Talent and Re-Skilling - Back to school

Most major telecoms operators have large workforces, particularly when compared with the Internet giants, thus you could be forgiven for thinking they have all the knowledge they need at their fingertips as they transition into a more digital future.

Not so. The skills gap in telecoms has been well documented, particularly in key areas such as AI, automation and cybersecurity. "Operators struggle more with challenges around people and skills than technology," according to the results of an AI and automation survey carried out by STL Partners for Nokia and published in March. Meanwhile, a study on the UK skills gap from online training company Avado put the technology and telecoms sector as one of the top performers for reskilling, but nonetheless 66% of survey respondents representing the sector said they believed there is a ‘capabilities gap’ in their business.

On a broader level, 53% of respondents to Deloitte's 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey said that "between half and all of their workforce will need to change their skills and capabilities in the next three years." And in a March report called Connectivity & Beyond: How Telcos Can Accelerate a Digital Future for All, compiled with BCG, ETNO (the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association) noted that "65% of first graders will work in a job that doesn't exist today." Telcos will be part of that future picture for enterprises.

Bringing new talent into telecoms is one way to plug the gap, although that too is a challenge, with operators facing fierce competition to attract the brightest minds <link to chapter 3, item 1?>. But they have a huge amount of potential in those existing workforces and some are going to great lengths to unlock it. In short, telco staff are going back to school.

That's certainly the case for Orange employees. The French firm made the skills challenge a core component of its current five-year strategic plan and in February last year announced its intention to invest €1.5 billion in a skills development and retraining programme covering its then 148,000-strong workforce.

"We put a priority focus on cybersecurity, data and AI, management and soft skills, and we are working to ensure that every employee can benefit from training, no matter what their position or level of expertise is," says Elisabeth Fonteix, Head of Learning and Development for the Orange group. "We recently added 5G, Cloud and CSR training programmes too." Orange also opened up its Orange Campus, which was previously reserved for training managers, to all employees.

Orange aims to double the number of experts in areas like network virtualisation, cloud, data, AI, and cybersecurity to more than 20,000 over five years; to develop the use and understanding of data, AI and cybersecurity firstly to marketing and network management teams and further to all employees; and to train all staff in soft skills by 2025. "We feel that we have made considerable progress over the past few months. For example, we are convinced that the acquisition of soft skills is now seen to be as essential as the acquisition of 'hard skills,' and that one should not work without the other," says Fonteix. In 2020 almost 40,000 Orange employees sought to acquire soft skills, with areas such as home working and agility proving popular largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"To date, 17,000 employees have been trained in data and AI, and our CSR initiation program has already been delivered to 16,000 employees," Fonteix says.

Orange is not the only major communications service provider investing significant sums into upskilling. In 2019 Telefonica unveiled a €1.6 billion plan to reskill and upskill its workforce in Spain as part of a push on digitalising processes. The plan – which was also a cost-saving exercise, included an early retirement offer for workers over 53, and required the buy-in of trade unions – included enrolling 6,000 employees in reskilling programmes in areas like security, robotisation, analytics, web development, business consulting, IT and agile methodology capabilities, as well offering skill training programmes to all employees. As such, the telco said it would double its training budget and increase training hours per employee by up to 40%.

In 2020 more than 14,000 Telefonica employees in Spain took part in reskilling and upskilling programmes, the operator said in its annual report, in which it also listed reskilling as a challenge for 2021.

Reskilling projects costing billions of euros may not be the norm, but telcos everywhere are working hard on employee training and development.

"We have just completed NexTIM, [our] last major skills upgrading programme that took place between December 2020 and April 2021," says Sofia Marcone, the executive in charge of upskilling and reskilling at Italy's TIM. The programme delivered more than 3 million hours of training in various areas designed to: aid the transformation towards agile working methods; encourage interaction between different teams; and redefine the relationship between boss and employee, she explains.

The programme was split into three main areas: The first being around organisational innovation and focusing on changing people's mindsets; the second area looked at skills in new network technologies, digital enablers and new business models based on the combination of 5G, big data and AI; while the third was about production processes and the use of tools such as analytics and big data solutions to help the company adapt to the changing market.

