Q&A: Schneider Electric's North American CIO on how her company attracts, retains talent

Schneider Electric, a Fortune Global 500 company that specializes in digital automation and energy management, has created multiple programs to attract and retain employees — especially millennial and Gen Z workers.

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With unemployment in the tech industry hovering around 2% and the Great Resignation seeing employees quitting in record numbers, organizations need to proactively work to attract young talent and retain those employees for greater lengths of time. Companies should shoot for at least seven-year retention periods, according to a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Most workers today, however, move on after about three years — especially young employees.

By 2025, Gen Z will comprise about 27% of the global workforce, and millennials will make up about 37%, according to the World Economic Forum. The Gen Z moniker generally applies to those born between 1997 and 2012, which makes the oldest members of that cohort now roughly 25 years old. Millennials represent the generation born from 1981 to 1996.

In many cases, Gen Zs and millennials want different things from employers than previous generations, including sustainability programs, more human-centric approaches, and clear diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. 

Schneider Electric has traditionally been focused on providing hardware products that power data centers and other infrastructure, but in recent years the company has shifted its focus toward software solutions and consulting. In light of that, Schneider Electric needs to recruit a more diverse roster of tech talent. 

abha dogra schneider electric Schneider Electric

Schneider Electric's Abha Dogra

Abha Dogra, senior vice president of Digital Technology and North America CIO at Schneider Electric, started at the company three years ago and has since focused heavily on growing the technical workforce through programs targeting students and redirecting existing employees into new tech roles. 

Dogra spoke with Computerworld about the company's efforts to attract and retain tech talent. The following are exerpts from that interview:

Most tech companies are struggling to attract and keep talent. What has Schneider experienced in that vein, and what are your greatest talent needs? What we’re seeing under the headline of "the Great Resignation" or "the talent war" is that Schneider is not unique to those paradigms. I think every organization is experiencing it. Having said that, though, even before that situation, I think Schneider has been a very human capital-focused organization. When I joined here three years ago, that’s what attracted me to the company. If anything, over the past three years, their focus has increased to have data-driven insights to attract, retain, and grow the talent here.

Most of our needs are driven by the industry we’re in. We are very much into the electrical and mechanical space — coming from the energy sector that we’re in. We’ve always had requirements for electrical and mechanical engineers. Now, we also have a very strong push on cyber security, given our worldwide presence, both in the workspace and in the IoT space and everything to do from an IT perspective. Cyber security and cyber security professionals is very much an area we’re trying to acquire skill sets.

Two and a half years ago, we started a very focused mission to apply AI [artificial intelligence] to our business. We had pockets within Schneider where smaller AI-driven initiatives were already happening, but as a whole, the organization chose to make it a very focused domain — not just as a technical evolution but more of a normal way of doing business.

So, we’re running our global supply chain to apply AI. We’re running our customer experiences and customer-facing domain through applied AI, and hence we have a huge need for data scientists and data analysts, machine learning engineers, along with the normal software engineers.

Also, because we’re heavily into the supply chain side, we’re always looking for supply chain and manufacturing professionals, with customer satisfaction and quality professionals and technical skills.

I understand you’ve created an AI-driven internal marketplace. What exactly is that? At Schneider there’s a huge focus on human capital, and having a workforce of 144,000 employees, we strongly believe in the fact that internal employees should be able to search a new role as easily as they might on LinkedIn or other external sites. That’s very much promoted. We call it Open Talent Market.

As a principle, any new role we open up in the organization will often not even be publicized externally. We first start internally on our Open Talent Market. There’s a culture where every manager and every employee is encouraged to apply. And many times we apply AI to do an internal mapping of employee skill sets, which is already out there on our internal directory of employees.

Sometimes when we post a new role there, we can already get matches just based on our internal employee database before we even go externally. That’s how we apply AI, and that’s across all the domains, not just across the employee space.

OK, so let’s say you need software engineers. You could use your AI-driven search engine to find employees who would fit that role, even if they’re not currently working as developers? Yes. Absolutely. I may come to Schneider with a degree in software engineering, but I may work in the digital marketing group. But if at any point in time a role opens in our technology organization, we post that job role, and most employees are encouraged to put into our internal directory everything about their skill set, not just the role they’re in.

If that employee has already put in that they have a Java engineering background or data analysis background, for example, but currently they’re in digital marketing, then our tool applies AI and matches the role with the employee’s skill set and we’d reach out to them. It’s like internal head hunting.

Younger employees tend to remain at an organizations for less time than older ones, moving from job to job to gain experience and pay. One method companies have employed to retain employees longer is to allow them more internal opportunities to move laterally and upward. How has Schneider addressed the retention issue? I’ve observed two or three different things from that younger generation. They are less driven by the traditional route of just getting promoted and getting titles. They really want to explore and learn different skill sets. They’re also getting to experiment more now with the gig economy and more of a hybrid working style.

