There's an unspoken burden that affects millions of Americans, and it's not going away. In fact, the burden of student loan debt is increasing. While almost everyone is pained to see the average graduate take on $37,172 in student debt, it seems like student debt has become a part of life.

There are real consequences to this dynamic. Those with bachelor's degrees take nearly 20 years to pay off their debt; and those who've earned more advanced degrees take 23 years to make their final payment. With so much at stake, why would people continue to take on such debt? It's done with an eye on their long-term earning potential: Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce anticipates that 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020.

This data suggests that student debt is basically a requisite for career advancement. What isn't being highlighted is the fact that student debt impacts the job market and employee retention. Companies are starting to realize this, and they're starting to become part of the solution.

How student loans affect employers

The Washington Post found that student debt influences not just people's jobs, but also their ability to pursue other life goals. Many delay purchasing a house, starting a family or contributing to retirement accounts because of student debt. Subconsciously or not, this impacts our decisions as part of the workforce. It affects which jobs we take, or worse, which paths we can't afford to pursue. 

Leaders who run small businesses also feel the burn. More than half of the working population works for small businesses, where employees are often expected to wear more than one hat or are called to make a disproportionate impact to their income. In these cases, turnover increases and affects the business. With 78 percent of leaders identifying employee retention as important or urgent, they can't afford to overlook the factors that cause employees to leave, or oppositely, to settle and become disengaged with their work.

We are most certainly in a period when differentiating factors take on greater importance. In October, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 percent, its lowest figure in nearly 50 years. Leaders who need talent can't rely on once-trendy perks. They must take a second look at their benefits, or more importantly, the benefit they are missing.

Solving Two Problems with One Solution

Higher pay and insurance premiums are two financial playing fields that employers are familiar with when it comes to benefits. Helping employees tackle student loan debt, however, is a new financial landscape that forward-thinking leaders are exploring, and it enables them to help justify the expense of earning the very degrees that helped their employees snag their jobs.

An American Student Assistance survey revealed that 86 percent of employees would commit to their employers for five years if they received help from their employers in paying off their student loans. With Millennials changing jobs every three years -- or at a rate twice that of non-Millennials -- five-year stints would be a boon to growing companies.

But these kinds of programs can help employees beyond the Millennial generation as well. Employees between the ages of 45 and 74, not Millennials, carry the highest student debt load. Some of this has to do with delayed payments or exorbitant interest rates, but much of it stems from people financing their children's or grandchildren's educations in lieu of paying down their debt.

Addressing this overlooked issue

Laurel Taylor, the founder and CEO of FutureFuel.io, a SaaS platform connecting employers, employees, and student loan servicers in a quest to crush student debt, has seen this firsthand. She reports that engagement among those 55 and over is higher than most employers anticipate.

"Eighty percent of our customers understand the need to cut down on long-term interest payments, but they don't have the means to start with repayment," Taylor explained. She said that many are funding others' educations instead of paying down their debt or funding their own retirement, while struggling younger employees are focused on paying rent and loan payments, not making an investment in their long-term goals.

Taylor's platform is working to meet the increased demand from employers, and some companies are already working to establish debt relief efforts. Penguin Random House reimburses employees for student loan payments and PricewaterhouseCoopers provides $1,200 toward student loan payments annually, with a maximum of $10,000 in subsidies.

These are great examples of how employers can become part of the solution that much of the workforce badly needs: paying down their student debt. In doing so, these companies can present an appealing benefit that impacts their present and future.

Final Word

Student debt loads have gotten out of hand, and everyone agrees something should be done. Business leaders -- those who benefit from the degrees that have brought about these debt burdens -- could be just the people to change how we approach loan fatigue. Not only will they help employees, but they could also see employees stick around longer  -- and make a much bigger impact.

Published on: Dec 14, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.