HR 101: Creating a Continuing Ed Program On a Shoestring

Employers are in the midst of a massive labor shortage. It may seem like a blessing just to have enough employees to get the job done. But what happens when one of them leaves or you have a need for workers with different skills? If you had a continuing education program, you’d have a ready answer; there could always be someone ready to step in.

Providing opportunities for workers to improve their skills and learn new ones is not only beneficial to them, but it is a valuable incentive in recruiting and retaining workers.

The largest companies have in-house training teams and resources to customize development plans for each employee based on their career aspirations and the company’s needs. Smaller organizations may not have that kind of budget, but there are still ways to offer educational opportunities – a continued education program is one solution.

What does continued education mean?

Continuing education means employees are taught the tools to keep learning even after they’ve left traditional school and entered the workforce. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to send your employees back to school or college — though that is an option. Continuing education means you give your team the tools to continue to grow and thrive in their field.

Benefits of continuing education

Encouraging your employees to continue their education helps you create a highly skilled workforce. Many of your best workers may be putting off going back to school — or never received a college degree — because of the exorbitant cost of two- and four-year programs. It can also give you the tools to identify future leaders. Those best-suited for management positions are often the ones most eager to improve their skills.

Continuing education is also appealing to younger generations. Millennials now represent the largest portion of the country’s workforce, but they are passing over lucrative positions because they don’t provide any opportunity for advancement.

This kind of program also gives your employees the tools they need to survive and thrive in an ever-changing digital landscape. Technology is growing and changing almost faster than we can keep up, and instead of leaving your employees to founder with outdated skills, you can teach them how to swim in this new digital world.

If you don’t already have a continuing education program in place, what do you need to do to get one off the ground?

How to implement your program

Start by talking to your employees. Find out what they want, in terms of continuing education. You may find they’re your best informational resource, and including them in the decision process might prevent you from spending thousands of dollars on programs no one actually wants to participate in.

Next, look at the tools you have available to you, as well as your potential budget for continued education. Connect with your state’s employment development agency. Every state has one and many provide subsidized training specific to your industry and existing and emerging jobs. In California, the state pays smaller companies up to $50,000 a year to train workers.

Certification programs will likely be specific to your industry, but they can be an inexpensive way for your team to learn new skills. SHRM’s annual benefits survey reports 77% of companies cover the cost of all or part of these programs.

For employees seeking higher education — degrees or undergraduate programs — online schooling is an option. These programs – and there are many — provide the flexibility to study on their own schedule.

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Reimbursing workers for the successful complete of a course of program removes the financial obstacle. Tuition reimbursement is a fairly common employee benefit that can be tailored to the needs of the company. You don’t have to give money to everyone — be sure to outline your company’s requirements, such as the necessary GPA and the percentage of tuition you’re willing to reimburse if you’re not covering 100% of the costs. Some companies tie reimbursement to staying on the job for a period of time.

Self-directed learning is becoming more popular, especially with millennial workers, because it gives them the option to learn new skills at their own pace without having to defer to an instructor. Learners are paired with an advising instructor, but the majority of the education is handled by the students themselves.

Take a close look at your team, your budget and what you’re hoping to get out of your continuing education before you make any major decisions. The budget will play a large role in the decisions to make — you can’t promise to repay part or all of an employee’s tuition if the budget isn’t there and guaranteed.

Mentoring as an option

Tuition reimbursement isn’t your only option when it comes to supporting your team’s goals. In-house training sessions are a low-cost option. Enlist workers who have good skills to teach them to others in a mentoring arrangement.

Partnering with local colleges to leverage continuing education programs they already have in place. It’s just a matter of contacting the school to see what it can do for you. Even if you’re not seeking undergraduate programs, nearby schools could help you set up certification or technical programs to assist your team.

Help your team grow

The goal of any continuing education program should be to help your employees grow into happy and productive individuals. How you accomplish this is entirely up to you. The details of your plan will vary greatly depending on your industry — you may not want to spring for an MBA for software engineers, for example, but on the whole, everyone can benefit from a comprehensive continuing education program.

Talk to your employees, evaluate your budget and figure out what you can do to make continuing education a reality.

With all the potential benefits of continued education, the question you should be asking yourself isn’t if you can afford to sponsor continuing education — it’s whether you can afford not to.

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