Reskilling revolution: Enterprises accelerate remote learning amid pandemic

To keep ahead of the digital curve, Shell, S&P Global and BMW are embracing MOOCs to train staff in emerging technologies.

Reskilling revolution: Enterprises accelerate remote learning amid pandemic

Reskilling is emerging as a critical initiative for IT leaders looking to strengthen their staffs for the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. And in accordance with social distancing practices, the training is happening 100 percent remotely.

Companies are beefing up their virtual learning strategies to augment skills in data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud and other technologies for which talent is in short supply. That gap, combined with the rapid evolution of technologies that can provide a digital edge, has companies investing in training current employees. The idea is to better prepare workers to accommodate changing business requirements, thus enabling the companies to better compete.

“The lifetime of digital skills is getting shorter and shorter,” Daniel Jeavons, general manager of the data science program at Shell, tells “By adopting new skilling approaches we can support our workforce needs, while evolving to embrace new opportunities ahead.” 

Fear and uncertainty triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak has heightened urgency around reskilling. Forty-three percent of employers added more courses, training material or users to their reskilling programs during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a poll of 282 hiring managers and other executives at various companies conducted by researcher Talent LMS.

MOOCs are having their moment

Organizations such as Udacity, Coursera and Udemy, leading providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs), are reaping the reskilling rewards. While MOOCs have been regarded with skepticism in their ability to provide quality education, Fortune 500 corporations have leaned into them of late because they offer targeted technical training that employees can apply rapidly to their work.

Udacity, for example, offers micro-credentials called nanodegrees that require enrollees to complete immersive courses in specific competencies via a web browser, says Gabe Dalporto, CEO of Udacity. Courses take roughly a month to complete, with students devoting around 10 to 15 hours of study per week.

Count Daniel Jeavons, a general manager of data science at Shell, among Udacity’s converts. Thousands of the oil and gas company’s employees have participated in three Shell Nano Tracks, created in partnership with Udacity. The courses offer virtual training for data engineers, data scientists and citizen data scientists. Shell also offers employees specialized Udacity nanodegrees within data and AI. A Shell Nano Coach brings students together in a collaborative online learning experience.

Collectively, such education helps employees deepen their knowledge to keep up with the latest tech advancements in their field, while citizen data scientists can create bespoke AI solutions to solve problems endemic to their business unit, Jeavons says. Shell has also developed an integrated learning program under the banner, in which participants spend 12 to 15 hours a week learning how to apply AI and citizen development skills, including what they learned from the Udacity coursework, across Shell’s business. The network currently boasts more than 3,200 members.

The skills developed through the Udacity courses are improving the quality and speed of project delivery in initiatives such as asset management (predicting when drilling equipment may break), inventory optimization, business process optimization, employee safety and customer loyalty, Jeavons says. “Participants have strongly agreed that partaking in these courses is increasing their job satisfaction and that they feel it has been an investment in their career,” Jeavons says.

This work has taken on a headier importance during the pandemic, as the coronavirus crisis has walloped the energy sector, fostering fear and doubt among employees in the sector. Jeavons says the outbreak has influenced employees to make reskilling more tailored to their needs — and on their timetables. “It’s been advantageous,” says Jeavons, of Shell’s partnership with Udacity. “People working from home spend more time on training during the lockdown.”

Seven skill tracks

Swamy Kocherlakota, CIO of S&P Global, seconds that sentiment, noting that the elimination of commutes along with the uncertainty about the future has spurred the company’s 22,000 employees to look to boost their professional experience. The financial service firm’s EssentialTech 2.0 training program offers seven training modules — agile, DevOps, data science, cybersecurity, cloud, automation and innovation — populated with courses offered via a range of partners, including MOOCs, universities and other partners.

Scaled agile has emerged as a critical focus for S&P employees, as it is germane to the direction the company is taking in its digital transformation. But staff may choose their training. “We strongly believe how somebody wants to learn is up to the employee,” says Kocherlakota, who adds that training is viewed as the “way the company does business,” as a nod to the culture of iterative learning S&P is fostering. Each skill learned builds on the next; today’s data engineers may become tomorrow’s data scientists, who will become tomorrow’s AI experts, Kocherlakota says.

As the pandemic spread across the globe in early 2020, S&P married these modules with an innovation program to offer an “immersive, experiential process,” in which staff apply the skills they learn as part of cohort programs, staffed by coaches. This blend of training and practical experience has galvanized the workforce, which has logged 120,000 course completions spanning 63,000 hours in the training modules, says Kocherlakota.

Ideally, this revamped virtual training program will help S&P come out stronger post-pandemic. “We’re bringing more depth into the curriculum and combining it with innovation to bring ideas forward,” Kocherlakota says.

Crash courses in self-driving data science

In its effort to transform itself from an automotive company led by mechanical engineers to more tech-savvy data-centric engineers, BMW Group is embracing Udacity to carve out nanondegree tracks in self-driving cars, as well as in data and analytics, according to Friedrich Schweizer, an autonomous driving specialist and manager in the data transformation office.

The courses feature robotics, computer vision and reinforcement learning, among other AI disciplines. The work with Udacity is augmenting engineers’ existing automotive-centric domain knowledge with analytical chops, ideally so that they will become “data stewards” for the business, Schweizer says.

It also launched with Udacity an AI for Leaders program to teach business managers basic AI fundamentals, such as terminology, to help them communicate with their data science staff. 

It isn’t just the MOOCs that are hip to the current education crush, as other companies are joining the upskilling arms race. Citing concern about workers falling behind the digital curve at a time when AI and automation are taking wing, Microsoft in June began providing free online classes and other resume-building resources to 25 million people through 2020. This concern is pervasive; eighty-four percent of 800 global technology leaders surveyed by KPMG say they were reskilling employees who would be most impacted by emerging technologies.

Above all else, the proliferation of virtual education shows corporations recognize that “current skills in the organization do not align to the business strategy,” Dalporto says. He adds that 70 percent of organizations claim skills gaps are hindering innovation.

As it happens, MOOCs are one of those rare sectors that is benefitting from the coronavirus outbreak, with Udacity enrollments up fourfold since the pandemic started, Dalporto says.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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