What defines a ‘highly successful’ learning program?

As a new era of artificial intelligence tools dawns, more employers seek the benefits of learning programs to ensure their workforces can meet the coming challenges. But with options for L&D broadening, what does a solid investment look like in practice?

UpSkill America and i4cp, a research organization focused on human capital, attempted to answer this question by looking at three of the biggest areas of upskilling: internal programming, apprenticeships or work-and-learn programs, and tuition assistance or reimbursement.

The study, published March 12, focused on the impact of these programs on front-line workers — those who may be especially vulnerable as AI potentially transforms a significant number of jobs

The report uses a definition of “front-line worker” devised by McKinsey & Co., stating that front-line workers are generally hourly workers who earn less than $22 per hour. UpSkill America and i4cp surveyed “hundreds of employers across the U.S” of varying sizes and industries; the report was, in part, funded by Walmart, which has an employee development program of its own.

Generally, the report posits that employers face both internal and external pressures to offer better L&D, including demand from workers, labor shortages that affect necessary strategies, and real threats to organizational viability posed by a poorly trained workforce. The most successful programs overall centered workers’ needs, the report said — and many employers are still on a journey of improvement.

“While there are bright spots in our survey findings, many survey respondents indicated that they did not feel their upskilling programs were successfully meeting stated objectives,” the report said. “There are many opportunities for improvements across the board.

For example, less than one-third of survey respondents (30%) said they believe their current front-line workforce has the skills needed to meet the demands of the business in the next five years.

While the report leans away from using “best practices” as a term, noting that the report is limited in its scope, it does provide examples of employers finding success with each of the models below.

Internal education and training programs 

These programs are what employers may consider the usual in-house L&D, designed to support employee skill development for advancement within the organization. A majority of survey respondents (72%) offered formal internal education and training programs.

What makes them successful? Successful in-house L&D focused on a mix of communication, technical skills, interpersonal skills and critical thinking, the report said, while less successful programs focused only on teamwork and specific technology skills.

“This aligns with recent research from the World Economic Forum showing that cognitive skills, like analytical and creative thinking, self-efficacy, and working with others, are in highest demand,” the report said.

To see further success, employers should prioritize front-line workers in their L&D programs — both workers and managers — and focus on both hard and soft skills, according to the report. Employers may also want to consider recognizing employees who finish internal programs with some sort of credential, the report noted, meaning learning may need to be codified across an organization more formally.

“Proactive connection of internal training to further education through credit for training is still a marginal practice but is aligned to more successful programs,” the report said.

While employers report being interested in offering some form of credentialing, many are unsure how to assess their quality, a separate study from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association said. And even industries that are in dire need of skilled workers struggle to adopt credentialing models.

Apprenticeship and work-and-learn

Apprenticeship programs are defined in the report both as those registered officially with the U.S. Department of Labor and independent programs, termed “work-and-learns.” These models tend to blend both on-the-job learning and classroom instruction or technical training. Approximately 1 in 3 respondents said they are running an apprenticeship or work-and-learn, the report said.

What makes them successful? Respondents that found the most success with apprenticeships followed the tenets of the federal government’s Registered Apprenticeship program even if their programs weren’t officially registered, the report said. That means offering competitive pay, skilled supervision and a great deal of learning on the job in combination with technical learning. 

The report also recommended leaning into the hire-to-train approach. One respondent said in the survey that their organization saw “tremendous improvement” in retention for workers hired through apprenticeship versus external hires in similar roles.

The Biden administration has focused on supporting and expanding the Registered Apprenticeship system by reducing barriers to access, especially for programs that lead into federal jobs, meaning apprenticeship has garnered some momentum of late.

Tuition assistance programs

Tuition support programs are typically seen as the “traditional” way employers provide employee higher education. Employees enroll with a college, university or training organization and obtain a highly-recognized credential, such as a degree or certificate; 70% of employers surveyed said they offer tuition assistance.

What makes them successful? This model has garnered considerable attention in recent years. Employers with large numbers of front-line workers began offering a form of tuition assistance in the mid 2010s, noteworthy since such programs historically have been associated with white collar or office jobs. 

Walmart, which funded the study, has its own version of this model with its Live Better U program. The company recently revamped the program to lean more into internal hiring. Other companies, such as Chipotle, Target and PepsiCo, offer similar programming run through third-party partners.

Highly successful models tend to curate employee experiences with their education partners, the report said, as well as ensure there is a safety net in place to help employees make decisions regarding their education and future.