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Could your employees benefit from a ‘learning sabbatical’?

15 Jun 2020

Learn In’s David Blake and Yael Gilboa Kaufmann discuss how companies can help staff with upskilling.

An important way to prepare for the future of work is upskilling your staff, which can build knowledge in your teams, save on recruitment costs and contribute to employee wellness. But how can companies achieve this, especially in the current period of uncertainty?

Learn In is an upskilling-as-a-service platform launched earlier this year that pairs education, training and development for employees with company sabbaticals. I spoke to Learn In CEO David Blake and COO Yael Gilboa Kaufmann about approaches employers can take to upskilling their staff.

‘For it to really work, companies need to build in a perpetual pipeline of upskilling’

Why is now an important time to focus on upskilling employees?

Blake: In February 2020, when unemployment [in the US] was at half-century lows of 3.5pc and the spectre of mass technological automation loomed large, employers were doubling down on investments in education and training in response to rapid shifts in the world of work.

Emergence of new technologies was creating unprecedented pressures to upskill and reskill workers. Old-school approaches to attracting and retaining workers were no longer working in the zero-sum war for talent and the shelf life of skills was shrinking.

Today, as the grim reality of downsizing and cost-cutting sets in, half of [US] companies are considering layoffs, one in three are freezing new hires and businesses around the world are announcing furloughs. Across the economy, some layoffs are required to mitigate the immediate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Others are anticipatory in nature, reflecting a well-founded pullback on expenses now to mitigate future risk. These layoffs may not only be unnecessary, but also potentially detrimental to employers – a missed opportunity to develop a competitive advantage in preparing for the future of work.

Image of man in white shirt, smiling and leaning on a countertop.

David Blake. Image: Learn In

Do employers have a responsibility for upskilling, or should it all be up to the employee?

Gilboa Kaufmann: It is in employers’ self-interest to work to upskill their employees. Several studies have found that upskilling an internal employee is more economically compelling than hiring externally.

In Rethinking the Build versus Buy Approach to Talent, Josh Bersin highlights that the hiring costs of a mid-level software engineer can be north of $30,000, and that reskilling an internal employee can save a company as much as $116,000 over three years, per person.

But, ultimately, as the average job tenure continues to get shorter and shorter and the mandate for lifelong learning increases, it’s up to each of us to be the owner of our learning and skills.

Are there any online tools or sites you recommend for upskilling?

Gilboa Kaufmann: Particular training providers include Podium Education, Flatiron, Western Governors University and Foundry College, depending on the type and level of skills. But each are fantastic examples of innovative skill providers.

What mistakes should employers and employees try to avoid when upskilling?

Gilboa Kaufmann: For upskilling to really work, companies have to build in that capacity. Otherwise, you’re just stealing from Joe to give to Jane. If you turn a customer support representative into a Salesforce administrator, you now have to hire another customer support rep.

If upskilling is seen as a one-off event, it yields some improvements, but just leaves the organisation with a different hole to fill. For it to really work, companies need to build in a perpetual pipeline of upskilling.

Image of woman in a pink shirt standing outside.

Yael Gilboa Kaufmann. Image: Learn In

What are some innovative upskilling approaches companies can consider?

Blake: Companies tend to think of managing their workforce as a binary on/off switch: hire and fire. But there is a bold third option that drives more value for employers, improves long-term prospects for employees and could save the economy from the worst version of a recession.

In periods of uncertainty, rapid transformation or a sudden downturn, learning leave can be used to support the workforce. A learning leave is a sabbatical paired with education, development, a training programme or some other initiative intended to facilitate professional growth.

It can range from a few days to a few months or longer, vary from fully paid to unpaid, and serve different business objectives. Some companies have built these programmes to fill their own skills gaps, while others have used them as a tool to make good on a ‘no layoffs’ policy.

Some approaches to learning leaves include:

  • Buffer, which offers employees 50pc of their salary for a 12-week learning sabbatical supervised by a manager with regular check-ins
  • Deloitte, where employees can take a three to six-month sabbatical to pursue career development opportunities while receiving 40pc of their salary
  • Intel, which offers four or eight-week sabbaticals and tuition reimbursement of up to $50,000 per programme with no annual limit
  • Large banks such as Goldman Sachs, consulting firms such as McKinsey and other employers that sponsor employees to attend full-time MBA programmes following some number of years of employment, and in exchange for some number of years of employment to follow

In an era where education programmes were slower, more expensive and often site-based, potential for the model may have been limited. Today, more low-cost training options are available than ever before with the rise of online education.

A plethora of high-quality, low-cost education options are broadly available from university-affiliated massively open online courses such as EdX and Coursera, and self-directed online resources such as FreeCodeCamp, to intensive skill bootcamps such as General Assembly that are also available online.

These learning options now make a learning sabbatical of any duration something that can be paired with a meaningful upskilling opportunity.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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