Supporting Employee Learning Strengthens the Corporation from WithinKaren Kocher | Chief Learning Officer, Cigna
Ongoing learning presents a number of advantages for professionals in today’s labor market, but some employers tend to be concerned that investing in ongoing education will lead employees to gain a credential and pursue employment elsewhere. Cigna participated in a recent study on the value of employee education with Lumina Foundation and, in this interview, Karen Kocher takes on that assumption and reflects on how her organization benefits from its commitment to supporting ongoing employee education. She also shares her thoughts on the challenges employers can face finding postsecondary partners with whom to work.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How valid is the concern that providing tuition reimbursement will lead employees to leverage their education to find a better position elsewhere?
Karen Kocher (KK): It’s a valid concern if the organization offering tuition reimbursement doesn’t make it part of a more holistic set of services and solutions. We’ve put our tuition reimbursement program together as part of a more comprehensive process. We offer an advisory service, for example, where we encourage one-on-one relationships between an advisor and an employee interested in tuition reimbursement so they can explore what is really the best area to pursue, what will appeal to their passion, and what will most likely align with the type of career they’re interested in. Then the advisor works with people throughout Cigna to make sure they can connect the individual to opportunities as their degree, certificate or certification process process evolves.
When you make the process comprehensive the likelihood that a person is going to get the degree and leave is minimized because it helps them pursue their education within the context of the organization. When you don’t have a good process or opportunities for internal movement, a person might look externally after earning their degree. We do everything we can to connect the person with internal opportunities.
Evo: How do corporations benefit from offering generous tuition reimbursement programs?
KK: I think that we benefit from our tuition reimbursement program in a lot of ways. One of the more obvious benefits is we have a strategic talent planning process, so that we know the talent requirements we need to be able to deliver on our business strategy. It usually includes a set of focused areas that require a pipeline of individuals we either don’t have enough of or don’t have any of at Cigna.
For example, many years ago we recognized the need to build much more robust capability in data analytics and informatics. We started to work very purposefully on building a pipeline of individuals that would have the necessary knowledge and skills in time for us to use it to best fit our business strategy. This is the kind of thing you can do with tuition reimbursement—if you identify the degrees or the certifications that are really necessary, you can begin to work with people proactively to pursue them. This not only helps the company deliver that pipeline, which is needed for business strategy, but also helps individuals gain opportunities to pursue new and different career fields that will keep them employable, engaged and passionate.
The company and the individual get a lot out of that. The company gets talent that is needed for the organization, and the individual gets longer-term employment. Employees also get reenergized and more engaged. You get a lot that is necessary for both the employee and the organization out of tuition reimbursement.
Evo: How important is continuing education not just in terms of being able to move up but in terms of staying apprised of what’s going on in their particular field?
KK: More than ever, continuing education is absolutely essential. It’s necessary to remain a continuous learner and to always be acquiring greater knowledge, as well as new and more advanced skills as they evolve.
The pace of change has become so unbelievably significant that, now more than ever, if you don’t stay up to date—whether it’s your chosen field or in other fields as they’re evolving in order to potentially pursue something new and different—you fall behind. You become so outdated and outmoded so quickly that it would become incredibly difficult for someone to maintain a good level of employability.
I would say it’s absolutely critical to continuously learn, and it doesn’t have to be a degree. The assumption that a degree is the most important credential can be misguided, and that’s one thing we emphasize with our tuition reimbursement. Yes, degrees are important and in some cases necessary but they’re not the answer in all cases. In some cases, certificates, certifications or professional designations are really what might be the appropriate answer in order to get the necessary knowledge and skills. The best credential depends on what you’re after.
Evo: What are some of the challenges you face in convincing employees to take advantage of tuition reimbursement programs?
KK: In the return of investment work that we did with Accenture and Lumina we identified very clearly three primary areas of concern that we have taken some actions to address:
The first one was time. Employees very clearly said they do not participate because they just don’t have the time. They’re busy with work, family or friends and they just can’t fit in something that takes so much additional time. Because of that, we began to work more aggressively on our advisory services to really help people better understand how they could plan their time. People actually have more time than they think they do—it’s almost like a personal budget where you think you don’t spend a lot of money on extraneous things but then a financial advisor sits down and shows you how money can just flow into places that aren’t particularly important. We show people the same thing with their time. This makes the advisors critical in helping people find the time if indeed they have the desire to pursue additional learning.
