Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Nick May works at Canada’s most valuable technology company, but he enjoys a level of autonomy usually reserved for startups with a “move fast and break things” ethos. May is the channels leadership co-ordinator at Shopify, a leadership support role reporting into Shopify’s director of retail. May is responsible for everything from scheduling meetings to helping track and co-ordinate projects for his team. But when he told his boss he’d like to improve the way Shopify onboards new employees—a task definitely not in his “job description”—he wasn’t just encouraged to develop a plan; he was given more than $5,000 to pursue the training he’d need to ensure it was a success.
“I wanted to help unify employee onboarding practices across different teams within the company,” says May, referring to the way in which Shopify helps new workers get the knowledge, training and support they need to do their jobs effectively. “I had good ideas about how to do that, but I wanted my work to be rooted in discipline—not going on a whim to create something.”
After speaking with colleagues, May determined he’d need to take courses in service design and user experience (UX) design if he was going to approach the problem systematically—disciplines he plotted out for himself in a kind of self-directed study plan. Through research, he found that UX training would help him explore ways of communicating important information to new employees through a single, simplified, online portal.
May shopped around for different schools and investigated scholarship opportunities before eventually choosing Cooper Professional Education for service design, and BrainStation for UX design. Then he laid out his case in a written brief and an in-person meeting with his boss, outlining how education funding would help him add measurable value to the business.
“My plan was approved in two days,” May recalls. “Now that I’ve graduated, I have new skills and frameworks I apply to things I do every day. On a personal level, it was a fantastic morale boost—I have increased confidence and fulfillment in my work. I feel very positive knowing my company is invested in me.”
The case for education funding
According to LinkedIn’s recent Workforce Learning Report, 94% of employees say they’d stay at a company longer if it invested in their education. And more than a quarter of Gen Z and Millennials said the number one reason they’d leave a job is due to a lack of opportunities to learn and grow.
Employer-funded training offers a true mutual benefit—a win-win—for companies and their employees, especially now that keeping up with new technologies is imperative to business and career growth in virtually every industry.
True, Shopify has $45 billion in market value and continuous learning built into its culture. But wherever you work, the arguments in favour of employer-funded learning are the same. If you’re ready to learn new skills but aren’t sure how to approach your company for funding, here are a few tips bound to dramatically improve your chances.
Begin with the bottom line
How you frame your request for education dollars is crucial. As an employee, it’s natural to view your company as a vehicle to help you grow your personal career goals. But the truth is, you’ll get better results if you start by asking: “What’s in it for my employer?”
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is by regularly meeting and setting goals with your manager.
“If you’re asked to do something on the job that you don’t feel you have the skills to succeed in, bring it up with your manager,” says Sarah Tran, a social media specialist at Toronto-based ad agency Skylar Media. “That’s a place where you can build a skill set.”
Tran and her colleague Katelyn Merza were hired by Skylar Media before the company underwent a period of growth that more than doubled its employee headcount. “As the agency’s first strategist, I used to wear a lot of hats,” said Merza. “My boss and I mapped out a direction for me based on where the agency was going. After that, it was easy to see why my training was valuable to the business—and to our clients.”
Tran and Merza pursued part-time digital marketing and strategy and planning bootcamps at Toronto’s Miami Ad School. The intensive 12-week training programs cost $7,500 and $9,000, respectively. According to Merza, it was money well spent. “I learned how different departments are structured at other agencies, and I learned what a strategy team at Skylar could look like,” she said. Her advice to others: “Come prepared with a list of benefits for your company. It’s hard for an employer to argue against that.”
Merza just graduated, but, as a result of her training, she already has a concrete plan for increasing Skylar’s revenue next year. “The project management techniques I learned are going to help me speed up internal processes, so we can spend less time on administration and more time on client work,” she said. In Merza’s case, the value of employer-funded training can literally be measured in billable hours.
