Very early in my career, one of my former employers quietly offered its staffers the opportunity to sign up for an online course to learn Python. The company was paying for it, yes, but there was little information about the time commitment or what a person could do if they actually learned Python. Needless to say, I did not sign up for the course, and I do not know Python. Cue Marlon Brando:“I coulda been a contender!”
My personal regrets aside, Rebekah Rombom, the chief business development officer at Flatiron School, said this is the wrong way to go about offering education to workers. The Flatiron School has made a name for itself over the past decade by training and retraining professionals in software engineering, data science, product design and cybersecurity — some of the most in-demand skills in the tech industry today.
For Rombom, who works with Flatiron's corporate partners, the secret to getting employees to upskill, reskill and engage with education benefits is all about providing awareness and setting expectations. In today’s competitive market for tech talent, offering education benefits is a critical way to retain and promote the best employees. Rombom spoke with Protocol about the current landscape of education benefits and what HR managers should consider when deploying these programs.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How has the demand for training to upskill and reskill employees shifted over the past two to three years?
What we see companies really wanting to do is either supercharge employee engagement across different sub-goals — recruit, retain, engage, increase employee satisfaction — or fill in-demand roles in the targeted way. These technical roles that we train for are some of the hardest to fill [and the] most competitive in the market, with a wide gap between talent supply and employer demand. And in addition to companies who are looking for ways to engage and retain their employees, we've also seen companies say, “Hey, I have these really hard-to-fill roles, and are there folks internally that could be repositioned?”
What are you seeing in terms of the amount of time and support that companies are allowing for their employees to grasp difficult subjects?
We have coaches and instructors who work directly with students, both one-on-one and in small groups and in a class setting. And their job is to help folks navigate through the material in whatever way will help them grasp it best … And so for an organization, a lot of companies have seen a ton of value in that. You can give your employees content, but if you're really looking to make a transformational change, part of that experience is often a guide, a coach and instructor to help you through understanding the content.
We have been running a program in partnership with Amazon where we are retraining warehouse associates for careers in software engineering and cybersecurity. The first round of that program wrapped up late last year with over 270 graduates, warehouse associates that now have the skills to start careers in cybersecurity or software engineering. These are folks with full-time jobs. All of those graduates I just mentioned worked full-time hours at an Amazon facility, so we had to structure a program in partnership with Amazon that would work for those people's lives.
It was 10 months, part-time learning that folks could fit into their work schedule. It had both a large self-driven component where there's content you can access at any time and instructor support that was flexible and could work with your schedule. So things like lectures you could pop in to and conversations with peers and teachers. I think that's one of the benefits of working with an organization that does this.
We've seen students already start their new cybersecurity and software engineering careers, both inside and outside of Amazon, which is really exciting.
What do you tell executives who are weighing the pros and cons and the reality that once you arm people with new skills, they might not stay?
I think it depends on the company's goals. So for a company that's looking to attract, engage and retain over a couple-year period, retraining frontline workers for new skills and then giving an opportunity to path into a new job at the company, or start their new career elsewhere, might be a really good option. For a company that's looking to in a very targeted way transition existing employees into high-demand roles inside that company, we would recommend a different kind of program, something that's maybe smaller and more tailored to the technical skills specifically at that organization.
What are some best practices that HR managers should consider to make sure employees are engaging with their education benefits and also finishing the program?
One thing is awareness and inviting people into the experience. We’ve worked with a lot of students over the years who have really different backgrounds than what has traditionally been considered a technology worker. So inviting folks in to participate in the tech workforce I think is one really important part, and making folks aware that these pathways exist.
And then [No. 2] is expectation-setting. This experience is hard and requires dedication. It's pretty uncomfortable to learn an entirely new set of skills that you don't have, and it requires openness and vulnerability and a lot of hard work. Making people aware of that in the beginning profoundly helps set them on a productive course through something that's going to be kind of a bumpy ride. When we're engaging in these conversations, organizations already know that they're going to need to identify the time and get manager support, and I think that's what HR and learning and development teams tend to be really good at.