The ‘Great Retraining’: IT upskills for the future

Maggie Chavarin is no stranger to reinventing her career. She joined Synchrony more than a decade ago in a Merchants Services role that allowed her to be a work-from-home mom. When the timing was right, Chavarin honed her skills to do training and coaching work and eventually got her first taste of technology as a member of Synchrony’s intelligent virtual assistant (IVA) team, writing human responses to the text-based questions posed to chatbots.

During the pandemic, Chavarin began to build out the pedigree for a formal IT career path, getting multiple agile certifications and working toward a computer science degree. The latest piece in her reinvention story is Synchrony’s new Tech Apprenticeship for Artificial Intelligence, a full-time, 12-month program that balances on-the-job learning with instructor-led training, providing Chavarin with a pathway into one of the most coveted technology spaces despite her very nontraditional IT background.

“AI has been a huge topic in the technology world with ChatGPT, and I had some exposure through the IVA team so I was really interested in pursuing the AI apprenticeship,” Chavarin says. “Being able to look at an employee pool and build out someone’s expertise even if they don’t have the background helps bring diverse ideas and people to the table who can look at problems and find solutions.”

Maggie Chavarin, Synchrony


Like Synchrony, companies are finding that offering robust IT training programs and unique reskilling opportunities have mutual benefits: Workers are afforded career advancement and reinvention opportunities while enterprises can organically develop much-needed technology skills in the face of an ongoing talent shortage. According to the 2023 State of the CIO, IT leaders are looking to shore up competencies in key areas such as cybersecurity (39%), application development (30%), data science/analytics (30%), and AI/machine learning (26%).  Despite the pressing need, CIOs say it is difficult to find qualified experts, especially in advanced areas like AI/ML and cybersecurity, the survey found.

Large-scale shifts in working models, coupled with an increasing desire for greater work/life balance and higher-purpose work, have created a climate where training and career advancement opportunities are seen as a draw for employees, especially among those who may have checked out during the pandemic-inspired “Great Resignation.” A Pew Research Center survey identified lack of opportunity for advancement as one of the top reasons Americans quit their jobs in 2021; of those who quit and took positions elsewhere, 53% say they now have more opportunities for advancement, 53% are reporting an easier time balancing work and family obligations, and half say they have greater flexibility in their working hours.

“It’s a win-win when you can get the long-term vision and growth of a company tied to individual career and professional development,” says Mark Yunger, vice president, head of IT at Servier Pharmaceuticals. “From an individual’s perspective, it keeps careers interesting and helps people grow with the organization. From a company standpoint, you minimize turnover and search and recruiting costs.”

Nurturing a learning culture

Building the right culture, which includes offering a flexible and career-advancing slate of training options, is central to IT recruitment and retention, especially for government entities and nonprofits with limited budgets, notes Deborah Stephens, deputy CIO for the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  

“We are trying to create avenues for discovery and exploration so employees feel they have the best work/life balance and [enrichment] opportunities,” Stephens explains. “We offer flexible work hours, reimbursement for college classes, and have a pretty good training budget, but if it’s all about money, people can make more elsewhere.” USPTO has established a broad spectrum of training opportunities, from casual lunch and learns and the ability to set up exploratory sandboxes to immersive learning labs, a full curriculum of virtual learning as well as select partner training.

Deborah Stephens, deputy CIO, USPTO


At Regeneron, a leader in the biotechnology and drug discovery space, it’s important to cultivate an IT culture of continuous learning given the science-based industry and the clarity of purpose that cascades throughout the organization, according to Bob McCowan, Regeneron’s senior vice president and CIO. The 300-person shop doesn’t focus on the classic network or data center support roles — those are outsourced to service providers. Instead, a good portion of the IT organization embeds with scientists and other drug specialists to immerse in the various research initiatives, uncover the potential for IT innovation, and map the requisite technologies.

Because its processes are so steeped in science, Regeneron benefits from a different mentality for IT skills development than what’s typically standard — for example, regular trainings as part of a job description or annual performance review, McCowan says.

“In our industry, the assumption is that if you come in and just keep doing your day job, you’re going to find yourself with a problem in a few years,” McCowan explains. “You need to continually be willing to train and learn.”

Bob McCowan, SVP and CIO, Regeneron


To promote more cross-pollination of expertise, Regeneron has created pathways for scientists with some technology background and an interest in new areas such as big data and AI to be cultivated into a liaison role within the IT organization. These roles are designed to translate what scientists are trying to accomplish into specific technology platform requirements so the IT organization can fast-track solutions.

