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ATD Blog

Bridging the Skills Gap: How Businesses Promote Educational Attainment

Wednesday, July 8, 2015
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U.S. companies face unprecedented competition from abroad and an economy that places a growing premium on knowledge and skill. To succeed, employers must make a stronger commitment to prepare employees and give them the opportunity to learn key skill sets through post-secondary education and training, says a recently released report, The Role of Business in Promoting Educational Attainment

The report notes that nearly all companies offer resources for employee education, but many employees either do not know about or do not take advantage of these benefits. “We found often there isn’t efficient or consistent messaging about education benefits. Opportunities for tuition reimbursement—the most common benefit—are generally introduced during orientation or the on-boarding process, but most companies do not regularly revisit that benefit. We learned that sometimes employees perceive that accessing these benefits is bureaucratic and complicated. Many times employees don’t understand the criteria for taking advantage of the available opportunities,” says Cindy Cisneros, CED’s vice president of education programs. 

The particular culture of a company often determines whether education benefits will be buried or promoted to employees. For example, if a company has education as a priority, there will be a strong emphasis on it and a targeted marketing campaign. These companies use such strategies as having managers nominate employees to participate in particular programs to take advantage of educational benefits. The significance the company places on professional development influences the way education benefits are handled. As always, a culture of continuing education—and communication—comes from the top. 

Getting the Word Out 

Cisneros suggests several strategies for communicating to employees the various development opportunities: “Some companies have weekly or monthly newsletters. Others promote education benefits on a list-serv. They reinforce the availability of education benefits during periodic employee performance reviews. Also, several companies share this information through mentoring programs.” 

The report notes that often new hires are afraid to ask about educational opportunities. Companies can bring in guest speakers or representatives from local universities and colleges to hold employee seminars. This can mitigate employee fears of asking managers about such programs. 

Task-Specific Training 

The tendency of today’s workers to change employers frequently has implications for investments in education. “Clearly today’s workers don’t have the expectation of lifetime employment at one company, and most companies have a reciprocal expectation that the talent they hire won’t stay for a whole career,” explains Carl Camden, president and CEO of Kelly Services, and co-chair of CED’s Education Subcommittee. 

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Camden describes how there is an increasing focus on task-specific and client-specific training. “There is not as much support for general education such as four-year degrees, and what support there is tends to be some percentage of tuition support. Today, the emphasis of HR departments is on education that more directly benefits the employer in the short term. At Kelly Services, we see a lot of demand for the type of training that would enable our free-agent talent to be booked at a higher wage rate. We see not only pressure from employers who look for education that is job- or task-specific, but we increasingly see employees less in search of general education and more in search of increasing their wage rates,” he says. 

Cisneros confirms this trend. “Companies question why they should invest in short-term employees. This has affected the strategy of offering education and professional development opportunities as a competitive benefit to help attract and retain employees. However, companies recognize they have to offer some compelling reason, aside from salary, to join their company rather than that of a competitor,” she says. 

Quality partnerships between companies and post-secondary institutions are needed, take extensive time and resources to get right, and depend on many factors, according to the CED report. Cisneros notes that many companies CED spoke with were innovative in thinking about how to support the education and training of their current workforce. 

“Those who reached out to local community colleges and universities ended up developing productive partnerships, but it’s not easy to do. One challenge is that the language of business can be different from that of higher education. Another is the willingness of higher education to listen to the needs of businesses. And a third challenge is for businesses to articulate their true needs, not only for current workforce development, but also the development of their talent pipeline,” says Cisneros. 

Slow Progress in Filling Skill Gaps 

Unfortunately, Camden explains that it takes longer than expected to get a new program approved by a state accrediting board, to build the syllabi, and to put people in place. “Given that some skills and jobs only exist for three to five years, we can’t afford to wait two or three years for a state to approve a new program, then for an educational institution to develop the curriculum for it, and finally to start the courses,” he adds. 

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According to Camden, there needs to be a streamlined approval process. “Businesses tend to look at how many employees they’ll have in the next three years, but they’re not as good at planning what kinds of skills they’ll need over that period. Companies often don’t recognize a skill shortage until it is already hammering at their capability to deliver profits. Job titles describe current skills. We need to see HR or talent acquisition departments identify what job titles they will need in the future and what skill sets are going to be associated with those job titles,” states Camden. 

Many Potential Paths 

Benefits come in many forms, and companies have different ways to leverage their education benefit funds. “We see companies putting more support into online courses, online certification, and Internet-mediated educational experiences. This has lower overhead than classroom training and employees may do it at their own pace and timing. It’s becoming the new norm,” asserts Camden.  

Organizations also are increasing options for employee-directed or experiential learning. “I’m seeing more workgroups that are like the old guild model, where experienced professionals lead training sessions about particular skills. I see the language of guilds coming back into companies and more talk of apprenticeships and mentoring. I see an increase in the amount of employee-directed learning of specific skill sets. Learning how to accomplish a task better and quicker is much more experientially based than in the past,” Camden adds.  

The CED report notes that it is vital for businesses to reach out to high school students to strengthen the business/education pipeline. “I think businesses should not only reach out to high schools, but to middle-school children as well. Businesses that share information about the working world, and about opportunities that might inspire students’ imaginations, can help engage young people in thinking about particular work pathways. Some companies provide guest lecturers and mentors to high schools and offer internship opportunities. And some companies offer student tours and opportunities to job-shadow for a day. Still others have volunteer programs where employees get time off to tutor students in reading or math.” 

Finally, the report also reveals that people over 60 comprise one of the fastest growing talent-set groups. “In particular, we’re finding one of the ways companies are engaging their retiree population is have them train employees. It’s a great way for retired employees to stay involved with a company,” says Camden.

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About the Author

Ruth Palombo Weiss is a business writer. 

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