Sharpen Your Workforce Development IQ

Workforce development through higher education is something all businesses need to consider.

A business is only as good as its workforce. As such, finding good employees, developing their talent, and keeping them are crucial to business success. Unfortunately, all three of those challenges have grown harder in recent years—something that can seriously threaten a business aiming to grow. Indeed, an increasing number of executives and HR leaders report that while new workers may hold strong technical skills, they often lack crucial soft skills necessary for workplace success.

A few years ago, Dealer.com (subsequently acquired by Dealertrack, Inc.) faced similar challenges. We realized a new strategic adjunct was necessary to create an environment that directly improves the competitiveness of our business, our workforce, and our company culture. Our new strategy has been a key recruitment and retention tool that has led to outsized benefits for the investment, increasing our competitiveness and allowing our company to grow from 400 people to more than 1,200 during a three-year period. This now has been extended through our parent organization of 6,500 team members.

Here are a few things we learned along the way:

• Don’t overlook the talent you already have. Hiring people is costly. The process pulls employees away from their normal tasks to partake in the search, even while the position stays empty. Furthermore, there is no guarantee a new hire will work out and be a beneficial addition to the workforce—meaning the process could be high cost, low reward.

Many growing organizations find themselves in need of new talent to fill quickly emerging and growing roles in the company. In assessing our team and our needs, we realized there was an opportunity to grow from within—to arm our existing workforce with new skills so they could move into and fill new positions faster and more successfully as we work to hire additional external talent.

While hiring new team members will always be a key function of talent management and growth, we realized it is equally important to develop the talent we already have and see what roles those existing team members can fill. Training and higher education provides a way to provide incentives to keep employees longer and enable existing employees to successfully tackle new roles and new challenges. As such, it is a powerful recruitment tool. As a result of retaining a more highly skilled existing workforce, we are holding down the relative costs of hiring while also creating a more agile workforce.

• The value of continuing education is greater than you realize. Higher education brings a lot of benefits to the workforce including many that often are overlooked. We initially looked at higher education as a pure workforce training and development tool—a way to ensure that our workforce could become stronger and remain competitive. It quickly evolved beyond that.

Traditional training is a useful tool for updating employees on new practices, policies, or technologies, but it does not necessarily reinvigorate and inspire a workforce. This concept was new to me and came to light during a conversation I had with Dr. Mika Nash, dean of Champlain College Online, who consulted closely with us as we developed our partnership: “When many companies consider workforce development, they immediately think of ‘training,’” she told me. “Training has its place, certainly. But if you’re looking for a longer-term result—one that develops critical thinking, soft skills, and technical knowledge—higher education is the vehicle to get you there.”

Through higher education, our employees became more engaged and transformed our workforce in profound ways. Employees began to bring new and creative ideas to the table, as well as the ability to carry them out long term. Veteran team members became reengaged as if they were brand new to the company. The confidence and understanding employees gained from education enabled them to take on new job roles and functions.

In short, providing higher education opportunities went beyond just making our company more competitive—it changed our company in wonderfully unexpected ways and transformed our culture and capabilities more than we imagined.

• Adult learners are different from traditional students. Adult students have careers and families and can be much more discerning about educational quality than traditional aged students. When adults go back to school, they are ready to see the real-world applications of their learning and are eager to bring their new knowledge to the workplace.

This is one area where our partnership with Champlain College Online was especially beneficial. Champlain College has a long history of providing career-focused education for adult learners and boasts courses structured for working professionals. From day one, students are able to build skills and knowledge they can take to work the next morning and implement. Since adult learners are able to immediately apply what they learn in the workplace, Champlain’s relevant curriculum and methodology was especially effective at showing adult learners the ROI on their education and helping them use it in the real world.

The Outcomes Far Exceeded Our Expectations

Workforce development through higher education is something all businesses need to consider. Once we introduced our higher education package into Dealer.com’s culture, it was contagious; our workers couldn’t get enough. It’s become a mainstay of our benefits package for our workers, and we directly attribute it to supporting the growth of our workforce 300 percent and to giving us the competitive edge that led to our company being acquired in 2013. Additionally, this valuable benefit has been used by each of the companies that have successively acquired Dealer.com.

In today’s increasingly competitive markets for both business and talent, going back to school may provide the injection of new life your business needs to achieve its goals. If you’re a business leader, you have to consider this strategic addition to workforce development.

Sean Collins is senior director of Organization and Leadership Development at Dealertrack, Inc., the winner of Workforce Magazine’s 2016 Opitmas Awards for academic partnerships.

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