The Challenge of Workforce 2020

Recently, Aaron Pressman wrote about AT&T’s Workforce 2020 program for Fortune magazine.

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I’ve been recommending the article to school leaders because I think it holds some nice lessons for those of us who think about, and execute, professional development in schools.

Via the 2020 program, AT&T is trying to retrain a huge swath of its 270,000 person workforce. If you think about your relationship with your landline at home, you will understand why a company in the rapidly changing telecommunications industry would be willing to take on such an enormous “upskilling” project. The shift to mobile, in particular, requires a skillset that many AT&T employees did not acquire during their formative educational years. There are some obvious upsides for corporate: being able to upskill continuously from the inside, instead of having to hire from the outside, could be a huge competitive advantage for AT&T.

Also, there are some obvious upsides for human beings. If Workforce 2020 succeeds, it will allow people to keep their jobs, to grow steadily, to move into new jobs within the same company, to benefit from change by changing. There’s a twist, of course, in that the training has to happen outside of work hours. People who want to keep their jobs will have to fit in the work, even if it’s inconvenient, even if they are trying to raise children or deal with other personal matters outside of work.  A sociologist quoted in Pressman’s article qualifies the arrangement as “impressive but not entirely happy.”

Technology, taken seriously, puts us in that position again and again, causing continuous reckonings. It can help us to do impressive things, though we won’t always be happy on our way there. The question is, how impressive do we want to be?

In schools, where our job isn’t to swap out landlines or move data into the cloud but to care for and empower young people, the answer should be “very.” Pressman’s AT&T article is important because it shows us a company that is drawing a line in the sand but making sure that the line is dashed. They want their people to be able to get to the other side.  I wonder — are school leaders drawing similar dotted lines as they consider how work in schools is organized and how we are preparing out workforce for its inevitable future?