Top marks for employee training

Career development ranks high on the list of workers& most-valued perks, and firms with superior employee education and training programs have higher retention rates.


Benefits Bulletin

Top marks for employee training

Career development ranks high on the list of workers' most valued perks. Little wonder, then, that firms with superior employee education and training programs have higher retention rates.

By Helen Lippman, Contributing Editor

Jump to:Choose article section... Something for everyone Turning to technology

Fresh evidence of ROI for employee training comes from Recruiting and Retaining Employees: Using Training and Education in the War for Talent, a report by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). It compares the practices of seven companies singled out for their extensive and innovative career development programs with those of 500 "benchmark" firms in ASTD's database. All seven—Dow Chemical, Edward Jones, Great Plains, LensCrafters, Sears, Southwest Airlines and South African Breweries—have higher employee satisfaction scores and lower turnover rates than their industry average.

The firms draw on a wider array of educational options than their counterparts, including colleges, tech schools, product suppliers, professional associations, government resources and outside consultants. They provide more training per employee—29 vs. 27 hours per year—than the benchmark companies, and they spend a higher percentage of payroll—2.5 vs. 2.0 percent—on education and training.

Significantly, the seven standouts offer training to most, if not all, of their workforce. "That's important because some companies only train their executives," explains Stacey Wagner, director of the ASTD benchmarking forum.

Something for everyone

Southwest Airlines' University for People is a case in point. "'Developing leaders who make a difference,' is our tag line," says Dena Wilson, manager of facilitation and administration at the Dallas-based university. "All newly promoted leaders attend the university, ideally within 60 days or so."

The management courses feature a customized blend of technical and leadership training. "Those in maintenance attend Tool Time, for instance, while in-flight and provisioning leaders—the people responsible for stocking the planes with snacks and goodies—take the InProv course."

Two years ago, the university launched its career development service, Wilson adds, "to encourage all employees to steer their career the way they want it to go." It met with almost instant success, and enrollment more than doubled from 1999 to 2000. The program features a full-day workshop focused on self-assessment and gaining a better understanding of your skills, values and key interests. Another component, dubbed No Sweat, coaches staff members in how to ace a job interview. Complementing it is a "day in the field" program that allows an interested employee to spend time at another department to get an idea of what working there entails.

Turning to technology

Southwest, like the six other firms cited for their top-notch training programs, makes frequent use of learning technologies—a catchall that includes everything from CD-ROM to interactive TV, multimedia and teleconferencing to what ASTD's Wagner calls "electronic performance support," often presented as a five-minute tutorial. "This can be delivered on the company Intranet or on a learning management system"—a sophisticated infrastructure that can also track who completed the training sessions, participants' skills and the courses they still need to take.

Often the choice of technology depends on the target audience. The Department of Defense, for instance, uses digital game-based learning for its young recruits, who grew up with computers and tend to get bored with traditional classroom instruction, according to Marc Prensky, CEO of and author of Digital Game-Based Learning.

At the other end of the age spectrum, however, employers may be passing up opportunities to use technology. In a 1998 survey of nearly 400 HR professionals conducted by SHRM and the AARP, less than half of the respondents said their companies provide training to upgrade the skills of older employees.

Only one in five thought older workers have a harder time grasping new concepts and just one in 20 said they're more costly to train, so what's the problem? Two out of three have the impression, but not necessarily any proof, that employees over 50 are more likely to be technophobes.


Helen Lippman. Top marks for employee training. Business and Health 2001;3:52.