AT&T Boosts Training for New IP World

Aiming to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the volatile communications business, AT&T has quietly built one of the world's largest and most extensive corporate universities over much of the last decade.

With an annual investment of $250 million in workforce training, AT&T University provided more than 23 million hours of learning in 2015 alone, according to John Palmer, senior vice president and chief learning officer for AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T). AT&T University has handed out 120,000 course completion badges to its employees over just the last 18 months.

"We're really pleased with the culture we're creating at AT&T, a culture of continuous learning," Palmer said. "But we're not done yet. We've just taken the initial steps."

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Palmer -- a veteran AT&T executive who took over the new chief learning officer post in February after previously running the operational side of AT&T University and working in the investor relations and consumer divisions -- said the US telecom giant boosted its emphasis on training and re-training employees a year and a half ago as part of its shift from a hardware-oriented focus to software-defined IP networks. In an acknowledgement that they couldn't possibly recruit enough workers with the required skills to tackle the technical and operational challenges ahead, company executives decided to concentrate on giving existing employees the opportunity to upgrade their skills for the necessary tasks.

"We drew a line in the sand in 2014," said Palmer, crediting the leadership of AT&T Chairman & CEO Randall Stephenson. With the volume of talented people needed, "we realized that we can't find that scale externally and have to do it in large part internally." He elaborates in the following video clips from AT&T.

AT&T University's education and training courses run the gamut from customer service to computer science to SDN/NFV to cybersecurity to IP networking, to name a few examples.

Most of the classes, which range in length from less than an hour to several weeks or months, are taught in-house. AT&T University boasts a staff of about 700 to 800 instructors, based in the company's Dallas headquarters and every other major city where it does business across the globe.

Increasingly, AT&T University is focusing on training its employee students for the retail, technical, operational and customer service jobs of tomorrow, not just today. "We are mapping training to specific roles of the future," Palmer said. "Our business strategy drives our learning strategy."

Besides running shorter skills training courses, AT&T has collaborated with Georgia Tech and Udacity to create the first-ever Online Master of Science in Computer Science degree. The company has also teamed up with Udacity on an online university, to craft self-paced, fast-track technical credentials called nano-degrees. These degrees span key disciplines of strategic interest, like web and mobile development, data analytics and tech entrepreneurship, with more to come.

In addition to the Georgia Tech and Udacity programs, AT&T collaborates with the University of Oklahoma, Pace University, Champlain College and others, with more school partnerships on the way. Plus, tuition discounts are available to AT&T employees from 35 institutions, including Stanford University, Boston University, NYU-Poly and others. AT&T also offers a tuition reimbursement program to help defray a portion of tuition costs for its employees.

"We're really looking to continually differentiate ourselves," Palmer said. "The days of going out and getting a four-year degree and riding out a 30-year career without continuing your education are over."

Although many, if not most, of AT&T's 280,000 employees are participating or have participated in the skills upgrade campaign, Palmer still worries that AT&T University is not reaching every willing staffer. He wants to make sure that no employee is left behind.

"It's just such a massive effort of scale," he said. "We just want to reach everyone who wants to be a part of it."

This blog is sponsored by AT&T. It is the sixth part of a ten-part series titled "Behind the Speeds," examining next-generation broadband technologies and what it takes to keep customers connected.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner 8/2/2016 | 8:35:29 PM
Re: Finding the time Liz - Making time during the day is fine. My concern is that this becomes additional work without additional pay. 
DHagar 8/2/2016 | 5:55:20 PM
Re: Investing in their employees @TeleWRTRLiz, I fully agree with you.  This is a brilliant move by AT&T and should pay long-term dividends!  Not only is it increasing the skill level and motivation of its workforce, but will probably position them very well for attracting and retaining top quality employees.  A true win-win.
TeleWRTRLiz 8/2/2016 | 5:46:51 PM
Re: Finding the time @Mitch, I bet a lot of folks make the time during their day and just consider it part of their job to take training classes. At my old job we had to watch these HR videos about all kinds of topics and you just did it when you had time. Or maybe they take them during lunch? At Upskill U we are holding our classes at 1pm ET so that North American folks can attend around the lunch hour and Europe can attend at the end of their day. We get a lot of folks from all over and during all hours -- or maybe they have is a neat incentive to attend classes? 
TeleWRTRLiz 8/2/2016 | 5:43:03 PM
Re: Investing in their employees I think this is a smart move by AT&T -- they value their employees enough to retrain them rather than just replacing them. Your question about whether or not employees have to commit to staying is an interesting one, Carol. I imagine this goes a long way toward building loyalty with their employees, no?
Mitch Wagner 8/2/2016 | 5:36:42 PM
Finding the time When do employees find the time to do this? I've seen reported that this is supposed to be something they're doing on their own time, in addition to their regular work. 
cnwedit 8/2/2016 | 5:13:20 PM
Investing in their employees Telecom operators are in a tough spot - they have thousands of employees, many of them unionized, that weren't trained in the skill sets AT&T needs now. The level of commitment to this program is what is most interesting - clearly AT&T was willing to risk investing heavily in those employees, and hoping their existing talents would enable them to tackle new tasks and new ways of working.

But the talent shortage for the New IP World is also well-documented, so this may be the only logical path. I suspect more companies are doing this than are talking about it and that others are looking carefully at what AT&T is doing and how they are doing it. 

I wonder why kind of commitment employees make to stay at AT&T once they've been retrained? Did I miss that anywhere?

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