Building your work force Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Continuing education programs are important providers of the training workers need, and businesses that offer continuing education to their employees find the return on their investment is high.

“Learning never stops,” says Dr. Patricia A. Book, vice president for regional development at Kent State University. “It is lifelong, and it has benefits that go beyond increased employee retention and productivity.”

Smart Business spoke to Book about the benefits of continuing education and the programs available from area schools.

Who benefits from continuing education?

Nontraditional students were the exception, but now they’re the norm in American higher education. Continuing education has generally been thought of as serving nontraditional students, or adult learners, many of whom are already in the workplace. In some cases, these students already have a degree and are looking to stay current with continuing professional education in fields such as nursing, accounting and law. In many cases, it’s because there’s been a change in policy or requirements in their fields. Another candidate would be an adult who has some college courses, but he or she didn’t have a chance to finish because of work, military or family requirements. These students seek additional coursework so they can attain an associate or bachelor’s degree. Adults age 24 and older now represent 43 percent of all undergraduates. Also, today, a majority of the graduate and first-professional students are enrolled at the master’s level and attending part time.

What are the benefits?

There’s long been a correlation between improved job performance, increased earnings and increased educational levels. Higher employee retention is also a byproduct of continuing education. When employers can provide career development, employees feel more loyal, leading to higher retention rates. But, beyond the corporate and personal benefits, continuing education has societal benefits. We see that students are more engaged with their communities in a variety of ways, such as higher voting levels and greater participation in volunteer activities.

What programs are available?

There are many different types of continuing education. First, there are programs for professionals in fields with continuing education requirements, like attorneys, social workers and teachers. Another popular option is executives pursuing executive master’s of business administration degrees. Another option is customized programming. Colleges and universities work with employers to identify their work force needs within the company. Programs are then customized to meet the company’s needs and are incorporated into the work cycle. This could focus on senior-level management, supervisors or line workers. Because many adult learners have full-time jobs, classes can be scheduled for evenings and weekends to make them more accessible. These classes are often designed to help workers position themselves for advancement within their organizations. Finally, companies can help continuing education providers design courses that are pertinent to their employees’ interests.

What are stumbling blocks to engaging a corporation in educating its employees?

Competitive pressures here are so great that companies don’t feel they have the immediate financial wherewithal or time to devote to employee training. They’re in survival mode, just trying to keep their costs down — and training and educational dollars seem to be easy to cut. In Ohio, the state created the Enterprise Ohio Network to supply targeted industry training dollars that education providers can use to support training. Not a lot of money is available, but it opens the door for companies that want to participate in continuing education.

What learning options are available beyond standard in-class sessions?

Continuing education is much more accessible in a variety of formats than it ever was, which is wonderful because the demand is incredible. We just began a new venture called Kent State On Demand, in partnership with Time Warner Cable. It offers continuing education credits for attorneys, social workers and counselors via cable television, from the comfort of their homes, whenever it’s convenient. Because massive amounts of data can be stored in computers, it is sometimes difficult to turn all that data into information that management can use for decision-making. As a result, businesses are now in the market for knowledge managers and business intelligence experts, so online degrees are becoming more common in this specialty area. Finally, companies can seek open-enrollment programs where they can send managers to a series of classes on a particular topic of interest, like Lean Six Sigma.

What about educating minority businesses?

One of the issues that’s important to Northeast Ohio is that our minority community is lagging behind in educational opportunities. Engaging these groups in higher education has become a high priority. For example, we’re interested in working with smaller African-American- or Hispanic-owned companies to help them accelerate their growth. Institutions of higher learning are making a special effort to advance economic inclusion in Northeast Ohio because we can’t leave that segment of the population behind and progress as a region.

DR. PATRICIA A. BOOK is vice president for regional development at Kent State University. Reach her at (330) 672-8540 or pbook1@kent.edu.