GE has no idea what the future of work will look like, and it appointed a finance executive to figure it out

GE is figuring out how to frame its efforts around jobs.
GE is figuring out how to frame its efforts around jobs.
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe
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GE recently appointed an executive to head up its efforts in “the future of work.” Her first task will be to figure out what, exactly, that means.

The executive, Lynn Calpeter, is a 30-year GE veteran who was most recently the vice president and chief financial officer of GE Power. Her new position was announced in an internal email this March.

Susan Peters, GE’s head of human resources, described the role as experimental and wide-ranging, saying it could potentially influence everything from programs to re-skill employees to how GE uses data to understand its workforce. “It would be wonderful to be able to push the ‘easy’ button and say, ‘this is what the future of work is,’” she said. “One of the reasons we put Lynn and this small group together is to parse out a cleaner definition. That’s what they’re working on right now.”

She said the role may or may not be permanent, depending on a preliminary “sprint” of research and analysis that will end this summer.

The “future of work” has become a hot topic as Donald Trump attacks US companies for moving jobs elsewhere and workers question how automation technology will impact their jobs. Sprint, Amazon, General Motors, Wal-Mart, and Apple were just a handful of companies to promote their US jobs after Trump took office. Few companies have publicly addressed how technology, rather than outsourcing, has impacted their workforces, but the Obama White House, McKinsey, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have tackled the question in reports released over the last six months.

Denice Biocca, the leader of GE’s human resources for manufacturing and sourcing, compared the “future of work” effort led by Calpeter to the early stages of GE’s “Ecomagination,”a marketing campaign and corporate strategy GE CEO Jeff Immelt rolled out as climate change was becoming a political and public relations focus 12 years ago.

After launching the Ecomagination campaign around GE’s commitment to the environment, GE continued to make coal-related investments and build power plants. “I don’t want to change the economic flow of the company,” Immelt explained in 2007. But it also cut greenhouse gas emissions and fresh water use across its operations and sought out opportunities for environmentally friendly products. Some of these, like solar panels, wind turbines, and lower-emission locomotives, were already GE products in which the company continued to invest. Newly labeled and new “Ecomagination” products (some of which are not so obviously “green”) have generated $270 billion in revenues since 2005.

“When we started rolling out Ecomagination,” Biocca said, “Jeff would get out there publicly and say, ‘green is green.’ So we’re not out there doing environmentally friendly things because we’re a good citizen—that’s part of it—but also we’re making money,” she said. “[Calpeter’s task] is to make sure that the future of work is actually a good investment.” Biocca says those investments include technology, re-skilling efforts, and culture.

An employer of more than 300,000 people worldwide, GE’s workforce needs are evolving. The company no longer makes home appliances, but it does make a software operating system. On GE factory floors, new tools such as additive manufacturing, the industrial internet, and machines that more fully automate repetitive tasks all require new types of skills to operate. GE has spent $4 billion developing digital products, some of which make it possible to do more work with fewer people.

GE has addressed its changing mix of jobs with advertisements aimed at recruiting workers who have digitally-focused skills, an online training program aimed at updating skills for manufacturing workers, and lots and lots of talk about the “future of work.” Long before GE began using the “future of work” buzzphrase, it was also promoting technical careers to students. Workers at GE Aviation’s plant in Lafayette, Indiana, volunteer to read to grade school students and stay on the clock. In Asheville, North Carolina, GE Aviation is one of the local manufacturers that participates in an internship program for high school students. More recently, the GE Foundation ran a pilot with Boston Public Schools in 2016 that brought a traveling lab with technology like 3D printers, laser cutters, and milling machines to schools.

Calpeter’s background as a CFO, rather than as a human resource professional, makes her an interesting choice for the “future of work” role. Before her recent role as the CFO of GE Power, she was the CFO at NBC Universal (which GE agreed to sell to Comcast in 2009). She has also held financial leadership roles at GE Plastics.

Peters said Calpeter’s finance background will be useful in the new role because she has worked across many different GE businesses and has experience spearheading projects. It may also be appropriate because the future of work–whatever it means–will likely have an impact on more than GE’s workforce.

GE, like other companies, has political, marketing, and practical incentives to address how work will change in the future. While it may emerge with training, technology, and culture investments, and cohesive narratives around them, it’s unlikely to emerge with all of the answers. As a committee of experts convened by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently concluded in a report about the future of work, researchers don’t even have enough data to fully understand the present.