Experiencing success in secondary and post-secondary education not only builds knowledge and skills but also builds confidence that can translate to success on the job. Unfortunately, many employees have not experienced that success, resulting in what Taryn McKenzie, executive director of corporate and workforce partnerships at Cengage, calls “educational trauma.” Memories of poor performance in high school can create “a negative connotation with education” and a fight or flight response to learning, even at work.

Cengage works to combat this problem, build skills and help adults obtain a high school education through its Career Online High School (COHS), in which participants earn a high school diploma and a career certificate in one of eight areas (general career preparation, office management, food and hospitality, child care and education, retail customer service, certified protection officer, commercial driving, and homeland security). Because of the cost of providing the education, Cengage partners with companies like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and, most recently, Hilton, to make the program more accessible.

Hilton offered a GED program to its approximately 5,000 U.S. team members who didn’t have a high school diploma. However, the company found that employees weren’t taking advantage of the program, so they looked for another option and found COHS. Gareth Fox, vice president of human resources for the Americas, says that partnering with COHS “is part of our broader company strategy to provide educational and career development opportunities to our team members in an effort to make Hilton a great place to work. Our company’s mission is to be the most hospitable company in the world, and that includes the hospitality we deliver to our team members.” He adds that by obtaining additional education, Hilton believes, its associates will be more confident in their roles.

McKenzie agrees, saying that by having “small wins” throughout the program (learners don’t fail courses, but retake them with support from academic coaches), learners “build confidence in their sense of self and their ability to learn,” which then makes them more successful in their role. In fact, she says that more than half of COHS graduates from their corporate partners either obtain a new job or a promotion after the program, helping their partners retain employees and build the management pipeline. Another benefit for the partners is the positive impression participants have of an employer that demonstrates commitment to their education and career development.

Filling Skills Gaps

For employers that want to help employees obtain more education and fill skill gaps in their organizations, McKenzie recommends first determining what’s lacking in their organization and what is most valuable to their employees. For example, Cengage is currently working with McDonald’s on expanding its English as a second language and Spanish for managers programs, which McDonald’s recognizes as a need at its restaurants.

Another important strategy is for higher education and business leaders to communicate with each other about the skill needs at companies and the skills being taught at post-secondary institutions. Capella University, for example, recently established an advisory board of business leaders to facilitate these conversations.

“We don’t solve [the] skills shortage and [keep] up with the pace of change in skills as any single entity,” says Roy Skillicorn, senior director of Cisco Services Academy and a member of the advisory board. Filling skills gaps “requires that we all work together.”

Rhonda Capron, dean of business and technology at Capella, agrees, saying, “Skill obsolescence, driven by technology, is here, and it’s only going to accelerate … Both higher ed and organizations need to come together to support employees’ career-long learning.”

The board’s first meeting identified four themes its members saw as important for post-secondary institutions and companies to explore: leadership effectiveness (for both formal and informal leaders), learning agility (“things like intellectual curiosity [and] a continuous adaptation to technical competencies,” according to Capron), situational awareness and adaptation, and specific job skills.

Skillicorn says working with educational partners to fill the skills gap comes down to the “willingness to commit time and energy, because … more and more, organizations like Capella are actually looking for that input. The degrees of separation,” he adds, between the workplace and the classroom, are shrinking.

The era of “one-and-done” education is over, Capron says, and a lifelong learning transcript includes “not just education but training and competency-focused documentation of alternative credentials and badging.” Partnering with secondary and post-secondary educational institutions, both traditional and non-traditional, will be increasingly important as lifelong learning becomes increasingly important, driven by a faster rate of change and technological innovation.

Are your employees ready?