The Intersection: Jun 2016

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Corporations Take on the Skills Gap

Three-fourths of American CEOs say they have major problems finding qualified people to fill jobs, and as a result, two million jobs remain unfilled.

Today’s rapid technological advances have made it difficult for traditional education to keep up with the evolving skills employers need. At the same time, today’s students are faced with increased barriers—cost, work schedules, family—to earning the degrees and credentials employers seek.  These barriers may help explain why only 40 percent of Americans complete some form of post-high school education or training that is now required for most jobs.

Corporations offer flexible education options

While policymakers search for solutions to closing the widening skills gap, leading U.S. companies have begun taking matters into their own hands.  More and more Fortune 500 companies are investing in educating and/or reskilling their employees, and research is showing a significant return on that investment.

In a recent study of Cigna’s employee tuition reimbursement program, Lumina Foundation (VOX client) found that the company receives a 129-percent return on its educational investment in the form of reduced personnel costs.  Employees who receive tuition reimbursement typically stay with the company, saving Cigna the cost of recruiting, hiring and training new workers.

Several major U.S. corporations are taking a more hands-on approach to furthering their employees’ education by forming partnerships with universities.  Central to the goal of most of these programs is to allow employees to finish their degrees. According to Lumina, more than 36 million Americans have some college credits but no degree, often due to cost, busy work schedules and family commitments.

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan, a partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University, offers scholarships and tuition reimbursement for employees that cover the cost of an entire bachelor’s degree.

JetBlue recently announced JetBlue Scholars, which offers crewmembers an opportunity to earn a fully accredited college degree, with JetBlue covering most of the cost.  The program provides alternative college credit and is designed to “address the needs of those working full-time with college advisement and resources.”  Crewmembers are able to convert aviation and military training and other professional certificates into college credit, reducing the time to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Last summer Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield launched a partnership with College for America to make an associate’s or bachelor’s degree available at no cost for any of its eligible full-time and part-time associates at Southern New Hampshire University.  College for America partners with employers to offer a competency-based, online curriculum designed to help associates fit a fully-accredited college degree into the busy lives of working adults.

A focus on new skills

Some corporations are focusing on specific employable skills, such as coding and development. AT&T (VOX client), for example, partnered with Udacity to develop the online Nanodegree program.  The program offers courses and mini-degrees in specialized fields critical to the tech-industry such as front-end website development.

The program is part of AT&T Aspire and AT&T’s in-house training program, T University, but it is open to anyone.  Today, there are more than 11,000 learners taking Nanodegree classes, including more than 1,000 AT&T employees.  Courses are designed by AT&T and other technology companies.  The cost to participants is about $200 a month, and a class takes six to 12 months to complete; that is often less money and less time than it takes to complete degrees and comparable trainings in person.

Many of these examples have something in common:  They’re leveraging technology to make earning degrees and credentials more flexible and realistic.  With online learning, employees can engage with curriculum anytime, anywhere.  It’s often more cost-effective and less prohibitive than classroom learning that can interfere with job and family responsibilities.

While these companies are taking different approaches to educating and reskilling their workforce, their commitment to employee education marks a dramatic shift:  Rather than wait for qualified applicants to come to them, they are taking a proactive role in bridging the skills gap.  As their investment continues to pay off, look for more companies to follow suit.

Jessica L. Abensour

Partner and Senior Vice President

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Beth Parker


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