Shop ahead of time
Of course, you’ll need to account for costs, not only benefits, to determine your return on investment. Another way to show your employer you’re serious about the bottom line is to present a variety of training options at different prices.
“In my written brief, I included the cost of the courses I wanted to take, plus a few other similar courses I could take at a lower cost,” says Nick May. To that, he added a list of discounts and special offers, like a $500 scholarship he qualified for at one of the learning institutions.
In addition to scholarships, you should consider presenting relevant government grants or corporate tax incentives available to help employers cover the cost of skills training.
The Canada Job Grant, for example, covers two-thirds of training costs up to $10,000 per eligible employee. It also offers companies up to $15,000 to hire and train new workers. Coupled with a compelling summary of how training will improve the value you bring to your work, the right grant could all but guarantee you the opportunity to pursue a free education.
Finally, investigate schools’ payment terms, including deferred tuition plans and group rates for corporate training, which may lower upfront tuition costs and bolster your case with your employer.
Draft a learning plan
One of the greatest obstacles to securing training dollars, and to lifelong learning in general, is figuring out how to fit education into an already busy schedule.
That’s why Merza suggests going to your boss with a plan. “Know which course you want and how it’s going to affect your work schedule,” she insists. That means identifying where there might be conflicts before you pitch your employer.
An effective learning plan won’t only help you reach your goals more quickly; it will allay concerns about how training will affect your work, while reinforcing the business benefits of education. Here’s what a plan might include for someone who, for example, wants to learn how to manage a team of software developers:
- Name of the learner and a learning supervisor
- Learning objectives (e.g., to learn agile project management)
- How learning will take place (e.g., online courses on LinkedIn Learning and in-class training at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies)
- When learning will take place (e.g., Thursdays from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for eight weeks)
- Time-bound learning outcomes (e.g. to get certified in agile project management; learn and implement techniques like Scrum and Kanban; restructure software teams; and reduce the time it takes to ship new products by 10% within six months)
- Additional resources and support needed (e.g., textbooks, study aids, weekly meetings with the learning supervisor to review progress)
How you and your manager format your plan is up to you. What matters most is that everyone is clear about the purpose and expected outcomes of your education.
A word about “learning contracts”—and loyalty
You’ve framed your education in terms of your company’s bottom line, shopped for the highest-ROI training opportunities, identified grants and corporate tax incentives for which you might be eligible, and all the while maintained a productive dialogue with your boss about the knowledge and skills you’ll need to grow and produce value in your role.
If you’re concerned that isn’t enough, there’s one more thing you can do to beat resistance: Assure your employer you won’t quit after graduation.
One way to do this is to sign a “learning contract.” At leading global firms, where competition for talent is fierce, top performers are routinely reimbursed for MBAs, management courses and sales training. But in exchange for upwards of sometimes $100,000 in tuition at Ivy League business schools, for example, employees at the Googles, Apples and Deloittes of the world must agree to work at their firms for one or two years after they graduate. Loyalty, in other words, is something you can leverage.
You might consider drafting a learning contract of your own, if a coveted degree is available to you in exchange for several years of service to a company you’re passionate about. Obviously, your employer’s contribution should equal your commitment—and you should never rush into an arrangement without carefully considering long-term career goals and the ROI on your education plan.
For shorter educational journeys, a learning contract isn’t necessary.
“Miami Ad School is designed to help graduates get recruited,” said Merza. “My boss and I had an open and honest conversation about this. It helped that I communicated loyalty, but promising to come back wasn’t a condition.”
Here’s an employer who gets it. Continuous learning isn’t just a job perk, or part of a winning recruitment and retention strategy; it’s simply what it takes to compete in an economy that’s rapidly adopting new technologies.
As Henry Ford famously said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”
Robert Furtado is the CEO of CourseCompare, Canada’s marketplace for education. Robert is a former marketing agency executive and instructor at the Humber School of Media Studies. He created CourseCompare to make it easier for people to identify and pursue in-demand skills across Canada and beyond.