By: Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM
Employee learning appears to be growing in importance as skilled credentials are increasingly valued—from training and course completion certificates to industry or professional certifications.
According to LinkedIn’s ’23 Workplace Learning Report, employees crave learning that helps them stay up-to-date in their field, is personalized for their interests and career goals, helps them get another job internally, and better positions them to reach their career goals.
But there’s a problem: Employers aren’t necessarily providing the kind of learning opportunities that employees want. The University of Phoenix Career Institute’s 2022 Career Optimism Index, which is based on input from 5,000 working adults and 500 employers in the U.S., revealed that many employees are not satisfied with current learning and development programs. Although 88 percent of employers rate their company’s current opportunities for upskilling as “good” or “excellent,” only 59 percent of employees agree.
There also is a gap in perception around learning and development opportunities: The vast majority (89 percent) of employers say these opportunities are provided frequently, but 50 percent of employees disagree. The survey indicates that learning and development opportunities are essential in employee retention: 68 percent of respondents say they would be more likely to stay with their current employer if more upskilling opportunities were provided.
Given the value that today’s employees—especially younger employees—place on learning and development, employers have an opportunity to position their training offerings as a benefit to help attract and retain talent.
Learning and Development Boosts Career Opportunities, Income Potential
Employees don’t just value training for the sake of training; they value it for what it can do to help them further their career opportunities, experts say.
“To position learning opportunities as a benefit for employees, businesses should create clear pathways for career progression based on skills,” said Tan Moorthy, Executive Vice President and Head of Global Education, Training, and Assessments for consulting firm, Infosys. This can be especially impactful for those without degrees or from underserved communities, to help them “attain higher-level, higher-paying roles and save money on an education during a time when many are struggling just to make ends meet,” Moorthy said. “The opportunity to stay professionally relevant is a big benefit of continuous education, especially that provided by an employer.”
Upskilling can measurably improve income opportunities, according to a study by Amazon and Gallup; in fact, the study indicates it can boost income by an additional $8,000 annually, on average, while also improving job satisfaction.
Amazon takes these survey results seriously, offering a range of educational training opportunities to employees as part of its $1.2 billion commitment to provide free educational and skills training opportunities, according to Ian Wilson, Vice President of Human Resources at Amazon Web Services, based in Seattle, Washington. The company also is extending these opportunities to the public at large through programs serving low-income and minority groups.
“We believe in the power of skills training to positively transform lives, and it will remain an important benefit for our employees and communities globally,” Wilson said.
Learning and Development to Address Holistic Growth
Beyond skill development, employees also value learning and development opportunities that contribute to their holistic growth, said Barrett Scruggs, Vice President of Workplace Financial Well-being at SoFi at Work. “This includes continued learning and education on topics that directly impact their role at work, but also on topics that impact their everyday life,” he said.
Financial well-being, Scruggs said, impacts all facets of employees’ lives, including mental and physical health. “Employers can provide financial education and resources—such as debt calculators, access to financial planners or budgeting tools—as part of their benefits plan to help employees meet their personal financial goals.”
Companies also are offering learning and development opportunities focused on mental and physical health—from educational offerings related to healthy eating and exercise to sessions on mindfulness, stress relief, and mental health.
Offering programs may not be enough, as the research on the gap between employer and employee perceptions indicates. Companies also need to ensure they are communicating effectively about not only the existence of training opportunities, but how those opportunities can positively impact employees.
Best-Practice Advice for Boosting Understanding, Utilization of Learning Benefits
Communicating about benefits of all kinds to ensure employee understanding and utilization has always been a challenge for employers. This challenge can be even greater when employees have hybrid or remote-work arrangements. It’s important to ensure that communication about educational benefits is embedded across the entire employee life cycle—from onboarding to goal setting, to everyday interactions with supervisors and managers.
“Perhaps the most important—and most frequently missing element is getting buy-in from supervisors,” said Diane Gayeski, a Professor of Strategic Communication at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, “Many of them won’t allow an employee the time off to go to training unless it relates to their current job.” Gayeski noted that some supervisors and managers may also be resistant to losing employees to other internal positions.
These are attitudes and behaviors that companies need to work to overcome. Companies can, Gayeski said, “create incentives and learning for supervisors to actually help their employees grow.”
“To ensure that the learning benefit is used to its full potential, employees need to clearly understand how to tap into development resources—and feel that their organization supports them using it,” added Dan Manian, CEO and Co-founder of Donut, an app for Slack, designed to help companies foster connectivity and collaboration. It’s important, he said, for employees to have flexibility in choosing the opportunities that make sense to them, as well as interactions with their managers “to ensure their choices will help them develop skills and knowledge that are relevant to their career goals and to the broader business.”
Max Wesman, Chief Operating Officer at GoodHire, an employee-screening company based in Omaha, Nebraska, agrees that offering employees flexibility in learning and development opportunities is important. He recommends providing employees with a “learning budget.” This means, he said, “that rather than imposing a certain training program or curriculum across your workforce, workers can curate their own learning experience based on topics that interest them and relate to their work.”
The experts agreed that all workers and organizations benefit when learning and development opportunities are aligned with personal and professional goals, well-communicated and accessible wherever employees may be located. In general, it can be a boon to employers looking to show they care.
“Offering learning opportunities as an employee benefit can be a great way for leaders to show their commitment to their employees’ professional development and career growth,” Manian said, noting the benefit is particularly valued by Millennial and Generation Z workers.