On September 14th, The Aspen Institute convened HR leaders from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Walmart and Healthcare Career Advancement Program (H-CAP) to discuss principles and practices for designing for better frontline jobs. Research from MIT Sloan’s Peter Osterman provided a backboard for the event, also offer candid views on the shortcomings of training over the past four decades. Abha Bhattarai of Washington Post moderated the conversation, also provided wider context regarding pandemic and the acute labor shortages.

Paul Osterman opens the talk, highlighting the shortage of data on employer-guided training. Information about skills development hasn’t been consistently collected since Reagan administration - only credentials have been logged. Efforts to get a snapshot such include the Adult Training Education Survey (ATES) which has found imbalances in who is receiving training. 65% of respondents who had completed college degrees demanded more training, compared with 47% of survey participants who had a high school diploma as their most advanced credential. Expectations for career progression varied depending on academic background.

Osterman wraps his introduction with direct comments:

  1. The human resource function in orgs has weakened since the 1970s, with operations departments dominating the agenda around allocation of HR budget.
  2. Training is viewed as a variable expense which should be shouldered by community colleges and other education providers beyond employers themselves.
  3. The impact of professionalising attainment among frontline is underestimated.

Jocelyn Caldwell, VP, Workforce Strategy & Organizational Growth at Walmart outlined the Arkansas-based employer’s experience since introducing Walmart Academy in 2016 at 200 store venues. In 2021, Walmart are now seeing 75% of their salary managers selected from hourly associates, an internal mobility target that Caldwell hopes to extend to 100%. Revisions of Walmart Academy now see the employer paying for the costs of training via a Live Better U, and 12-week bootcamps have been established to provide accelerated career development in high-demand roles (e.g. truck drivers).

Caldwell highlights the importance of championing the business case for internal hiring: offset costs of vacancies and hiring by “… leveraging our internal associates [that we’ve already invested in]… they have 80% of the skills that they made for this job. Why not take it to a hundred percent? Why not invest in their ability to build resumes, to communicate effectively in interviews, to give them that confidence so that they go through the process, we pull them through to the job?”

Kim Gregorie of JPMorgan Chase & Co. provided a viewpoint for learning and development among 250,000 people and the lack of skills articulation and visibility among frontline. Gregorie generates a persona: "Kim, I know the world is changing. I know I need new skills, but even if I knew what those skills were, I don't know how to go get them and I don't know what it means once I get them so help me."

Establishing skills as currency across the company is recommended by Gregoire, as well the enhancing the power of conviction, “I want to have this be a part of it because I am trying to better myself and we should talk about how you're going to help me as my leader to have this be a part of my development, and so I continue to get better." The next task is learning delivery, how to see which skills are required to progress to more senior positions.

Representing H-CAP, Daniel Bustillo mentioned the importance of mentorship, making a clear distinction between classroom and on-job learning and making training available beyond English.

Osterman concludes the opportunity, agreeing with Gregoire on the need to removed manager approval for bottom-up learning. The priority for organizations to “institutionalize the commitment to training so that it survives the business cycle” and build internal progression ladders and strive towards a new vision is key for Osterman. “Frontline managers are interested in getting a job done today. So that's their orientation. You can understand that completely, but they're not necessarily interested in building talent over a long period of time in the organization.”

For the full recording and transcript, go to aspeninstitute.org