C-Suite Agenda

Why companies are falling short in their workforce education programs

Vivek Sharma, CEO at InStride

As time progresses, we will see the companies investing in their employees’ education reap the rewards of a more engaged workforce, better progress on DE&I initiatives, and above-average recruitment and retention – all issues that keep CEOs awake at night.

Corporate education is an imperative strategy for companies to equip employees with new skills for a post-pandemic working world. U.S. corporations spend nearly $180 billion annually on formal training and talent development, with $28 billion on tuition assistance. Yet only two percent of employees are actually using their employer’s programs. Simply offering an education program with a mix of courses and hoping employees will utilize it or gain value is not enough.

Although only a small fraction of employees are currently using workforce education programs, data shows that 80 percent of employees are interested in going back to school while working. This demonstrates that CEOs and their senior leaders are missing the mark on providing the educational resources and tools that employees actually would like and need.

What we are seeing with the ongoing labor shortage could be stemmed by a well planned and executed workforce education strategy. We already have seen many companies deploy these types of programs with great success. Once CEOs take a hard look at the needs of their workforce and what will keep them engaged, they will find that providing debt-free, specialized education is a “must-have” not a “nice to have.”

While workforce development and employee education are not new concepts, recent research and interviews shed light on how to turn a lackluster employee education program into a thriving one that preserves the workforce.

Here’s what employees really want and need

  1. Strong organizational support from leadership. Companies must engage their leadership in operationalizing employee education programs, from the CEO to every people manager. Research shows that working adult learners are more likely to pursue education when they have direct guidance and support from a manager or leader, not an outside system. A mentor or manager can help answer questions such as “How can I benefit from continuing education?” and “What is the right learning path for me to take?” A CEO and other senior leaders can show that the company believes in the program at the highest levels.
    As with any new initiative, it’s important to communicate to the proper stakeholders in the proper order. Hold information sessions and create toolkits for senior leaders, HR operations managers and all people managers to help them feel truly equipped to support their employees.
  2. An individualized approach with more empathy. Working adult learners decide to continue their education journeys for various reasons. These can range from acquiring new skills, to earning more money or advancing their careers. Whatever the motivations may be, successful workplace education requires a deep understanding of these unique, multi-faceted social and economic needs. Additionally, aspiring adult learners navigate a complex emotional journey when considering and prioritizing new learning opportunities. Some employees may feel that pursuing additional education will not pay off in the long haul, while others may get frustrated with the often-complex application process. Many will also need a confidence boost if they’ve never been in a post-secondary setting or have been away from student life for years. Because of these varying factors, make sure to approach each employee’s journey with understanding and empathy.
  3. Equal opportunity to access quality education. Historically, underrepresented groups have had less access to higher education due to systemic barriers.
    Corporations and their leaders are in positions to usher in the next era of workforce diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). And expectations are high. Globally, workers expect employers to drive change in society with 90 percent believing companies should engage in DE&I initiatives. So, it’s time to provide inclusive, flexible and relevant education paths to employees across levels and departments – from frontline associates to corporate management – that foster advancement and mobility.
  4. Clearly defined guidelines and outcomes. Employee learners want to know the answer to a simple question — What’s in it for me? Yet, asking that question directly can often feel uncomfortable. So be prepared to provide an answer, even if not asked directly, with clear guidelines on how education will benefit employees. By creating tangible development paths for your people, they’ll know how their efforts will not only impact the business, but also their own professional careers. In turn, leaders should want to see how these newly acquired skills are making their ways back to the organization and ushering in a new workforce of the future.

Take the time to understand what employees are looking for when it comes to their education. These steps could make all the difference in helping them pursue education and upskilling opportunities that impact their career growth. Ultimately, these actions can open new doors to powerful workforce education programs that have a lasting, beneficial impact on your company’s culture and agility.


Written by Vivek Sharma, CEO & Founder of InStride.

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Vivek Sharma
Vivek Sharma, Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder at InStride, a Strategic Enterprise Education™ company that enables employers to provide career-boosting degrees to their employees, through leading global universities across the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Australia. Vivek is also an adjunct professor of data science at the University of Southern California, where he teaches business innovation to graduate students at the Marshall School of Business, and authors a blog on business innovation. Vivek was recently appointed to the Board of Directors for JetBlue Airways. Vivek graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and holds an MBA from INSEAD, France. Vivek Sharma is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.