Conversations centered around student loan forgiveness have become commonplace the past two years, with increased attention as of late. It’s resulting in many educators and students taking a look at what higher education has meant, or means, to them. And at the core, state leaders are taking inventory of what’s driving students of all ages to continue to want to pursue higher education. However, affordability remains a common barrier for many wanting to reach their educational goals.

But let’s first take a step back. What’s also important is taking a look at what’s driving our state’s workforce to grow, and employees finding satisfaction with their place of employment to aid in that process. We are looking at a new era of working, with a multigenerational workforce who’s seeking everything from quality healthcare to parental-leaves, which means a variety of perspectives and a variety of motives when it comes to earning a paycheck.

There’s a common denominator for our workforce, though, and it’s that nearly every worker craves education benefits from their employer. In fact, since the pandemic, 3 in 4 Americans agree acquiring new skills lead to more job opportunities. Learning and development is often considered as a perk when people are job hunting, and not one that every employer has to offer. Learning and development can be described as everything a company does to encourage professional development for its staff. This could include training programs, online learning or opening the door to pathways for employees to continue their higher education degree while also working full-time.

Learning and development isn’t always top of mind for employers when considering budgets, but the numbers speak for themselves. According to the 2022 Job Seeker Nation Report, 54% of workers weren’t offered an increased number of opportunities for learning and development from their employers this past year. Additionally, college tuition reimbursement programs for employers are capped at $5,250 per year (the average cost of room and board in 1986), which has not kept up with the rising cost of higher education. Yet 94% of workers have shared they’d stay at their current job longer if it chose to invest in their careers.

Learning and development can coexist within the walls of a company and outside of them. There’s great value in a company prioritizing continued training for staff and ensuring they are equipped to do their job well. And in turn, they more often than not will choose to stay with the company for a longer period of time. But there are also limitations of what education benefits a company can provide, and that’s where earning a degree and pursuing higher education comes into play.

Again, we’re talking about a multigenerational workforce here, meaning that prospective students aren’t what they used to be: traditional 18-24 year-olds. Every year, we’re seeing an increase in the number of nontraditional students; there’s a wave of students who are older, working part- or full-time, often have dependents, are more in tune with their finances, and have a matured outlook on what education will mean for them for their future. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, they’ve projected that by 2027, 3.3 million students will be 40 or older.

Education institutions are pivoting and making adjustments to their offerings to ensure that students of all ages are supported, and that those who are working, or have families, can successfully continue on their pursuit of a degree. While it may sound simplistic, there must be buy-in from both the university and said company that education is not only critical to the overall economy, but critical to staff retention.

In my role, I help expand and deepen partnerships with industry leaders, employers and education partners to support economic growth. As relationships go, partnerships take time to develop, but the long-term benefits are incredibly worthwhile for students. What are nontraditional students needing education-wise so that they can successfully work and grow in their skill sets? Flexibility, affordability and a competency-based approach so that it best supports their day-to-day lives. 

Upskilling drives growth. And in order to grow our state’s workforce, and to encourage continued learning in the process, we must bridge the gap between corporations and higher education.

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