Second, we learned that people have a really difficult time paying for their education upfront. Most tuition reimbursement programs are designed so that the student pays the school or the certification organization, and then they are reimbursed once they get the grades or otherwise meet the requirements of the reimbursement program. A lot of employees don’t have the kind of cash reserves it would take to pay the upfront cost. As a result, we worked with our partner schools to get them to agree that they will wait to accept payment from Cigna employees until after they have been reimbursed. Employees now pay the bill at the very end of the process as opposed to the very beginning of the process, which helps more people have the opportunity to participate.
Lastly, we learned that people just don’t know what to do—what degree they should pursue, what certification should they pursue, what will help them with their long term employability objectives. That’s where the advisory services once again kicks in. The advisor knows what the future of the workforce looks like and what types of careers will be important in the next five to ten years. They also know what Cigna needs from a strategic talent planning standpoint. The advisor can give some coaching to the employee about what they should pursue and what school might be the best one to work with. It makes this process a lot easier and more understandable for the employee.
Evo: Why did Cigna choose to partner with Straighterline to help employees get their degree programs started?
KK: We decided to work with Straighterline for a couple of reasons. The first one goes back to the issue our employees raised about the cost of education. We are very anxious to make sure employees can get the degrees, certifications or designations they’re interested in without having to put a lot of time and money into the process. We went looking for a way to make sure they could satisfy their freshmen and sophomore requirements in a way that was as inexpensive as possible while maintaining a high standard of quality.
We found Straighterline and liked that they offered ways to satisfy those freshmen and sophomore requirements very easily, conveniently and inexpensively. Most importantly, they’ve already built the bridge to facilitate credit transfer from their programs to a lot of universities. For our employees, this meant satisfying the requirements of having their credits applied to whatever degree program interested them most across all of our partner schools. Being able to do all that with little to no expense on their part is really a “good news story” for them.
Evo: What are some of the challenges institutions face in working with individual institutional partners?
KK: Working with numerous individual institutions partners presents a similar set of challenges and opportunities to working with any grouping of entities. Everybody has their own way of doing things— they have their own contract documents, they have their own terms and conditions that they’re used to, they each have different perceptions of “the norm” that they’ve gotten into with other companies with whom they’re partnered. When you first reach out as a corporation looking to establish a tuition reimbursement partnership, it isn’t uncommon to find that the school is interested in setting up something more like what they’ve set up with others. This means it may not include unique elements we like to offer, for example the opportunity for Cigna employees to pay after they’ve received their reimbursement.
Every time you form an agreement you have to start from the beginning—we have to express our needs and our requirements given what we learned from our own return on investment studies. Then we need to listen to the partner schools and hear what it is that they’re most interested in to satisfy their needs and requirements. Then we need to see if we can come to a mutually beneficial outcome.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value that employers gain from creating access to tuition reimbursement for employees?
KK: I would like to highlight a few of the conclusions we found from the return on investment study we did with the Lumina Foundation and Accenture. It shows that the three biggest benefits for Cigna from offering our robust tuition reimbursement program are retention, upward mobility of employees and improved access to opportunities for employees. That’s been a really good set of positive outcomes for the company as well for our employees.
The other benefit is that our approach helps the employee from an employability standpoint because our focus is on helping everybody understand what the future workforce is going to require. They can begin to pattern their knowledge and skill attainment on those expectations and insights. Regardless of your current position, our employees know about the more valuable opportunities that are likely going to be available in the future and will feel well prepared and qualified to pursue those. Cigna gets a pipeline we need, and the employee gets the ongoing employability that is of interest to most people. It really is such a win-win situation for everybody, so that’s what I would say would be the primary reasons why we invest so much time and money into it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about the Lumina Foundation’s findings on the value of corporate education, please click here to download Talent Investments Pay Off.