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In-house AI boot camp pays off for Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss' AI boot camp isn't easy to get into. Some 450 employees have applied to one of the 100 slots so far. It's an intensive program, but the firm likes the results.

Almost a year ago, Levi Strauss & Co. created an AI boot camp for its employees, and it has been delivering benefits post training. It's improving employee engagement, accelerating technology adoption and meeting critical skills needs, according to the program's chief.

The shortage of AI skills makes it difficult to fill jobs, said Katia Walsh, chief global strategy and AI officer at Levi Strauss.

"Competition for talent in this space has always been an arms race," Walsh said at a virtual presentation Thursday hosted by MIT Sloan Management Review

Levi Strauss established an eight-week, full-time AI boot camp for employees with an aptitude for coding and machine learning skills. It was open to any employee, from retail and distribution workers to finance and design employees.

As Walsh described it, this isn't an easy program for employees to get placed into. So far, it's had about 450 applications for about 100 spots. 

But "just because it was open to everyone didn't mean that it was for everyone," Walsh said. The applicants took tests to assess their curiosity, problem-solving and analytical skills. 

They didn't need to know how to code, but we did want to test ways of thinking and ways of problem-solving.
Katia WalshChief global strategy and AI officer, Levi Strauss & Co.

"They didn't need to know how to code, but we did want to test ways of thinking and ways of problem solving," she said. 

Walsh noted that boot camp-type programs are common, but what made its program unique is that employees "worked with Levi's data to solve Levi's problems."

AI boot camp results 

Of the more than 100 trained so far, 10 have joined Walsh's strategy and AI team; others returned to their old departments with upgraded skills. Employees who went through the program left being able to write Python scripts and automate manual processes, ultimately "saving the company hundreds and thousands of hours in repetitive manual processes," she said. 

The majority of graduates applied their skills in at least 25% of their day-to-day work, which is more than the business thought possible, she said.

Other benefits included "renewed energy about the company and loyalty," Walsh said. Noting the "Great Resignation," graduates of the program were more likely to stay with the company, as were their managers, she said. 

It's not surprising the AI training has a lot of financial and operational benefits, according to Shervin Khodabandeh, senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, who was also part of the panel.

"There's actually a fair amount of cultural benefits from AI, both at the team level as well as at the organizational level," Khodabandeh said.

The benefits that come from AI training "need not happen at the risk of disenfranchising people in the organization," he said.

Walsh illustrated the point by describing a manager of an outlet store "ringing jeans at the cash register," who had a mindset for helping people select outfits that were best for them.

During the AI training, the employee picked up Python and other skills. She used those skills to develop an algorithm that made recommendations about optimal outfit items that could be bundled together, Walsh said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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