At a time of rapid-fire innovation and technological change, working Americans are concerned about their job security and are looking for ways to continue on career paths that lead to stability and mobility within their careers and future. With most Americans already facing financial worries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers identify skills development as the key to financial stability and growth.

According to EdAssist by Bright Horizons recent Education Index report, two-thirds of working adults say the pandemic has increased their focus on developing new skills. For underrepresented groups, this desire is even stronger, with roughly 81% of Black workers and 76% of Latinx workers saying the pandemic has made them want to focus more on developing new skill sets, versus 60% of their white peers.

All Workers Want to Advance Their Careers

Many employees are worried about the future of their job. The report also found that more than two-thirds of working adults feel pressured to develop new skills in order to succeed in their industry, and 37% say they don’t feel that they have the right skills sets to advance in their career. Many are also worried they will be replaced by technology if they do not continue to develop new skills at all.

Black and Latinx employees are more likely than white employees to worry about the impending threat of technology replacing their jobs and are more likely than white employees to feel like they’re missing the right skills sets to advance in their careers.

Yet despite the strong desire to pursue education, many employees confront barriers that feel insurmountable – namely financial-related barriers. Research from the Education Index cites that nearly six in 10 working adults say the anticipation of student loan debt has prevented them from pursuing educational opportunities, and half say they can’t advance in their careers because they can’t afford to take on additional student loans for further educational opportunities.

In underrepresented groups, nearly 40% of Black workers have more than $30,000 of debt compared to 29% of white workers, 23% of Latinx workers and 18% of Asian workers, as of 2016. Women also hold two-thirds of the nation’s student loan debt and owe an average of $2,700 more than their male constituents.

In today’s competitive job market, employers need to rethink their talent strategies. According to a LinkedIn Learning report, 94% of workers would stay with their employers if they invested in their career development. And nearly 65% of workers think that providing education benefits to all employees helps promote racial and gender equality in the workplace.

For companies that are looking to advance equitable access to education for employees, establishing a solid workforce education program is a great first step. Here are some best practices for establishing an effective program that is accessible to all interested employees, despite their role or demographic.

Provide Equitable Learning Opportunities

  • Remove cost barriers: With financial barriers being a top concern for employees, employers can remove the need for employees to pay up front by paying the school directly. By combining this with lower-cost education programs, employers can essentially offer a completely free degree to employees, with no money up front, which will open up opportunities to many more employees.
  • Provide educational coaching and support: Educational coaching helps employees find the right program for them and their current lifestyle, as well as understand how the investment in education is going to advance their career.
  • Increase employee motivation through career pathways: By providing employees with a clear path from high school to their degree to doctoral options, and including noncredit hours, employees can visualize their ability to engage in educational opportunities to increase their career and financial mobility.
  • Consider a complimentary student loan program: Support for student loan repayments is also worth considering as diverse employees are much more likely to have outstanding student debt, which may be preventing them from going back to school.
  • Broaden the education options available to employees: More options means more employees can participate, and the more employees you can educate, the more opportunity they have to progress their careers, advance their earnings and move into leadership roles.
  • Provide a variety of programs for employees to choose from: Certificates, boot camps and professional certifications will be key to enabling more employees to participate depending on their individual time constraints and career goals.

For instance, through its “Archways to Opportunities” program, McDonald’s offers 850,000 restaurant workers across the country the opportunity to complete their high school diploma, receive English language education, utilize tuition assistance for degrees and plan their career growth through career advising services. The company is looking across their workforce and is removing barriers for all employees interested in gaining access to education, despite their job function or background.

After years of uncertainty, today’s workforce is seeking the stability that new skills and learning opportunities can provide. Employers who provide access to education opportunities for all employees — regardless of race, gender or educational background — will not only prepare their workforce for the future, but also will remove barriers and provide opportunities for all employees to develop the critical skills needed to advance their careers and step into high-demand roles.