How—and Why—to Turn Employees into Lifelong Learners

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We’re hearing a lot of buzz lately about preparing employees for the “future of work.” Here at Quantified, we’ve weighed in once or twice on the importance of providing quality training and development opportunities for employees, ensuring they have the skills required to continue helping the company grow—but also encouraging long-term loyalty and engagement.

But in all our reading and research, we’ve seen one developing trend that we aren’t as excited about: this idea that upskilling and reskilling are “one-and-done” activities that are necessary to “fix” employees. In a recent LinkedIn article James Engle, chief learning architect at the Southeast Asia Center, is quoted expressing concern over the backlash that terminology might inspire without the proper context and mentality: “People are going to say, ‘Oh, you think I’m too stupid to do something so you need to reskill me,’” he says.

Here at Quantified, we agree with the concept—we’ve even written recently about upskilling and reskilling as critical strategies to help businesses stay ahead of the changing landscape.  But we understand Engle’s concern, and we think it’s vital to ensure we’re looking at these ideas not as one-time activities but as lasting mindsets engrained within the company culture.

In short, reskilling and upskilling are just part of the process of turning employees into lifelong learners.

What Does it Mean to Be a Lifelong Learner?

Lifelong learning refers to valuing and focusing on continued, informal education outside of the confines of traditional education institutions. The idea is that, if we’re open to it, there’s always more to learn and more growth and development to be had.

While the idea originated as a personal endeavor, employers are beginning to recognize that lifelong learning—or continuous learning—is a more effective way to supplement formal education credentials than one-off seminars or trainings. Once upon a time, this continuous learning was the responsibility of the employees. If someone wanted to continue their professional development, they were largely on their own to find and pay for opportunities.

But today, the onus is shifting to businesses, and for good reason.

Why Is the Lifelong Learning Mindset Important for Business?

There are two reasons we encourage businesses we work with to make continuous learning part of their company culture.

The first is because the reality is that the way we work is changing. As advancements in technology change the business landscape—automating certain tasks and augmenting others—the skills employees need are also changing. The “hard skills” that carried our employees five or ten years ago are no longer enough, and more and more, soft skills such as teamwork, communication, critical thinking, and others will be the make-or-break capabilities leaders and high performers need to drive growth in their organizations.

But the thing about soft skills like these is that they’re not a learn-it-once-and-you’re-done kind of thing. They take continuous effort and dedication to develop and perfect. And the evolution of work isn’t a once-and-it’s-done thing, either. Business requirements are going to continue to change for the foreseeable future, so if companies want to keep their employees ahead of the curve, they’ve got to invest in learning as an ongoing strategy.

The second reason businesses would be wise to invest in lifelong learning is that employees are demanding it, now more than ever. Talented employees value professional opportunities that allow them to continue to learn and grow. It’s no longer enough to punch a clock, do your work, and head home. Today’s high performers expect their jobs to be stepping stones to further professional development. In fact, A survey from Deloitte found recently that 63 percent of millennials feel their leadership skills are not being fully developed in their jobs, and of those who plan to leave their current companies in the next two years, 71 percent cite a lack of training opportunities as one of the main reasons.

Now, we also know that the cost of replacing employees far exceeds the cost of keeping them—six to nine months of an employee’s salary, according to one study from SHRM. So if employees want ongoing development—if that will keep them more engaged and turn them into long-term contributors—why not make it a priority?

How Can You Cultivate the Lifelong Learning Mindset in Your Organization?

Too often, corporate learning is seen as something to “get over with” as quickly as possible so employees can get back to their desks and their “real work.” Cultivating any other mindset will take intentional effort. We’ve written more in-depth about how to encourage employees to grow within your organization, but here’s the number-one key: lead by example.

It’s not enough to send memos and make courses available—employees need to see that taking time for real development is not only encouraged but expected. If executives make it clear by actions as well as words that they are embracing ongoing learning, then employees will start to follow suit.