Contributing writer

Reskilling IT for digital success in a tight talent market

May 09, 2022
Careers Digital Transformation IT Leadership

IT leaders are upskilling IT staff in sought-after skills to support organizational transformations — and to improve employee retention. Here, CIOs share training strategies and lessons learned.

agile retraining cross train crossfit jumping athletic excel
Credit: LightFieldStudios / Getty Images

There are few CIOs who haven’t been hit by attrition, as streams of highly talented IT professionals head out the door for bigger salaries, better opportunities, or both. The fact that today’s digital powerhouses are now hiring tens of thousands of employees — often without regard to geography — has only exacerbated the talent crunch for IT leaders.

Employee retention remains top of mind. But amid these seismic shifts in an already high-demand marketplace, leading CIOs are doubling down their efforts to reskill, upskill, and cross-train their employees and new hires. talked to three leading CIOs about the challenges, benefits, and best practices related to investing in their teams’ learning and growth.

Ensuring employees get first dibs at the cool stuff

Sue Kozik’s primary talent issue echoes those of most of her peers. “The big challenge is that it’s a buyer’s market,” says Kozik, senior vice president and CIO at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana (BCBSLA), which historically had been a destination employer in the state. In the post-COVID nationwide battle for talent, it’s hard to beat Silicon Valley companies who can pay much more. For Kozik, the focus then is the culture her IT organization can provide — one that invests in employees for the long term.

Kozik’s solution for retention aligns perfectly with her strategy for reskilling and upskilling her in-house team: purposeful and intentional outreach. Since the company went to remote work (a decision it reupped permanently), Kozik and her leaders have elevated their employee engagement game making sure to connect one-on-one with each of the IT organization’s 450 employees.

“It’s one of the things that’s paying us back big time,” Kozik says. “And it’s something we didn’t always make the time to do before.” Kozik’s managers have regular conversations with their reports about what they want to do next. “Those are the precursors to the topic of how we can invest in them to build the skills they need,” she adds.

Kozik’s hardest-to-fill roles involve hot skills related to cloud, cybersecurity, and digital architecture. The good news is that those are the same capabilities individuals on her team are hoping to acquire. “I have people who have grown up in the application space who want to get into cloud or cybersecurity, so we want to create opportunities for them to do that,” she says.

When that works, it’s a win-win, helping to close the skills gap within the IT function and giving employees a reason to stay. “We can’t offer a 40% pay increase,” says Kozik, “but we can show them where they can work on cloud or cyber or the other really cool stuff.”

Kozik is considering creating a talent grid to visualize the core capabilities required for key roles within the IT group. “We don’t have formal career paths and I’m not an advocate for them because things change too much,” says Kozik. “A grid would help us visualize the base foundational experiences an employee would need to have to take on a certain role.”

Then IT leaders can find those people who have the essence of what’s required and tap them to, Kozik says, take on a proof of concept, even if they don’t have explicit technical skills on their resume. Others may identify an opportunity and take a course or do some cross-training to build skills required for new roles.

“I want [our team] to see that we’re considering them for non-traditional roles, because people took a chance on me,” says Kozik. “If they have the appetite and curiosity to do something new, we’ll definitely invest in you. It’s part of our company culture because we want you to stay.”

Kozik’s advice: Make sure you’re giving your in-house staff first dibs on the prime opportunities. About a quarter of the BCBSLA IT group consists of consultants. In the past, “they were doing all the new stuff because everyone else was busy,” says Kozik. Since she took over in 2018, Kozik made it a point to start farming out the routine work to consultants instead and offer her employees the leading-edge work. “Now we can give them more opportunity to do the cool stuff,” Kozik says.

Unearthing passion, potential, and hidden skills

As a financial services CIO, Phillip Dundas can pay top dollar for talent, but even that isn’t enough sometimes in the current talent marketplace. Difficult-to-acquire skills run the gamut from data engineering and cloud development to business analysis and managerial and leadership skills. “The best talent doesn’t last very long in their marketplace and the slightest delay in the recruiting process can cost you dearly,” says Dundas, CTO and managing director at global asset manager PGIM Fixed Income. “We’re all looking for unicorns.”

When reviewing resumes, Dundas looks beyond titles and certificates for evidence of a consistent desire for self-development. “I’ve always been a big believer in finding people who don’t just have the right technical strengths, but have the passion, hunger, and emotional intelligence to grow themselves,” Dundas says. In a talent market with massive demand for rapidly evolving technology skills, that strategy is paying dividends.

Instead of just chasing unicorns, Dundas looks at his existing workforce to see who he can invest in and considers new hires who may not yet tick all the boxes but can be developed with the right  training and on-the-job learning.

