience in the high-tech industry. In an exclusive interview with MIT Sloan Management Review, Williams, who began her career as a U.S. Army officer, explains the rationale for the upskilling initiative and the benefits to the business, local communities, and individual workers.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Why is Amazon doubling down on workforce development now? What will happen to the initiative if the labor market becomes less heated or there is a recession?

Ardine Williams: Amazon believes that it has an important role to play in the creation of good jobs. Good jobs have three elements: (1) a good wage — that’s why last November we announced a $15-per-hour minimum wage across the U.S.; (2) robust benefits from the day you join — Amazon’s fulfillment center associates have the same benefits today that our executives do; and (3) the opportunity for people to create a career by gaining experience and building skills that give them more options to progress over time.

We believe that technological advances will continue to change job content, so upskilling will always remain an important component of Amazon’s workforce development.

How do you perceive technology change and how it’s affecting Amazon’s workforce needs?

Williams: As long as human beings have worked, technological advancements — from wheels to steam-powered looms to computers — have changed how they work. Having said that, the challenge today is different in two ways: The pace of technological change has accelerated, and the impact of technology on jobs is being felt at the task and skill levels.

Jobs typically don’t disappear because of technological change, but [such change] often creates new opportunities or changes the nature of what people do. For example, in warehouses where Amazon has deployed automation technology, workers have gained opportunities to acquire new skills. Through retraining, employees can learn to clear the lanes where robots operate, reset robot paths, and perform basic maintenance and repairs on robots. Upskilling ensures that employees can continue to contribute to the company.

It’s important to be deliberate in planning what work will fill employees’ newly available time, the skills they will need to complete that work, and what the company will do to equip them with those skills.

Since Amazon attracts the best talent from both the physical and the virtual worlds, does it really need to invest so heavily in retraining and upskilling? To what extent is this initiative all about brand-building and demonstrating social responsibility?

Williams: Branding is important to all employers, make no mistake. That’s how companies attract and retain smart and passionate people, who must work together to innovate for customers. But Amazon’s upskilling initiative is about helping people grow careers through work experience and then building on that by adding skills through training.

A combination of work experience and new skills creates career momentum. That momentum may be vertical, up a traditional career path in functions such as finance or accounting, or it might look more like a lattice that takes you from one function to another, such as from recruitment coordinator to project coordinator to project manager. We’d love every employee to build a career with us, but in many cases, career progression will take people away from Amazon. That doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, play a role in their development.

What kinds of skills are most attractive to participants in Career Choice, Amazon’s upskilling program? Are they all tech-related? How exactly does Amazon identify the shortages in local labor markets?

Williams: Career Choice provides training for in-demand jobs that pay more than Amazon does in local communities, and it offers employees new career paths. The program trains for about 37 distinct job types in five general families. Our three most popular career fields, in random order, are medical, IT, and transportation (more specifically, commercial drivers). It’s tough to argue that those three fields aren’t technical.

There are four key steps I see in developing Career Choice programs: identifying roles that are in demand locally; finding employers that are seeking skilled talent; understanding specific skills requirements; and working with training providers, such as community colleges, to tailor programs for full-time workers.

We use U.S. Bureau of Labor and third-party data to identify jobs that are trending. But the data is always lagging, and there isn’t a single source of truth for labor shortages or for the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that companies need. Those factors make it challenging to scale our efforts.

Employers are usually reluctant to invest in training that could end up benefiting rivals when people leave. Amazon doesn’t seem very concerned about that. Why?

Williams: Whether Amazonians choose to build their careers with us or go elsewhere, we want to help them succeed. That isn’t philanthropy; it makes good business sense.

Even when people leave us for other employers, they fill jobs in local businesses that would otherwise go unfilled. Production increases, the pipeline of qualified talent helps local businesses succeed, and it attracts new businesses to the area. Discretionary incomes go up. We’re a retailer, so we want those people to continue to shop at Amazon and to think of us as a good partner in the community.

Are Amazon’s workforce development programs all created and delivered in-house, or do you use outside vendors?

Williams: For Career Choice, the upskilling initiative, our providers are predominately community colleges and other specialized third parties that deliver career-specific training. Other programs, such as Amazon’s Machine Learning University, are created and taught internally, and our U.S. Department of Labor-registered apprenticeships are a combination of internally and externally developed programs.

Why does Amazon think it’s necessary to conduct or manage the retraining itself? Do traditional forms of education fall short of developing skills, focus on the wrong skills, or adapt too slowly to develop them?

Williams: We try to work back from the customer: in this scenario, the employees who are upskilling. Many of our programs are built by Amazonians for Amazonians, with some leveraging digital training, courses, and certifications with partners. Sometimes it makes sense for an Amazonian to lead the teaching — at Amazon Technical Academy, for example — so that what is taught can be immediately applied by employees in their roles in the company. We have hundreds of employees designing and building training programs, and we still have hundreds of job openings in training and development.

What kinds of partners do you typically work with, and why? Is it tough to collaborate with community colleges?

