Tuition reimbursement can put employees at the top

Employers find value in learning, even when unrelated to job

Mandy Webster arrived at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA) in 2000 as a temporary employee in a low-skill job. Personal issues had forced her to leave university a few years before, with only a handful of credits and few career opportunities.

Today, she is the document support analyst at VFPA and on her way to completing a bachelor of arts degree. The VFPA is picking up the tab for her $15,000 tuition fees, plus her books and supplies. On top of that, Webster has been given “education days” to cover some of the time she needs for classes.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” she says. “To me it was a no-brainer. I can take care of my unfinished business and do it without missing a mortgage payment.”

She applied for a tuition reimbursement last year reasoning, “it was time to make a move or I would get too comfortable.” Webster uses words such as “invigorating” and “rejuvenating” to describe the return to education — even though a BA will have little value in her current role.

“There was a time when I was sinking a bit,” she says. “I feel a new sense of ambition and excitement and I feel like I’m accomplishing something.”

Perk common at top employers

Canadian studies on how much firms spend on tuition reimbursement for courses unrelated to an employee’s current role — or the return on investment — are hard to come by. However, this is an important perk at many organizations on top employer lists.

Christine Dioszeghy, director of human resources with the VFPA and the person who approved Webster’s application, doesn’t need numbers to tell her the story.

“We want to hire continuous learners,” she says. “Even if these skills are not related, they’re still somebody broadening their business acumen.”

Some organizations are willing to pay for courses not directly related to a specific job as long as they will contribute to the organization in some way. At VFPA, the employee has to make a formal application that makes a case for the course and a reason for the company to foot the bill.

Learning benefits worker, employer

Christie Digital, a Waterloo, Ont.-based video projection design and manufacturing firm, offers a similar program. Kimberley Hogan, vice-president of HR, says most employees apply to upgrade their education — such as a technologist with a college diploma who wants to earn a university degree — but there are those who simply want to try something new.

“At the end of the day, anybody going out and learning and taking that initiative to learn new things, to learn new technologies — all of that is going to benefit Christie,” she says. “Somebody who is working as a young technician on the floor and wants to get his engineering degree, it’s not pertinent today but, in the future, he’ll be somebody we can move into our engineering organization.”

In the long term, Hogan says investing in training now, even if it’s unrelated, offsets future recruitment costs.

“To hire one engineer, if we go outside and we use a recruiting firm, on average we’re going to spend $30,000 a year,” she says. “If I can keep them and upgrade their skills and I can grow the future managers of the company, that’s good.”

Programs reduce turnover

A study out of the United States, You Paid for the Skills, Now Keep Them: Tuition Reimbursement and Voluntary Turnover, found, when managed properly, these programs can significantly decrease turnover rates. (The report includes all forms of tuition reimbursement — both related and unrelated to current roles.)

On the flip side, turnover rates increased among those who had achieved a graduate degree but had not been promoted.

In her experience, Hogan says offering tuition reimbursement is one of the perks that keeps turnover rates low.

“If it’s a great company to work for, that’s doing all of these great things for you and you can learn new things and you have an interesting job, people don’t leave,” she says.

Part of the reluctance by some firms to offer tuition reimbursement is the concern employees walk out the door with their newfound — and paid-for — skills.

Ian Gellatly, a business professor at the University of Alberta in Calgary, says while that is a risk, studies show “when companies actively demonstrate supportive behaviours, it tends to motivate employees to reciprocate back.”

“Having the company invest in a program like this, to say ‘We will invest in you,’ that demonstrates the organization cares about them,” he says.

Learning builds flexibility

Another benefit, according to Gellatly, is the flexibility that unrelated training can build into a workforce.

“What happens when the world changes? Business has to change,” he says. “If they’ve been creating a culture where everyone is actively learning and developing themselves, they’ll be able to cope with those changes.”

However, organizations have to be sensitive to the dynamics of the workforce, he says. A 25-year-old may want to pursue an MBA, whereas employees closing in on retirement may simply want to take courses that keep them engaged.

“What you’re preventing is this mindset of, ‘Check my brain at the parking lot and just go through my job from nine to five,’” he says.

Derek Hughes, a research associate at the Conference Board of Canada, says companies often justify this type of training with the “learning begets learning” theory.

“If you have a person on the shop floor who hasn’t taken any training since graduating from high school 30 years ago, and you’re asking them to take training to come up to speed on new equipment, that’s going to be daunting,” he says.

“If you create a culture of continuous learning and get them learning what they want to learn, it’s going to make them take the training the organization is going to benefit from,” says Hughes.

Even the simplest courses can increase productivity and benefit the bottom line, he says.

“You can have an apprentice welder and you want him to get his papers. If he doesn’t have the literacy ability to learn and take the exams properly, he might be a great welder but he’s not going to get his papers,” says Hughes. “Providing him with essential skills learning is going to help the organization.”

The tuition reimbursement program is more than a perk, says Webster, who hopes her education will one day land her a leadership role within the VFPA.

“Overall, you feel a certain commitment to the organization,” she says. “It doesn’t make it so hard to want to do good work because, in the end, you feel like you’re getting something in return.”

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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