What I've also experienced is they like getting attached to a mission beyond just doing a job. They want early on to identify themselves with a mission-oriented organization. [They're asking] "What’s the mission of the organization apart from them just filling a role?" That’s a unique behavior I’ve seen with that younger generation.

I understand Schneider has created a number of programs to attract talent. When did those begin, and can you tell me more about the more successful ones, like Go Green and Global Student ExperienceThe Go Green program is a partnership between Schneider and [software vendor] AVEVA, part of our investment body. It challenges students to share ideas that can create a more sustainable future.

In this program, we encourage students to build network connections with professional mentors at Schneider Electric. They get premier visibility to the best job opportunities within Schneider. They also get to meet different levels of business leaders with whom they can share ideas on topics such as sustainability.

So, our team then can also award a prize worth $10,000 to student teams with the best ideas based on five categories. The categories are Access to Energy, Homes of the Future, Supply Chain of the Future, Grids of the Future, and Decoding the Future.

The Schneider Go Green 2020 competition had teams from participants from many different countries. We typically look at the composition of the teams, which are made up of two to four members. We look at them studying either business or marketing or anything to do with innovation. We also focus on the diversity of the teams, because DEI is a big focus for us at Schneider.

This year we had an awesome pitch by a team from Morocco. Their pitch was called GreenOverMorrow, an automated greenhouse solution leveraging our IoT platform by applying AI. It was to enable a solution using solar panels with grid and crop data obtained through IoT technologies to reduce the energy losses, save water, and cut carbon emissions. We had teams from North America, Asia Pacific, China, South America, Europe, and India. So, this was a very successful program we had this year.

That’s a separate program from the Global Student Experience. That’s a free learning opportunity for students during the summer. They get the opportunity to explore different career paths with us, they get the opportunity to enhance their personal and professional [acumen], and they get an early foot into Schneider’s world.

This is different from an internship or a co-op program. It’s really an early exposure without an agenda or milestone for the students to achieve. So it’s less stressful for them. And this program is offered through e-learning. We have e-learning courses and project simulations students can do in their own eight- to 10-hour self-based study. It’s very similar to courses you may get from the University of Michigan or Columbia University. It’s self-paced and 100% online.

So the Global Student Experience program attracts students with a free e-learning course, and then you offer them insight into Schneider and its job opportunities? Yes. They enroll online, and that’s how we get their profile information. Through that, we continue to gain interest after completing the course by project simulations, after which we follow up with them to see if they continue to have interest with Schneider.

Are there other programs besides Go Green and Global Student Experience? We do have a big focus across the globe in early career hiring. There are specific skill sets we’re looking for. And pretty much every other organization is looking for the same talent. So, with that in mind, we’re very proactive with our early hiring program.

We do that through various initiatives. We hire through internships, and co-ops, and work programs. We start approaching universities early on. We have huge tie-ups with them, especially in North America. We have a huge internship and co-op program. Our senior leaders go to the universities and share with the students what they can expect if they come and work for us. We start hiring in August through September [from co-op and internship programs], but we don’t stop there. We’re always approaching universities to bring in young talent.

This year alone, in North America we had 600 active interns and co-ops. They go through different exposure to senior and mid-level leadership. We also celebrate after the eight-week internship and reveal what strengths we found in the interns. We also help them create their personal brand and coach them on their interviewing skills.

Also, in parallel, like in India, we have a program called GET — graduate continuing talent. These are young graduates we bring in through our internship and co-op program, but then eventually end up hiring them. We then ensure those GETs are kept on our talent radius, and we actively promote them through various rotational programs early in their careers to get them exposure working with different teams and domains.

We have another program in the US called the Rotational Development Program. It’s a full-time program for full-time employees. We put them on a two-year rotation, through which they get exposure to different domains in Schneider. They work six to eight months in each domain to get experience before they move on to the next domain.

During that program, they learn cross-functional leadership skills, they can learn about our sustainability programs, they learn about inside sales, online sales, digital marketing, supply chain, R&D practices, digital engineering and IT practices, and finance. So, they really get a holistic exposure to Schneider. Over two years, they go through three different rotations.

While we’re building this workforce of the future through various different programs, one of the foundational focuses is diversity and inclusion. That’s one of our pillars of sustainability. So, whenever we’re building one of these programs, selecting the candidates, looking at the composition of these [prospects], we’re very much focused on our DEI targets. We already have a huge 50-40-30 target in place for diversity at an overall level within our organization. We’re focused on women representing 50% of all new hires, 40% of all front-line managers, and 30% of our leadership.

So, while those are our organizational targets, that also continues to be a part of any human capital-driven initiatives we undertake.

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