Is learning, development and training a true employee benefit or a business necessity dressed up as a perk? Helen Swire investigates

Learning

Any employer worth their salt will ensure that their employees are trained to do their jobs effectively. So when bosses say their ‘new perk’ is training, can it really be defined as a benefit?

“Training is delivered to enable the employee to undertake their job. Learning is the process and development is what’s achieved. They’re not the same thing,” says Hesketh Emden, formerly head of training at NHS Property Services, and speaker at the 2015 World of Learning conference.

“You would expect to be trained to do your job, so it’s not a perk, it’s a benefit to the business. But if an employer puts the right training infrastructure in place from the business perspective – it can still be a benefit for the individuals.”

So how can learning and development be couched alongside standard workplace training as a benefit?

The good news is that it is regarded as valuable and important for career progression by staff themselves, with surveys indicating – perhaps unsurprisingly – that they want training, career development and promotion from their work.

A recent survey from Lansons, supporting the launch of Britain at Work, revealed that 28% of British workers don’t feel that their manager is committed to helping them develop in their career, while nearly half (48%) see little opportunity to progress, and a fifth only have poor training opportunities.

Such findings clearly show training not only plays an important development role, but also has a role to play in fostering engagement, too.

“It can help people develop their own future. If the employer can help with that, then they can benefit as much as the staff member,” says James Malia, managing director of P&MM Employee Benefits.

Exchange of ideas

But assuming learning and development is used alongside internal training, rather than replacing it, how can it be put in place as an employee benefit?

“The formal implementation of development could be providing courses, or a fixed amount of money per year for training,” says Professor Vlatka Hlupic, professor of business and management at Westminster Business School. “It’s the traditional way and still very much needed.” She adds: “The other angle is to develop a learning culture informally: to embody it in the organisational culture, where knowledge creation and sharing can be done in different ways.”

Companies are coming to realise that innovation springs from developing a culture where employees use social media and informal meetings to exchange ideas and share knowledge, and they are increasingly providing opportunities for interaction, both formally and informally.

Emden also champions this approach to knowledge sharing: “Evolving a learning culture can be very beneficial, but it’s hard to get there. Employees need to be helped to take control of their own development and recognise that it does not all have to be done via be an expensive course. There are normally plenty of experts in a business who could share their knowledge,” he says.

Coaching and mentoring have a tendency to be underrated – but have been reported as some of the most effective ways of developing staff. Giving employees easy access to e-learning and creating social, sharing communities of best practice and knowledge is fundamental.

Sharing learning doesn’t just help the business – it shows that an organisation has a clear approach to encouraging staff develop their own knowledge and future.

And, as the demographic of the workforce expands, companies should note that many younger employees expect to learn and be coached – and a swapping of knowledge between older and younger staff members can only help to retain well-established practices but at the same time create new ones, too.

Sacrificing salary to gain knowledge

As learning and development gains traction as a benefit, employers are seeking to find solutions beyond their company community – and preferably ones that are not expensive.

Consequently, salary sacrifice solutions such as Busy Bees Benefits’ Earn and Learn and P&MM Employee Benefits’ LearningPlus are growing in popularity.

These allow organisations to offer learning and development as an employee-paid voluntary benefit, or they can part-fund the learning themselves.

In either case, the standard salary sacrifice structure stands, whereby the employees’ contribution would be deducted monthly over a 12-month period, creating savings on tax and National Insurance contributions. And should the employer choose to contribute, they will also save 13.8% on their NI contributions.

Of Earn and Learn, Jo Dalby, finance director of Busy Bees Benefits, says: “From the employer’s point of view, they don’t have the expense of the training course, but they are gaining the expertise for their employees. We encourage companies to share the saving they’re making with their staff as well.”

Adaptable academia

In the majority of learning and development offerings, any training or studies undertaken by the employee must be directly linked to their role – either current or future – in the company.

This wide scope can enable staff to move within different areas of the business and develop sideways as well as upwards. It makes good business sense to encourage people to develop in areas that might be used by the employer in the future.

“As long as there’s a feasible link between the training and the employee’s organisation, then there’s a measurable return on investment for the company,” says Dalby.

So far, there are relatively few signs that companies are allowing their staff to undertake unrelated learning – for example, by working flexibly to study for that MA they always aspired to.

