Why Supporting Nontraditional Learning and Career Paths Is Simply Smart Business

An illustration of a woman sitting on textbooks

By John Farrar

During the pandemic, my family and I went down a DIY rabbit hole. We learned a whole new set of skills, like how to make pasta from scratch, fix leaky faucets, and tie-dye T-shirts.

And we’re not alone. For many, these past couple of years have been a period of self-assessment, or a “great reevaluation,” during which we discovered gaps in our knowledge and took steps to fill them. In 2021, more and more people around the world invested in growing their skill sets, with searches like “online learning,” “ideas for beginners,” and “how to invest” increasing year over year.

Now that we can once again buy pasta at the store and let plumbers into our homes, DIY searches have begun to return to pre-pandemic levels. However, searches for programs that allow people to quickly learn new skills continue to grow. Is this a permanent shift in adult education and, if so, how will it affect the future of business?

To find out, my team partnered with Ipsos to conduct research studies on higher education and careers, two areas heavily impacted by the rise of remote work and learning. Though we held these studies separately, the results of each overlapped, suggesting that people link furthering their education with advancing their careers. At a time when many employers are struggling to attract and retain talent, this creates an opportunity for businesses to support their employees’ continuing education while simultaneously building a highly skilled workforce.

To help you take advantage of this opportunity, we’ve pulled two key insights from our research along with two ways your business can act on these findings.

Insight: Continuing education is the new normal

In the past, higher education traditionally meant attending a four-year university right after high school and earning a degree. But today, people often view higher education as a way to switch careers or move up in their current one. Our research shows that 57% of U.S. employees are either actively seeking or open to a new job,1 and education can be the path for them to get there.

For a deeper dive into this finding and into the reality that adult learners face today, my team spoke with Marni Baker Stein, provost and chief academic officer of Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit online university that has pioneered a learning model that creates a better connection between what students learn and what skills they need to succeed on the job. She believes the “education for career mobility” trend is now so prominent that it’s transforming the profile of a higher education student. “Broadly speaking, the new higher ed student is working full time, is a caretaker for their family, and is not in that traditional 18- to 24-year-old range,” she says.

57% of U.S. employees are either actively seeking or open to a new job — and education can be the path to get there.

This type of student needs flexibility and a clear return on their time and financial investments. According to Baker Stein, universities like WGU will periodically assess their offerings and ask, “What is the value of this program out there in the world of work, and what job roles or occupational types does this set of skills correspond to?” Then they update those programs to teach the skills in highest demand.

“Learning with [Google’s online learning program] gave me the flexibility to take courses on my own time,” said Chelsea Rucker. A graduate of Grow with Google’s IT Certificates course, Rucker was hired, and later promoted, to a program manager position at Google. “Without the flexibility to get up at 4 a.m. to finish work while my daughters sleep, I’d never have been able to earn my certificate so quickly.”

Action: Meet your employees’ educational needs

Fifty-nine percent of the workers we surveyed said they actively maintain or develop skills to be more attractive in the job market and improve their career trajectory, while only 45% of those surveyed said their employers offer upskilling or reskilling as a benefit.2 You can set your organization apart by offering company-sponsored skill development that maps clearly to other roles, rather than leaving your employees to pursue external learning and career opportunities. This is especially important for midlevel workers who are most likely to resign.

And this investment benefits your bottom line. When leaders offer growth and internal mobility opportunities, they retain their employees nearly twice as long as their peers. What’s more, a BCG study found that 81% of survey respondents said better aligning educational curricula with job openings and skills gaps could resolve the skills mismatch their businesses face.

Insight: Short courses can make a big impact

Short courses are overwhelmingly popular among this new group of higher education students. For example, aggregate searches for courses in management, data science, and digital marketing have grown by 35% year over year.3 And, unlike traditional degree programs, short courses can be focused on specific skills. In fact, 46% of the people we surveyed who are considering a short course for the first time cite the ability to quickly learn a new skill as the reason for their interest.4 This convenient, hyperfocused learning provides the close link between investment, skills gained, and career mobility that adult learners have come to expect.

Short-form credentials are critical to the future of work.

“Short-form credentials are critical to the future of work, where individuals are going to have to reskill and upskill many times throughout our careers,” said Baker Stein.

Action: Rethink the way you evaluate job candidates

Certificates and short courses may not be the traditional credentials that employers look for, but they reflect self-motivated learners who have current, in-demand skills. You can open up your talent pool considerably by taking short-course credentials seriously during the candidate evaluation process.

“As a culture, we have gotten used to [college] credits meaning a sort of level of readiness,” says Baker Stein. However, she believes “short-form, more flexible, agile learning experiences are so powerful for learners across the life cycle, whether you’re 15 or you’re 24 or you’re 50.” Because of this, she advises employers to ensure they have “the right HR processes or people in talent protocols to value short-form credentials.”

Certificates and short courses reflect self-motivated learners who have current, in-demand skills.

Just as employees are reevaluating their lives and evolving their approaches to education and career mobility, businesses need to reconsider their internal processes. By giving employees company-sponsored opportunities to upskill and by placing more value on short courses and certificates during the candidate evaluation process, businesses can retain valuable talent and be ready for the future with a highly skilled workforce.

This article first appeared on Think with Google.