Worker training and education yields big benefits for employers, but even companies that have such programs in place don’t always appreciate how powerful they can be. “These types of programs are necessary to remain competitive in the race for talent, but most organizations don’t calculate the true value or return on investment,” says Rachael Bourque, a senior learning solutions leader with the global education firm Pearson.

Younger workers are increasingly attracted to companies that offer opportunities for professional growth. According to an EdAssist survey of millennials, nearly 60 percent said they would choose a job with strong potential for professional development over one with regular pay raises. And they often can’t afford training or school on their own. In a recent Pearson survey of working adults, 72 percent said they would need additional education in the next five years to advance in their careers, but 80 percent cited tuition and fees as the main barrier to enrollment.

Bourque says workers who are learning and growing are more engaged in their jobs — particularly if that professional growth is subsidized by their employer. That engagement usually leads to a more productive business; companies with highly engaged workforces outperformed their peers by 147%, according to a recent Gallup report. “You’re engaged, you think better of your company for providing an interesting experience for you,” Bourque says. “As a result, you’re probably a better employee and stronger brand advocate.”

Here’s how to create a learning program that your employees will love — and one that will help your company thrive for years to come.

Determine What Success Looks Like

As an employer, it’s important to first determine what value you’d like to achieve by offering an education benefit. Start by defining what success looks like — a step that requires an honest assessment of the state of your workforce.

Success could involve a range of outcomes, from decreasing turnover and improving employee retention to attracting more millennial workers. A business with a large, underserved frontline staff may greatly benefit from programs that support GED attainment, for example.

Once you determine your end goals, it’s important to carefully consider how you will implement the benefits. Bourque says three dynamics generally drive the participation rates within an educational assistance program:

  • How actively is the program marketed and communicated to current employees and potential new hires?
  • How generous is the financial contribution from the company?
  • How expansive is the program policy in terms of what it will cover?

Also, remember that different employees may need different benefits.

“We tend to see a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach being leveraged, which doesn’t help employees at the organization who may need it the most — the ones who have been left off the path to educational attainment,” Bourque says.

Be Open to Different Types of Learning

The employee learning that your company supports doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to particular job roles, Bourque says, since so many companies are struggling to find and predict the next level of talent that doesn’t yet exist in the market.

Younger workers may seek out traditional college degrees, while more seasoned workers who feel they’re beyond their college days may be looking for a course or certificate. Other employee types with very different development paths and job codes may need experience from technical school certifications or boot camps. People learn differently, so consuming education online, in-class, via tablet or through a “nano-degree” depends on the individual preference.

Keep an open mind about the long-term benefits all types of educational training can offer your organization.

“The more an organization limits their program, the less value they may see from the benefit for the masses,” Bourque says. “Great organizations consider the continuous development needs of all of their workers, regardless of their phase in life or career.”

Market the Program to Everyone

According to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, 83 percent of companies surveyed offer some form of education assistance or tuition reimbursement to their employees.

However, while most companies offer a subsidy of some kind, Bourque says employees who work for these same organizations often report that these benefits are not marketed well, if at all, and are purposely buried so that employees don’t take advantage of them.

Before you can reap the benefits of offering an education subsidy to employees, you have to encourage them to take advantage of the benefit. This takes time, effort and resources to reach out to workers.

“Large, best-in-class organizations with well-designed, meaningful tuition reimbursement programs see usage rates close to 20 to 25 percent of the overall employee population, with long-term retention of individuals in the programs, compared to those at the company not enrolled,” Bourque says. “Small to midsize companies with similar programs can see higher usage rates.”

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