However, with all employees now legally entitled to request to work flexibly, employers’ learning and training opportunities may encourage staff to go the extra mile academically outside of work.

“Flexibility and development is good – whether the organisation is supporting it or not,” says Emden. “Managers that aren’t so confident about providing flexibility need some kind of policy and guidelines – giving them the confidence to allow it while at the same time giving them the confidence that they are compliant.”

With £9,000 per year tuition fees and with maintenance grants abolished, younger employees may forego higher education and join the workforce at 18 – so in the future there may well be a place for learning that is not tied to a role but that can only be achieved through flexible working practices.

“Engagement surveys show that so many people are dissatisfied with the growth opportunities in their organisation, and are not passionate about their work,” says Hlupic. “There is so much that organisations could be doing that, as yet, most are not.”

Learning of any kind – primarily internal, but also external – should be something that companies endeavour to embed in their culture so that people have different opportunities to learn and develop.

Buying in to extra studies

A stumbling block that employers could face is that many people over the age of 18 may have vowed never to return to the classroom. In these circumstances employers need to reiterate that learning is not something they intend to impose on the whole workforce, but is there if ambitious staff want to learn new skills.

Training opportunities are about giving employees the chance to learn and grow in an environment that Hlupic describes as “really intrinsically motivating”.

She says: “It’s about communication and raising awareness, and really getting employees to understand that everybody benefits from sharing knowledge through interaction.”

Employers can succeed in getting employee buy-in through giving them a clear understanding of what they are offering: in terms not only of career and personal development, but also time and money saved through undertaking learning opportunities through work, rather than independently.

The employer, then, is getting a better qualified employee who, in turn, is getting extra training that will allow them to develop their career at that company – or elsewhere. Of course, the downside to all of this is that as the employer, you’re investing money in making your staff more employable.

“It’s down to you as an organisation to make sure that you’re keeping that talent internally,” says Malia.

“They may stay while they’re taking that course, but afterwards you have to make sure you recognise their talents and qualifications, so they feel worthwhile and that their time was well spent.”

If the learning is framed to support both the needs of the employer, opportunities in the company, and developmental aspirations of the employee, this should not be a problem.

Besides, as Dalby points out: “People are often nervous about asking for training or pushing themselves forward. If you’ve got a scheme in place and they’re being given opportunities to learn and develop, then you’re regarded as a good employer.”

The small print

So where do employers start in creating a training and development scheme or culture of learning? And how can they avoid the high costs of external training?

Should they wish to put a solution such as Earn and Learn or LearningPlus in place, most providers will ensure that the scheme meets any HMRC salary sacrifice guidelines and is fully compliant – as well as doing the administration of the scheme.

For the majority of employers, it will be a simple case of informing the workforce of the scheme and putting the participating employees’ salary sacrifice deductions through payroll.

If an employer doesn’t have a high budget to implement a learning scheme, salary sacrifice is highly appealing, as it saves on NI contributions for the company – and if they choose to pass on the full cost to the staff by making it an employee-funded benefit, it will remain tax efficient.

Although training and development can be low cost, and even minimal on the administration side if helped by a provider, employers must still be prepared to be invested in the learning culture they are encouraging in their workplace.

Westminster Business School’s Hlupic is reassuring. “Developing that culture doesn’t have to cost a lot,” she says.

“It can be done through communications, social media and the intranet. Also, the provision of a social infrastructure where employees can share ideas and discussions doesn’t have to be expensive. There’s always something that can be done.”

Ongoing opportunities

In July, Chancellor George Osborne delivered the first all-Conservative Budget for 19 years in the wake of the General Election. During his speech he spoke of the UK’s 3% economic growth in the final year of the previous (coalition) Parliament, and pledged to create 2 million more jobs over the next five years.

Fundamentally this growth, alongside near ‘full unemployment’, is good news – and it also means that the fight for talent in the job market will start once more.

Consequently, employees will want the best possible CVs, and employers will fight to attract and retain staff through a comprehensive benefits offering – and through the best possible developmental and career opportunities.

P&MM Employee Benefits’ Malia suggests that over the next 12 months case studies will show how salary sacrifice learning schemes have worked for companies and demonstrate to “employers that they can work well and enhance their training function and benefits portfolio”.

Hlupic blows the trumpet for learning and development even louder: “It’s really the only way for companies to survive a volatile business environment and to stay competitive.”