McCowan’s group has also created IT career ladders that help define required skills for a variety of tracks, which are then supported through a range of self-directed and formal training options. “A lot of it comes down to an individual’s attitude,” McCowan says. “We can create the environment and provide access to the tools, but it comes down to the person.”

Broadening the talent pool through training

While not driven by science, the pace of technology change has fueled Synchrony’s wide-ranging effort to build out its IT skills pipeline, including recruiting and developing talent from nontraditional pools. The Tech Apprenticeship Program, which launched earlier this year to develop technical and professional talent in areas such as AI, information security, and tech supplier management, creates pathways for technology roles for certain classes of US employees, like Chavarin, as well as for OneTen candidates interested in technology roles. OneTen is an organization designed to connect Black talent to job opportunities via a marketplace. Synchrony has also recredentialed 90% of its roles so they no longer require a four-year college degree, another step in its courtship of new types of job candidates.

Military veterans are yet another segment Synchrony has targeted for tech-related career reinvention. The Veterans Leadership training program, established in the company’s Charlotte hub, offers vet participants two six-month rotations in Tech & Ops along with a Synchrony mentor to help make the transition from military service to a civilian career in IT. The program has just been launched with a second cohort.

To make overall skills development more accessible, Synchrony has changed its approach, moving away from site-specific training to promoting a more flexible learning style with a mix of at-home and hub curriculum, much of it delivered through a virtual environment. Listening to employees to get a sense of their needs is crucial to building creative training and career development opportunities, notes Bess Healy, Synchrony senior vice president and CIO.

Bess Healy, SVP and CIO, Synchrony


“Great ideas come from lots of places and listening to employees led to the pilot apprenticeship program,” she explains. “Synchrony puts a great deal of focus on having a moral responsibility to make sure our employees are prepared for the future.”

Future proofing IT

As the technology ecosystem expands, Servier Pharmaceuticals’ Yunger believes cultivating hard-to-find skill sets from within is instrumental to future-proofing the IT organization. The company, a Google Cloud Platform shop, came face-to-face with that reality when it became difficult to find specialists, shifting its emphasis to growing its own talent.

Mark Yunger, VP and head of IT, Servier Pharmaceuticals

Servier Pharmaceuticals

Yunger takes a talent lifecycle management approach that considers the firm’s three- to five-year strategy, aligns it to the requisite IT skills, and then matches the plan to individualized development and training programs. “We provide our vision of the future to our existing team and give them an opportunity to self-select into those paths to meet our future needs,” he explains. “The better our long-term vision, the more time we have to give our team the chance to learn and grow.”

The University of California, Riverside, which is undertaking a similar practice to nurture IT talent from within, makes a concerted effort to start any large-scale reskilling initiative with those most willing to embrace change. The IT organization conducts interviews with its staffers to understand the key areas of interest and gauge individuals’ willingness to move. “Start with the willing as a fast way in and then use the willing to make others understand you can make a positive change,” says Matthew Gunkel, associate vice chancellor and CIO.

Matthew Gunkel, associate vice chancellor and CIO, University of California, Riverside

University of California, Riverside

With its future built on technologies such as business intelligence and AI, BioMedRealty, too, is seeding a talent bench built from internal employees, in part because its four-day-a-week in-office requirement hampers recruitment of outside candidates, admits David Hsiao, senior vice president and CIO at BioMedRealty, which provides office and lab space for biotech and life sciences companies.

Because data and BI initiatives require a deep understanding of the business, Hsiao has taken to reskilling candidates from finance and accounting despite the fact that they had no prior technology background.

“It’s made our BI department a lot more effective, not only in managing the IT side, but they’re able to effectively speak to business users in a language they understand,” Hsiao says.

David Hsiao, SVP and CIO, BioMedRealty


Jeanne Carroll, BioMedRealty’s director of business intelligence, is one of those people plucked from accounting years ago to make the leap to IT. With a background as a CPA, Carroll started with BioMedRealty in accounting, eventually moving to financial reporting, then joining up with IT for an SAP ERP implementation.

“It was an easy transition for me to go from financial reporting to work on SAP Business Planning and Consolidation because I had already worked with the data,” says Carroll, who burnished her data skills through conferences and formal training, eventually working her way up to head the firm’s BI efforts.

Now that she’s responsible for expanding the company’s BI team, Carroll is just as committed to seeking out nontraditional IT talent.

“The employee pool is shallow enough as it is so it’s important to reach out to people with nontraditional IT backgrounds,” she explains. “They bring expertise that the traditional IT pool doesn’t have.”

IT Leadership, IT Skills, IT Training