Why Upper Management Buy-In is Critical to Workplace Development Success

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Nearly 90% of organizations offer educational development opportunities for their frontline employees, according to a 2016 survey from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4CP) and the Aspen Institute’s UpSkill America. Yet 58% say only about half of their workers take advantage of the program.

What’s more, while 80% of employers extend generous tuition assistance benefits to their employees, those same companies sometimes make it hard for frontline workers to enroll in higher education programs. Many require workers to be on the job for 6 to 12 months before they’re eligible. That’s too long a wait — for both worker and company.

The study cited above shows low utilization rates among companies that track their workplace learning programs, but that segment is in the minority. The study also showed that 73% of these companies don’t track whether frontline workers (defined as an employee whose highest degree is an associate’s and makes less than $40,000 a year) actually participate in workplace learning initiatives.

As companies look to upskill their workforces to keep pace with a changing economy, workplace learning enrollment needs to rise, and quickly.

Merely having a workplace learning initiative and tuition reimbursement program on a list of company benefits isn’t enough. A mention in a rarely read employee handbook won’t boost participation.

Companies must do more — and it starts at the top.

Raise the public profile of your learning program

Simply raising the profiles of these programs could immediately improve involvement and effectiveness. Enrollment rates go up when company leaders like the CEO, senior VPs and chief learning officer put their names on a workforce learning program in an enthusiastic, public way.

As Rachel Waller, partnership marketing manager at Southern New Hampshire University, explains, when leaders talk, employees take notice.

“In any workplace environment, employees are much more likely to read an email from the boss than a generic one from HR,” she says. “And they’re even more likely to read it if it’s from the boss’s boss. The message carries more weight.”

Emphasize the opportunity

When SNHU partners with companies, it initially recommends senior leadership send an email, Waller says. The email details the affordability, flexibility and range of programs available through the company’s partnership with SNHU.

In the case of College for America, SNHU’s online competency-based degree program, this message emphasizes that the opportunity has no set deadlines, making it perfect for full-time workers who never thought they could go back to school.

Again, the message must be signed by senior leadership to accelerate interest in the program.

Waller illustrates this point with the tales of two different healthcare organizations she worked with recently. One company sent an email about the program launch signed by the senior vice president of HR; the other dispatched a general email message. Twice the number of employees requested more information following the SVP’s email compared to the more generic one.

“People are much more likely to read a message and consider it seriously if it came from a leader,” Waller says.

Be persistent

Waller stresses it takes more than one email to generate interest and enrollment in workplace educational opportunities. The first campaign is a “drop in the bucket.”

Success for your workplace learning program ultimately relies on regular communication. That generally means a series of follow-up emails to create what Waller calls a rising tide of awareness.

Not every employee will be in a position to consider entering the program when one email hits their inbox, but they may be the next time they see the message. Regular reminders allow employees to make the decision when it’s right for them.

Connect it to reviews

Learning resources can also be useful to bring up during quarterly or annual employee reviews.

It may be the ideal time to ask an employee if they have considered pursuing a bachelor’s degree or another advanced certification while discussing future goals and plans for improvement.

Many times, frontline workers delay their education because they believe they don’t have the time or the money. Also, until they are reminded of this specific connection to their career, they may feel tuition benefits are only intended for managerial employees.

Encourage them to persist

Degree persistence and completion are ongoing challenges, and the best workplace learning programs monitor them carefully, along with their university partners.

One company whose leadership has thrown its support behind educational initiatives and reaped the benefits is Anthem, which first partnered with SNHU in 2014. Now almost 1,200 of its workers are enrolled in the program, and 360 have graduated.

If employees are already enrolled in a degree program, managers should inquire about how they’re progressing. These conversations highlight management’s dedication to the program and willingness to support their employees in their educational endeavors.

Get creative

SNHU’s partners have used many other methods to promote their tuition assistance programs, including:

  • Senior leaders visiting departments to host information sessions. (Boston Children’s Hospital recently enrolled 51 employees this way, according to Waller.)
  • Explaining the program during conferences, orientation and onboarding, as well as during training sessions.
  • Inviting Southern New Hampshire University to conduct onsite and virtual information sessions.

The data demonstrating the ROI of tuition assistance programs is getting clearer all the time. But Waller says she witnesses other intangible benefits among SNHU’s most engaged and active corporate partners. “They have buy-in from all levels of the organization from top to bottom,” she says.

“Senior leaders see the return on their bottom line when employees stay at their organization and are happier at their workplace.”

Workforce Development

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