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Education Benefits Propel Economic Mobility

Published Nov 30, 2020 by Susan Moore

Watch the full UpSkill Works Forum above.

Entry-level and frontline workers are generally in low paying jobs, but they can prepare for new or changing jobs or roles by gaining additional education or credentials – upskilling.

Upskilling benefits both individuals and employers: Individuals can attain greater education and new credentials that open doors to greater employment opportunities (and with them, better pay and upward economic mobility); and employers that provide employees avenues to upskill can retain and develop talent, attract new talent, and boost morale within their businesses. Employers also benefit by the greater productivity of their incumbent workforce and increased retention saves on recruiting and other costs.

Many employers provide opportunities for incumbent workers to upskill but do so by offering to reimburse an employee for program costs once the individual chooses and completes the program. Unfortunately, a large number of these workers never complete these programs, and the program may not align to durable skills that are transferable across roles in the company. Individuals, therefore, are not reimbursed—personally incurring the costs—and still lack a credential to move into a better paying occupation or role, according to Matthew Daniel, employer solutions principal consultant with Guild Education.

The outlook for workers in these situations may seem bleak, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Daniel shared with a November UpSkill Works forum audience and host Peter Beard, Partnership senior vice president of regional workforce development and leader of the Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative, several ways employers can think about and structure programs that can support employees to achieve better educational and skill development outcomes.

Guild Education operates with a mission to unlock opportunities for America’s workforce through education. It works with Fortune 1000 employers to address skills gaps and recruitment challenges. It partners with non-profit universities to improve their enrollment, retention and graduation rates. Importantly, it focuses on retention at work and completion at school in order to drive outcomes and increase workplace mobility and economic opportunity for working adults, mainly frontline workers. (About 70 percent of frontline workers attended some college but lack a degree, and more than 20 percent live in poverty, according to Daniel.)  Guild has built effective programs with Disney, Chipotle and Walmart. 

According to Daniel, by making education benefits easily accessible to employees, aligned with the skills needs of employers, and designed with employees' needs in mind, employers can improve talent attraction and increase employee promotion and retention rates.

Below are key takeaways from the conversation.


Coaching is Essential to Student Success

Guild focuses on coaching employees as they move through the education process, starting with helping them identify programs in which to enroll, setting goals and submitting applications. Success coaches help students address time management and navigate support services, but they can also monitor student progress and help students remain in class.

Guild also coaches exiting employees as they reskill for other roles or prepare resumes or for interviews.   
Working adult learners have different needs and different expectations than more standard university students, he said, and the support individuals need – especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic changes – vary person to person. 

“If you're providing education assistance to your students, to your employees, but you're not doing the wraparound services like coaching to support them, ultimately [employees] will fall out,” he said. “They drop out at alarmingly high rates.”

Many who fail to complete these programs and incur the expense also end up leaving their employers, he said. When an employee leaves, an employer faces the additional costs to hire a replacement and get that new employee to full productivity. The incremental costs of supporting an employee to complete increases an employer’s return on investment for educational benefits. 

Daniel shared that Guild sees about an 80 percent retention rate of adult learners staying in a program.


Build Education Around Skills

Daniel highlighted that employers should take the time and energy to research what individuals need and build education programs and learning management systems around these needs. Employees are less likely to use systems that require them to search for programs, he said.

Employers should explore both durable skills – ones that last in the long term – and perishable skills that last in the short term, as individuals may need skills to use a new process or tool (especially at the current rate of technological change in the workplace) but also ones that are transferrable across many roles in the company or in other industries.

Customer service and being able to build and manage relationships ranks as the top skill employees need to have, Daniel said, noted the rising popularity of business leadership programs. People management and data analysis skills are in high demand, too. The ability to analyze and visualize data and to tell a story using data are now important to employees at every level of an organization. 

Guild thinks of upskilling for three main organizational purposes: Improving performance through deeper expertise or advancement; reskilling to fill a talent gap via internal mobility or redeployment for hard-to-hire roles; and managing role transformation like a role redesign or to meet new needs brought in through digital transformation.


Create a Culture of Lifelong Learning

Daniel spoke to the importance of securing buy-in for employee education from the top of an organization. Objections from immediate supervisors or managers can be a large barrier to program adoption, he said.

“When a CEO stands at the front of the room and talks about what they're learning, not about what you should learn, but about what he or she is learning, it sets a tone in an organization. When the conversation becomes who's your mentor and who are you mentoring in the organization, it changes the dynamic,” he said.


Forge Partnerships with Local Providers

Small businesses looking to upskill employees can partner with local providers, like community colleges.

“If you're in one community and you're a smaller organization, pick up the phone and call your local universities. Call your local community colleges. Start to work with education providers who are down the street from you; they are willing. Many of them are willing to strike up partnerships where they can think about discounted tuition programs,” he said.

Daniel has seen a desire among higher education institutions to build programs that satisfy the needs of their local communities, and they want to know how to do it, he said.

“Those education partners are absolutely looking to build programs that are aligned with business needs to service you all in the community,” he said.

See all past UpSkill Works forums.