Chloe Rittenhouse is a principal of employer solutions at Guild Education. Views are the author's own.
Employers providing education and upskilling programs for workers know they gain more than just having a higher-skilled pool of employees. Companies see higher retention rates, increased talent mobility, and more robust internal talent pipelines.
For all its advantages, though, merely providing an upskilling benefit platform is rarely enough to get users to engage. Collectively, companies spend more than $20 billion on education initiatives a year. Yet Willis Towers Watson found that less than 10% of workers actually take up these opportunities when employers offer such benefits, like paying tuition.
While there are a variety of reasons individual employees do not enroll or complete a work-sponsored education program, time is the most often overlooked reason. Or, more directly, a lack of time.
Time poverty disproportionately affects some of the most vulnerable working populations — the same ones who have the most to gain from education programs, including frontline workers or those who earn a low income. By acknowledging that time is a scarce resource and adopting a few practices to help ease time poverty amongst workers, employers can still maximize their investment in education programs.
Not just 'poor time management'
Though it may be true that "everyone has the same 24 hours," time scarcity is not as simple as an individual’s lack of time management skills. Time is a resource that can be manipulated and imposed on the labor force in ways that are, intentionally or not, inequitable. By understanding how different social environments, including work, home and academic institutions, have different expectations of how an individual should spend their time (often understood as "productivity"), we can see how time poverty is often mediated by both class and gender.
Those in a higher socioeconomic level or class, for instance, can essentially "buy time" by outsourcing responsibilities to other paid workers. For example, they can hire caregivers to look after family members and housekeepers to clean their homes. But for those who do not have the money to delegate the same tasks and have limited discretionary time, a lack of flexible work hours or control over shift assignments results in nearly impossible trade-offs. When it comes to taking the time for one’s education in lieu of working fewer hours and risking financial insecurity, it is understandable why many don't choose the former.
In addition, while parenting and caretaking are not exclusive to women, they are normative expectations of female timekeeping. Once a woman enters the workforce, she’s likely to find the expectations of paid and unpaid labor that exist outside of work incredibly onerous.
COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation, forcing many women out of the workforce altogether due to the lack of childcare support. Last September, a McKinsey report on Women in the Workplace found that full-time working mothers were spending about an additional 20 hours a week doing housework or caregiving, compared to fathers.
Time scarcity can lead to individual conflict and frustrations, but its systemic factors unfairly impact underrepresented populations, including workers earning low to middle incomes, women, people of color, parents and caretakers. With time already constrained, those who are most vulnerable to either dropping out of an education program or not enrolling at all are also the ones who have the most to gain in career mobility from upskilling.
How employers can help
When employees are overloaded, they can feel distracted, exhausted or demoralized. Fortunately, companies can proactively ease time scarcity with workers and support them throughout their learning journey. There is value, after all, in gaining a new job-related skill through training, which ultimately helps an employer’s bottom line.
Empower employees to designate space for studying. The most straightforward solution to alleviating time poverty is simply allowing employees time to study. This can be done in different ways, like leveraging break time to fit in school work or offering quiet spaces with solid internet connection to study. Companies can set up a kind of voucher system that allows workers to spend a few hours during their full-time workweek to study. If this isn’t possible, then providing reliable and consistent work schedules can help employees plan time to study.
Consider a robust variety of curriculum that puts as much emphasis on short-term credentialing as it does on traditional college or post-secondary degrees. Short-form degrees that can be earned in months rather than years and can build on top of one another enable employees to tailor their education around their careers. Depending on their circumstances, constraints and their own desires, workers can choose to get the skills they need for the next promotion, or continue on for their next career move.
Have diverse program delivery to help employees have more control with their time. Courses that have flexible deadlines, content and assignments available up front as well as non-linear syllabi are advantageous for working learners. And while online or self-paced courses may not be the right fit for everyone, especially those who have distracting home environments, it can help. An internal Guild study found that working adults prioritize programs that have online classes. Along with things like credit for training or credit for prior classes, all of these elements help reduce the amount of time required to complete a program.
Don’t underestimate mentors and coaches. A mentorship program or an academic coach can help individual employees not only manage time better, but they also can become invaluable when it comes to encouraging and motivating employees long-term as they persevere through their education program.
It may be true that there are the same 24 hours in a day for everybody, but not every hour, let alone every day, carries the same mileage for everyone. That is why upskilling or education programs are only half the solution. Without considering the whole environment — particularly time poverty — enrollment and completion rates will never be as strong as they could be. By recognizing the systemic issues that impact those who struggle the most from time scarcity, employers can deliver solutions that will allow them to get the most out of their investment.