Raghu Krishnaiah is Chief Operating Officer at University of Phoenix. Views are the author's own.
The need for individuals and companies to invest in continuous learning has never been greater.
Today's employees know that learning doesn't end with a college degree and that constant development is needed to thrive in a world of accelerating technological and workplace change.
The Pew Research Center found that 54% of workers say it's essential to develop new skills throughout their lives. Millennial workers, who now make up a large portion of the workforce, say they are particularly invested in development as they face an economy that no longer guarantees them the college-career-home ownership track that their parents were able to count on.
A 2016 Gallup report found that 59% of millennials said they viewed opportunities to learn and grow as extremely important when applying for a job.
From the employer perspective, it's vital to have employees who push boundaries and reject the status quo, staying ahead of customer needs and product changes. CEOs need people who are comfortable taking risks and making decisions and who can adapt quickly to new technology. In the new economy, the days of the head-down direction-taker are numbered.
Yet despite its growing centrality to business success, training and development still tends to be treated as a side issue. It's often seen as a box to be checked and isn't managed in a way that truly aligns with the goals of company leadership and employees.
Maybe that's why although U.S. firms in 2018 said they spent about $1,300 annually per worker on training, the results are disappointing. That same year, some 70% of employees said they lack mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs, and only 12% said they apply the skills learned in training to their jobs.
The solution is to make learning a central part of a company's culture, rather than just an add-on. Training and development needs to be a focused strategy that starts at the top and filters down throughout the company.
When a CEO wants to shift the business in a certain direction, the first instinct is often to look outside the company for fresh talent and expertise.
But in companies that have a learning culture, the question of developing people versus finding people becomes part of the same conversation around internal needs. Studies have shown that businesses often do better by using internal resources and avoiding the disruption that external hiring often creates.
Companies need to start treating learning in the same focused, measurable way they treat other key gauges of business performance like quarterly sales and profit margin. A company's retention rate, for example, should be considered a core KPI to track for employee engagement.
Learning and development programs themselves have key roles to play in helping employees explore the myriad options for career development. Employees are desperately looking for guidance and support in managing these training choices.
Both employers and employees should treat learning as an intentional process rather than something for which resources are available if needed.
For employees, that means viewing learning as essential to personal and professional growth and baking it into planning for the coming weeks and months. For employers, it means investing in programs that are innovative, focused and that build relevant skills.
That could involve setting a certain number of hours every month for people to focus purely on skills development. Google famously has a "20% rule" that allows employees one day a week to work on Google-related passion projects. Or it could take the form of micro-internships or management role swaps that give employees the chance to learn new skills and understand different parts of the business.
Done well, such programs foster a cohesive workforce that is more productive, innovative and resilient to change.