Williams: It all depends on the program. We work with community colleges and experts, but to be effective, we need to meet employees where they are. We want to make it easier for them to gain the skills that they need to grow their careers. So wherever possible, we bring the training into the workplace.

Community colleges have excellent programs, but those are usually full-time. Adult learners in jobs with good benefits usually face the dilemma of whether to quit their jobs to take the training to get a better job — or to stay put. In many cases, people don’t have the luxury to stop working to go to school. That’s why we’ve partnered with community colleges to make part-time programs, bring them onsite into our fulfillment centers, and offer them at shift-friendly times during the working day. As our employees complete those programs, we schedule job fairs so that they can find new jobs. We expect to have 60 Career Choice classrooms by the end of 2020. The classrooms are important; they make upskilling both convenient and visible.

What do the credentials of the future look like?

Williams: There’s no doubt that the internet has made education more easily accessible. A smartphone and a broadband connection are all that’s required to make content available where and when it’s needed. Our next challenge is figuring out how to identify the best content and certify competencies in critical skills. There’s a lot of innovation happening in that space.

Stackable industry credentials are gaining in popularity. In some cases, requirements are clearly defined. Think CompTIA and Cisco networking credentials, for instance, and state licenses for medical professionals. In other cases — for the data analyst, cybersecurity expert, or app developer, for example — a wide range of credentials and certifications is available. So it’s difficult for students and employers to know which courses and certificates lead to job-ready skills.

Preparing graduates of two- and four-year colleges and universities to be job-ready is a shared responsibility. Employers and educators must work together to ensure that the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that work demands are clear. (See “Education Disrupted” for more on this topic.)

The Greater Washington Partnership’s Capital Collaborative of Leaders in Academia and Business (CoLAB) is a great example. Through that initiative, business and academic institutions are working together to develop the workforce that the region needs today and tomorrow. CoLAB recently launched a data analytics certification program that identifies students who have completed an industry-approved curriculum in this high-demand area. Employers and educators agreed on the required knowledge, skills, and abilities. Then, educators chose the best pathways for their institutions; for example, they could offer data analytics as a minor, an area of concentration, or a series of electives. The first cohort will graduate next year, and we are all working together to build the metrics to measure success and provide feedback.

Did you conduct some pilots before scaling Career Choice? How did you measure their success?

Williams: The Career Choice program is actually around 8 years old. We’ve learned, and we continue to iterate and invent. In the early days, the program was more akin to a traditional tuition assistance program, and eligible employees could select any course of study. We had a lot of uptake but struggled to demonstrate that the program was really preparing our employees for new career paths.

At that point, we decided to work back from the end goal: We began identifying the roles that would provide the greatest likelihood that upskilling would lead to new careers. While that helped us start moving in the right direction, we were still too far downstream. Community colleges’ success metrics are enrollment and completion, and our program goals were post-completion employment and incomes. We needed to focus on identifying in-demand jobs in the local community that paid more than we do.

That’s when we realized that we needed to work across the entire ecosystem — educators, employers, and catalytic agencies — to link education to employment. We also work with third-party conveners, such as industry associations, that have a broad view of talent gaps in local industries. We use a variety of metrics to track our progress but still have some work to do on that front.

How does Amazon’s organizational culture support workforce development?

Williams: We don’t believe an employee needs to follow a specific career path in the company to be successful. Ours is a culture of builders; we look for candidates who are curious about cause and effect, and who are passionate about rolling up their sleeves and working together to innovate. Our leadership principles — such as Think Big, and Learn and Be Curious — can be applied to employees exploring training programs, too. From machine learning to medicine and transportation, if someone is interested, there will always be an opportunity at Amazon to explore it. Amazon doesn’t require employees to stay in a role for a minimum period before transferring to a new position. Nor is there a requirement that people must remain employed with Amazon after completing an upskilling program.

What do you think Amazon’s workforce is going to look like in, say, 2030? What new skills will employees need?

Williams: The line between tech and nontech, or between STEM and non-STEM, is blurring rapidly. Earlier, technology was isolated; now, it’s almost impossible to find a job that doesn’t have technology infused in it — and that’s the real disrupter. We can no longer say “STEM or”; it is “STEM and.” Successful employees will have to be technically literate. The more companies can do to educate the workforce about technology, the more prepared they will be to deal with the changes in jobs that are coming down the road.

Even careers that have been traditionally identified as nontechnical will require foundational technical expertise tomorrow. We will need people who can identify the problem to be solved from a sea of data, communicate that problem cogently, assemble the right team to tackle the problem, work collaboratively with a team that has a wide range of skills and abilities, and bring the right technology to bear in order to innovate for customers.

Does Amazon plan to roll out its workforce education programs to other companies as a business venture?

Williams: The American workforce is changing. There’s a greater need for technical skills in the workplace than ever before, and a huge opportunity for people with the right skills to move into better-paying jobs. The purpose of Amazon’s upskilling initiative is to ensure that our employees can migrate into more-technical roles, at Amazon or elsewhere, through training and career support. We share our Career Choice program for free with other companies and learn from them, so that we can increase the impact of our programs.

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