Fortune 100 companies like General Electric and AT&T can spend in excess of $1 billion a year on employee training programs. As a small- to mid-sized business, you most certainly don't have that kind of budget but investment in your employee's ongoing training and development shouldn't be any less important.

"The statistics show that the average American will work for 5 or 6 companies in their lifetime," says Jefferson Flanders, President and CEO of MindEdge, a Boston-based provider of corporate, continuing and higher education. "It's vital that employees continue to learn, and certainly for those under age 40 with the number of employers and potentially the number of different industries they will work in, the ability to adapt and learn is one of the most important factors in long-term career success."

A recent Louis Harris and Associates poll reports among employees with poor training opportunities, 41 percent planned to leave within a year. Only 12 percent planned to leave among those who considered their company's training opportunities to be excellent, resulting in a retention rate more than two-thirds higher. Many people assume that once employees are trained, they are more likely to leave the company for greener pastures, but actually, the opposite is true: trained staff are happier and more likely to stay put. Additionally, notes Sharon Jordan-Evans, a leading authority on career issues in the workplace and author of Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay, career development is still the No. 1 factor in employee retention.

But how can you make sure your company is doing it right? This guide will cover how best to implement a continuing education program, from the creation of corporate universities to partnering with local colleges and the benefits of tuition reimbursement.

How to Implement a Continuing Education Program: Corporate Universities

The 1990s and early years of the 2000s saw the rise of in-house, corporate-sponsored universities using a formal curriculum to develop and re-skill a global workforce. Corporate universities enable firms to customize management development to address the unique challenges of their business and industry. As Jeanne Meister reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001, of the 100 most successful corporate universities, 60 percent outsource course design to higher education. The literature is full of examples of partnerships that created mutually beneficial education programs. And when partnering works, corporations gain educated workers and higher education fulfills its mission and maintains academic integrity.

A corporate university, according to Wikipedia, "is any educational entity that is a strategic tool designed to assist its parent organization in achieving its goals by conducting activities that foster individual and organizational learning and knowledge." But don't confuse a corporate university with a training department. Training departments are often reactionary and fragmented, created to serve a larger audience with an array of open enrollment programs. A corporate university, on the other hand, pulls together all learning in an organization by managing education as a business project.

Dig Deeper: Corporate Universities for Small Companies

How to Implement a Continuing Education Program: Local University Continuing Education Departments

Local universities have long offered continuing education programs, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison starting the first such track in 1907. Typically, they offer a variety of personal and professional education opportunities in a variety of formats for adult learners, while also providing career and educational advising for adults considering a career change or going back to school. There is often an overarching academic focus on "practical" or professional and career-focused study, responsiveness to changing educational needs arising within regional economies, and a commitment to broad access. Higher education and employers can benefit from working with each other to maximize human capital, but it is a collaboration that requires flexibility and goodwill on everyone's part.

There are plenty of options when it comes to local universities and how you as a business can partner with them. While full-time programs will take less time, recent years have seen a rise in night courses and online-only learning. This provides employers with a chance to promote their employees receiving higher education and new learning while also maintaining a fairly normal work schedule. The key though, is showing support and understanding for your employees as they seek this additional training.

"Online training allows the ability for learners to access the coursework at their own convenience and their own pace, allowing for 24/7 access and a higher level of accountability" says Flanders. "Because unlike face-to-face training where a learner can be present physically but perhaps not mentally, most effective online training or education will have built-in assessments to challenge the learner to demonstrate understanding of the content as they progress."

If you don't necessarily see the need for your employees to receive a traditional MBA or secondary degree, you can opt for programs that include issuance of a certificate or continuing education units (CEU) to document attendance at a particular course. Typically, CEUs will be awarded at one unit for every 10 hours of coursework, providing employers with documentation of completion for employees who are enrolled in non-credit training courses.

Dig Deeper: How to Start an Online Training Program

How to Implement a Continuing Education Program: Certification Instructors

Rather than investing in a full-blown corporate education program, you can look more at gaining individualized certification for your employees, based on their specific areas of expertise.

"I think the most important thing is to start with the outcomes," says Flanders. "What is it you're trying to accomplish? If you're talking about project managers, and you're looking to ensure that there is a common language and methodology in the way that projects are run, you might very well turn to the project management institute and get professional certification for your project managers."

Whether you are looking to upgrade skills in your staff's current field or for training in a whole new area, professional certificates can help employees take that next step on their career track.  Programs are often designed with the needs of working adults in mind, with evening and weekend class sessions and at a moderate cost.  A good resource for training is found on the American Society of Training and Development's website while a thorough list of some of the standard certification certificates you can obtain through a local university or in-house is provided by Duke University. Providing training opportunities communicates that your work force is valuable and that your organization is willing to invest in them.

For example, a Certified Management Accountant or CMA is often an indication to an employer that their employee will provide a higher level of analysis as they approach accounting tasks. In the information technology field, there are a lot of certifications you can request employees to obtain, but it truly depends upon the organization.

Dig Deeper: Creating Your Own Company University

How to Implement a Continuing Education Program: Tuition Reimbursement

Perhaps the most well-discussed part of any continuing education program, tuition reimbursement has been around for years and shows a clear financial commitment to your employees. If the area of study includes essential skills of your job, the employer will often cover part if not all of the cost. In recent years as the economy has taken a hit, many tuition reimbursement plans have been cut back, but as a company it remains a major key to have those options available to your employees.

Tuition reimbursement programs are generally offered to employees with at least one year of service, are usually considered a fringe benefit by the IRS and are usually taxable income for the employee. Before implementing a program at your company, the best things to consider are these questions, as noted best by Sharon Anne Waldrop in The Everything Human Resource Management Book:

  • Do the classes have to be job related?
  • How many classes are eligible for reimbursement each semester?
  • Does the employee need to receive a specific grade to qualify?
  • Will reimbursement be at 100 percent?
  • Will paid time off to attend classes be offered?
  • Is there a cap on how many semesters an employee may participate?
  • Will the benefit be offered to employees earning higher than a bachelors degree?

Tuition assistance is a powerful benefit. And sometimes the benefit is completely at the discretion of the manager; so even if you don't have a hard policy in place, listen to your employees. Even companies that don't offer college tuition assistance may permit other kinds of learning. Other companies have strict policies that outline how much they'll pay and how they'll pay it (e.g., 75 percent for degree and certificate programs, up to $3,000 per associate per calendar year, or 50 percent for personal growth and development coursework, up to $1,000 per associate per calendar year), using the institution's tuition deferral policy as the preferred method. It really is up to you as a business owner.

Regardless of how you plan to make continued education a part of your business growth, you need to do it. Investing in your employees is one of the best ways to show you care about them personally. As Ben Franklin once said, "an investment in education always pays the highest returns."

Dig Deeper: Tuition Assistance Programs