Building a Learning Culture: What Small Employers Can Learn from Large Ones


Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek November 19, 2019
Building a Learning Culture: What Small Employers Can Learn from Large Ones

​In September, Walmart began offering nearly-free college training in the health care field as a way to help fill jobs in its stores' pharmacies and vision and hearing centers. Amazon will team up with 19 Los Angeles-area colleges to teach cloud computing. Boeing has pledged to invest $100 million in a workforce development program for its 141,322 employees.

This commitment to training is exciting, said Ashish Rangnekar, co-founder and chief executive officer of BenchPrep. The Chicago-based company works with large training and credentialing organizations to improve the employee learning experience.

Shining a spotlight on learning also underscores training as a recruitment and retention strategy for organizations of all sizes.

"Even Amazon is having a hard time recruiting and retaining the right talent," Rangnekar said. "In some ways, [the company's workforce development efforts are] a retention strategy."

Employees—especially Millennials—value training above cash bonuses, he added. A 2016 Gallup poll found that opportunities to learn and grow was the top employer attribute these workers looked for when applying for a job.

However, fewer companies offer training to close the skills gap now than did in 2015, according to a 2018 white paper from the Association for Talent Development (ATD), Bridging the Skills Gap: Workforce Development and the Future of Work. A survey of 304 talent development professionals whose companies are headquartered in the U.S. found that:

  • 59 percent of respondents offered internal training in 2018 versus 64 percent in 2015.
  • 15 percent offered certification programs in 2018 versus 25 percent in 2018.
  • 22 percent offered offsite, vendor-provided training in 2018 versus 30 percent in 2015.
  • 32 percent encouraged enrollment in open, online courses in 2018 versus 36 percent in 2015.
  • 24 percent offered structured on-the-job or apprenticeship development opportunities in 2018 versus 32 percent in 2015.
Almost three-quarters said the skills gap affects service delivery, customers or future growth.

What Smaller Companies Can Do 

"Organizations that can really educate and reskill and upskill their employees are already showing signs of performing much better than others," Rangnekar said.

While it's not realistic to expect organizations to own all learning and training, he noted, they do need to drive the outcome.

"They need to own the learning and training culture and they need to own the outcome and work with the learner to figure out where they can pursue that learning."

Smaller organizations can follow Boeing's example of polling its employees to learn how it should shape its workforce development program or, like Amazon, can partner with local colleges and universities.

[SHRM members-only policy: Professional Development: Professional training, certification and membership policy]

Ways to establish partnerships with learning institutions, ATD suggests in its report, include dedicating a staff member to coordinate partnerships; building strong community relationships that include the local workforce board, faith-based organizations or community colleges; and working closely with HR to ensure that partnerships and the company's career paths are aligned.

Rangnekar suggested the following ways employers can develop a learning culture:
  • Make sure learning is seen as a lifelong venture.

"I don't expect any organization to own all learning and training. They need to drive the outcome. They need to own the learning and training culture and ... work with the learner to figure out where they can pursue that learning," Rangnekar said. 

"It goes beyond just thinking of the dollar investment. It goes beyond a policy. [Training] has to be for everyone. It cannot be targeted" to younger employees, job function or high-performing versus low-performing employees.

Making learning a priority also means giving employees time to participate in training.

"Earmarking money is one thing, but encouraging employees to use [training money] is another thing," Rangnekar said. "For a company to succeed [in promoting training], it can't have one manager being really good at rewarding education and training and others who are not. It has to be a top-down focus on education and training." 

  • Personalize the delivery

"You cannot have the same learning and training modalities offered to all employees; they learn differently and want to engage with content very differently, and the company has to adjust to these differences," Rangnekar said.

  • Align training with the company's and employees' goals.
  • Celebrate learning.

A supervisor, for example, can ask a team member who has undergone training to give a short presentation that summarizes key takeaways.

"It shows commitment toward learning," Rangnekar said, "and allows the employee to exhibit what they have learned, which creates social rewards that further [amplify] the cultural aspect." 

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs

Earn a SHRM Talent Acquisition Specialty Credential.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.