Betting Big on Employee Development

At Amazon, it makes business sense to help people grow — even if they leave as a result.

Talk about how technology will affect the workforce of the future, and Amazon is likely to enter the conversation. In June 2019, the giant retailer announced that it would upskill 100,000 employees — a third of its U.S. workforce — over the next six years by spending as much as $700 million. Leading the initiative is Amazon HQ2’s vice president for workforce development, Ardine Williams, who has 35 years of product development, marketing, corporate business development, M&A, and HR experience in the high-tech industry. In an exclusive interview with MIT Sloan Management Review, Williams, who began her career as a U.S. Army officer, explains the rationale for the upskilling initiative and the benefits to the business, local communities, and individual workers.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Why is Amazon doubling down on workforce development now? What will happen to the initiative if the labor market becomes less heated or there is a recession?

Ardine Williams: Amazon believes that it has an important role to play in the creation of good jobs. Good jobs have three elements: (1) a good wage — that’s why last November we announced a $15-per-hour minimum wage across the U.S.; (2) robust benefits from the day you join — Amazon’s fulfillment center associates have the same benefits today that our executives do; and (3) the opportunity for people to create a career by gaining experience and building skills that give them more options to progress over time.

We believe that technological advances will continue to change job content, so upskilling will always remain an important component of Amazon’s workforce development.

How do you perceive technology change and how it’s affecting Amazon’s workforce needs?

Williams: As long as human beings have worked, technological advancements — from wheels to steam-powered looms to computers — have changed how they work. Having said that, the challenge today is different in two ways: The pace of technological change has accelerated, and the impact of technology on jobs is being felt at the task and skill levels.

Jobs typically don’t disappear because of technological change, but [such change] often creates new opportunities or changes the nature of what people do.