The Italian operator is in the process of launching a second training and development plan “with the aim of strengthening specialist skills and helping to realign skills with labour market requirements," says Marcone. "The new plan will run for 18 months, involve almost all workers and provide around 1.4 million hours of training."

Many operators have the capacity to carry out extensive training programmes in-house, but increasingly they are turning to third parties to help give their staff the skills they need for the future, particularly given the pace of change in the industry.

"The average shelf life of a technology skill now is less than two years before you've got to refresh," says Mark Murphy, Director of HR, Technology at BT. The UK incumbent used to run numerous training initiatives itself, using BT Academy, but "those days are gone, really," Murphy says.

BT now works with online education specialists like Pluralsight and Coursera to provide additional training for its staff. "You can assess yourself against Python, or Google Cloud, or AWS, or you can test the level of DevOps capability that you want to work towards," he says. "Since we've really pushed this over the last 18-24 months, we've seen a massive uptake in users...We've got thousands of our existing technologists driving their own technical learning capability," he says. However, it's also important to "make it clear to your teams the skills you need for the future and where future careers and opportunities are...and that's a little bit harder," he cautions.

More traditional academia also provides valuable partnership opportunities for telcos.

Saudi Telecom launched the STC Academy just over three years ago with a view to building digital skills in areas like cybersecurity and data analysis, and leadership skills by partnering with academic institutions in the US and the UK. One such institution is UC Berkeley's Executive Education arm; in May the pair inked an MoU that will see them work together to provide education and training on emerging technologies, leadership, and digital transformation.

Meanwhile, in Singapore higher education establishments are helping with the acquisition of new skills linked to the rollout of 5G technology.

The island nation’s regulator, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), in September announced a partnership with the country's four mobile operators to hire and reskill 1,000 professionals to support 5G rollout; 30% would be new roles with the remainder being existing telecoms professionals "who will be upskilled in the areas of 5G network, cybersecurity and solution engineering to future-proof their jobs," according to the IMDA. "Talent development is the next critical phase of our investment in 5G."

The same project will see the IMDA work with the National University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic on a three-year scheme to give 5,000 professionals 5G-related skills.

Mobile operator M1 said it has undertaken a number of early 5G partnerships with institutes of higher learning, "and remains open to collaborating with more schools," to help students gain experience with real-world 5G applications. "Together with IMDA, M1 will continue to support the development of the 5G talent pool, create more job opportunities to support the 5G ecosystem, as well as provide upskilling opportunities to future-proof existing roles in today's digital landscape."

This concept of future-proofing is vital for TIM, which notes that one of the key tenets of the much-discussed fourth industrial revolution is to ensure that workers continually update their skills. This is especially important when it comes to "older but still far from retirement" employees, Marcone says. "The challenge is to maintain and develop a work identity in people, motivating them to carry out their assigned activities, in the knowledge that they might disappear, and to focus on key skills essential for employability, self-fulfilment and social inclusion, such as problem-solving skills, critical thinking, the ability to cooperate, digital creativity, computational thinking and digital team working," she says.

It’s a similar story for Orange, which believes its job is to help employees navigate the digital transformation with a range of training opportunities, from à la carte courses to degree courses.

"Not everyone will radically change their job, but each person will be able to integrate the fundamentals into their job at their own pace, allowing them to progress and adapt," says Fonteix. "Cybersecurity is a good example, as is the development towards to AI," she says, noting that Covid-19 exposed the importance of cybersecurity not just for the cybersecurity sector but for all people working remotely. "This skill has become fundamental, and we want to give all of our employees the ability to understand its importance, not just in terms of what it means for our business and industry but also in terms of its relevance to themselves as people who are using technology in their daily lives. We are not aiming to turn them into cybersecurity experts – we obviously have specific specialist training in this area as well – but it is important that we provide more general training to help all users of technology to be conscious and aware of cybersecurity in a way that is accessible and usable for everyone," she says. "Separately, we have strategic programmes to train our network and software engineers in cloud and data management, DevOps and agility."

The endeavors of Orange and others demonstrate there is a balancing act as operators seek to acquire the skills they need for the digital world, equip their employees with the skills to flourish in that world, and create a broader ecosystem of skills that extends into the real world outside the telco.

Reskilling is a hugely complex undertaking, but the message is clear: by preparing staff for the digital future, telcos are also preparing themselves. That part is as easy as ABC.