AT&T has been vocal about its efforts to transform its workforce for the age of virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN). Verizon says it’s doing similar work, just without all the fanfare.
Verizon started its own retraining program in 2014 when it began conceptualizing its telco cloud.
“We kicked off the program to pull together the SDN and next-gen things going on in Verizon,” says Chris Emmons, director of network infrastructure planning at the carrier. “We set up a training curriculum, recognizing we needed to train the workforce on the software concepts.”
The program began with basic concepts about SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV). Then there are layers of additional training for those directly involved in the telco cloud project and also for those whose jobs will be changing in the near future.
“Until it actually happens to people, they can’t grasp what you’re changing,” says Emmons. “It’s been fairly disruptive in the areas we’ve taken on first. Now that we’re getting rolling, more and more network elements — IMS core and VoLTE are in our sights for virtualization — it starts to become much more impactful.”
He says Verizon is experienced with retraining its workforce, having been around the block for many technological and cultural transformations, including all the generations of wireless. However, the change from 3G to 4G, for example, was more incremental than this current transformation, which requires changing from physical network assets to virtual assets, where an engineer can no longer point to a box in the data center that’s running a network element.
Asked how Verizon’s training program compares to AT&T’s, Emmons says, “John Donovan [AT&T’s chief strategy officer] talks about educating everybody. I don’t know if we’re training the sales people and the front office about the intricacies of what we’re doing in the data center. But knowing what I’ve heard from that, I would say we have a similar program of similar scale in place. From everything I’ve been able to glean we’re pretty much neck and neck.”
AT&T: From the Top
About two years ago AT&T embarked on an ambitious corporate retraining program to get its 280,000-some employees on board with the SDN future.
“I think it’s predominantly in the technical organization, but not just limited to it,” says Roger Entner, lead analyst with Recon Analytics. “The focus is the technical people. But they also want to have marketing and sales. If you understand the technical issues, you’re much better at marketing it as well.”
AT&T’s retraining is being driven from the very top, with CEO Randall Stephenson leading the charge. But this isn’t to say there is no resistance within the ranks. Stephenson’s own brother Kevin, who works as a repairman for the telco, is quoted by The New York Times as saying, “I’m riding the copper train all the way down.”
The workforce retooling at AT&T, dubbed Vision 2020, is a necessary requirement for the telco to meet its goal of virtualizing 75 percent of its network by 2020.
Randall Stephenson also has enthused about the amount of cost savings the company might reap through virtualization. On its fourth-quarter earnings call in January he said, “We’re driving the industry to software-defined networks, and I have seen few opportunities over my career to drive down the cost to deliver service like this.”
The cost savings will come from cheaper white-box hardware and workforce reduction from not needing as many employees to maintain so much hardware.
But that last bit about a reduction in workforce doesn’t make for high corporate morale. AT&T has decided to put a positive spin on its culture change by offering to pay up to $8,000 per year for qualified classes its employees may take, reports the NY Times.
According to Entner, AT&T offers an array of its own internal courses for employees, as well as programs to help employees pay for outside college courses. The company also has a relationship with Georgia Tech for employees to take online courses for credit.
These opportunities are seen as a great boon by some employees. However, the downside is they have to do the schoolwork on their own time. Not surprisingly, younger employees are generally more receptive to this than older employees. For people just starting their careers it’s an opportunity to gain free education, which could translate into better salaries. For older people, it’s more of a pain.
“The times of where your job and your job description is not changing in 30 to 40 years are over,” says Recon’s Entner. At the same time, AT&T has an interest in retaining its employees, he says. “You want to have your workforce update with new skills but retain the institutional knowledge that accumulates when you’re working someplace for 10 and 20 years. You need both.”
Cultural Change in Europe
Operators in Europe seem to be following AT&T and Verizon’s lead, but they’re keeping their cultural changes close to the vest.
“Operators are looking to automate as much as possible, and this can be interpreted as a reduction of headcount,” says Rui Frazao, who spent 15 years in network engineering at Vodafone and is now CTO of Vasona Networks, a company that does mobile traffic management at the network edge.
He says retraining, and especially an associated fear of layoffs, “is a very sensitive topic in Germany, which is the most strict in terms of labor regulation.” But he doesn’t think retraining and layoffs should be synonymous. Although some people will need to be retrained, there is still a demand for skilled workers.
“From what I hear, every operator is doing something,” Frazao says. “We haven’t seen anyone besides AT&T being public.”
In fact, a Deutsche Telekom executive who preferred not to be named told SDxCentral, “We need to bring young talent in — people dealing with network functions. It’s a cultural change as well. We’re not sharing our cultural strategy.”