Hired to build out a stretched-thin IT organization three years ago, Dundas has grown the team fourfold. He and his leadership team perform a quarterly talent review to determine whether they have the right people in the right roles and figure out where, among the open positions, they can give someone a shot at something new. That may mean upskilling, cross-training, or simply placing someone in a stretch role to see how it fits.

As part of the annual review process, each employee has a sit-down conversation to map out skills: the ones everyone knows about, the skills they secretly have, and the skills they’d like to acquire. It’s not unusual to find, say, someone who is in a business analyst role but is passionate about user experience. “You don’t know until you ask,” says Dundas. “We want to take advantage of those skills and help individuals learn, because everyone on the team wants to be growing. If we bring them along on this journey, they get a lot more excited about it.”

The upskilling possibilities aren’t limited to technical capabilities. A lot of employees want to move into managerial or leadership positions — or have been pushed into them without any particular training. Dundas offers them a nine-month IT leadership development program offered by Ouellette and Associates. “Whether they’re junior managers or aspiring leaders, it helps them understand that leadership is more than delegating work,” Dundas says. “It’s about inspiring and growing individuals.”

Dundas’ advice: At PGIM, a lot of developers were yearning to learn cloud skills, so Dundas wanted to offer them appropriate training, curriculum, and certification programs. But those efforts were only as beneficial as they were timely. Putting a whole cohort of coders through AWS training more than a year ago was well intentioned, but only a handful of them were able to put their new knowledge to use right away. “As a result, we made a bigger investment than we needed to,” Dundas says. “There’s a half-life to how long skills will remain relevant if you’re not able to use them.”

Generally speaking, Dundas finds classroom curriculum less effective than on-the-job training. “Putting a solid trainer alongside someone so they can learn from each other is a much better model,” Dundas says.

Priming the talent pipeline

Marykay Wells, CIO at learning company Pearson, has a long list of capability requirements within her IT function. She needs people with technical skills, including solutions architecture, enterprise leadership, DevOps, AI, security engineering, cloud technologies, and experience with niche software. She also needs people with softer skills, like the ability to create trust, collaborate, and build teams.

In the midst of a massive transformation to become the world’s leading digital learning company, Wells’ goal is to create a digital-savvy, diverse, curious workforce comfortable with change. In addition, she is competing for talent in locations such as India and Sri Lanka, where competition is high. “We realized that we needed to take a multifaceted approach to successfully deliver this digital transformation,” Wells says.                                                                                                      

To do so, she and her team identified critical skills and needs and developed skills-based training programs, internships, and apprentice programs with a focus on knowledge transfer, team collaboration, and professional certifications. “It’s essential to [have] people who understand the new digital operating models and what it means to truly operate across the enterprise by leveraging an agile methodology to deliver digital products and services to consumers and employees,” Wells says.

She offers her remote teams learning and training in time zones and modalities that work for them. The IT organization has forged university partnerships to establish robust intern and new grad programs to build a pipeline of talent, pairing each new hire with an individual coach to accelerate learning and onboarding.

For everyone else, learning hours in the form of weekly webinars covering a range of technical and functional topics delivered by internal subject matter experts and external partners, offer an avenue for skills development. Wells has also established more than 40 formal training programs targeted to critical skills areas along with a “pathfinders” program to ensure these programs are more inclusive. That program pairs apprentices with mentors during each team rotation, giving them an opportunity to earn badges for digital skills. Wells has expanded the IT’s annual Digital and Technology Summit with 200 sessions to invite participants outside of the technology team. A leadership track offers participants the opportunity to learn and practice management skills in a simulated environment.

Since launching these initiatives, Pearson has increased retention, improved diversity, and  increased female representation by a double-digit percentage. Now, the IT organization better reflects the company’s customer base, which Wells says is essential to growing sales within the lifelong learning market.

“We are driving diversity and authenticity within our teams by embracing and reskilling people with non-standard tech backgrounds. We are positioning our teams to be relevant and have future skills,” Wells says. “All of this means we have employees who are curious, enthusiastic, and bring their authentic selves to work.”

Wells’ advice: Give your team space for development. The most highly motivated employees will find the time for learning, but CIOs can set the stage for reskilling and upskilling. “When starting out on learning programs, leaders need to ensure that teams have the time and headspace to meaningfully engage in training, which often means providing reskilling internally, providing support from managers, or adjusting workloads,” says Wells.

Wells also says it beneficial to understand employee preferences for how they learn best. “It’s important not to assume you have the answers to training needs,” Wells says. “So, make an effort to engage teams and managers to understand the skill gaps and offer training in a variety of formats — such as videos, podcasts, brown-bag sessions — that meet the learning styles and needs of your team.”