Why are workers ignoring free training that could lead to higher paying jobs?

View through a partially opened door of a group of adults in a conference room

With an estimated five million unfilled jobs, and roughly 8.7 million Americans looking for work, there is still a mismatch of jobs and skilled workers in the U.S. To look at the issue more closely, the Institute for Corporate Productivity, (i4CP) in partnership with UpSkill America, has released a new report, Developing America’s Frontline Workers. This important report identifies a critical reason why workers are not receiving the training they could use to advance to higher paying jobs, even though it may be immediately available to them. Offering great data from a survey of 365 U.S.-based public, private, government, and nonprofit organizations, Kevin Martin, chief research and marketing officer at i4CP discusses the insights and implications from the report.


Q. Will you please tell us why the report was created and what it was meant to help achieve?

Martin: In his 2015 State of the Union address, the President drew the public’s attention to the pervasive and widening income gap in the U.S. He also posited that a primary reason for this gap was the dearth of employer-provided training to lower-skilled and lower-wage workers. There was a desire to go beyond the politicization of these issues and gain an unbiased, empirical perspective on the role and priority of frontline employee development at high-performance organizations.

Q. In the report, you identified that companies are offering training, but workers aren’t taking them up on it. What’s that all about?

Martin: It really boils down to lack of priority and follow-through. Our research found that nearly nine in 10 organizations offer employee development opportunities to frontline workers. However, almost three-quarters either don’t track the percentage of frontline workers who take advantage of these development opportunities or don’t communicate effectively about the development opportunities that are available to these workers and/or why the development will help them advance to higher paying jobs. Further, the lack of manager accountability for frontline worker development needs to be addressed. While high-performance organizations often understand the importance of managers in this equation, many companies don’t make the effort and pay the price. Not measuring or tracking manager effectiveness at developing frontline workers has a strong negative influence on the organization’s market performance, and is pervasive among low-performance organizations (63% vs. only 29% of high-performers). Not surprisingly, 83% of these lower performers have no formal mechanism or process for rewarding supervisors for developing frontline workers.

Q. Is the role of the “middle manager” changing, and will it be a change for the better?

Martin: It is evolving from more of a “talk to/at you” boss to more of a “dialogue with you” coach. What’s driving this now more than previously is globalization and digitization of both the workforce and the workplace. This is further fueled by the shift to more matrixed organizational structures vs. hierarchical structures. Also, there is a major shift in worker preference: one to more flexibility and control in who they work for, what work they take on, and where they actually perform the work. Think of how this has manifested in many organizations evolving their performance management process; specifically from annual performance conversations to more frequent dialogue focused on the workers, their priorities, and the needs of the employer. All of this is requiring a shift in capability in mid-level and frontline leaders. Our research clearly shows the impact of effective middle manager capability on an organization’s market performance. However, effectiveness at this level is very elusive. What must be addressed by most organizations is how to effectively build manager capability in these evolving areas.

Q. In the report, successful companies are developing frontline workers. What are some of the major things they are doing that impact success with customers and market performance?

Martin: Tuition assistance is a traditional and relatively easy way employers have offered employee development opportunities to employees for decades. Today, 82% of employers report that they offer frontline workers the opportunity to participate in outside educational offerings for which the employer pays or reimburses the employee.

One company we spotlight in our Developing America’s Frontline Workers report is WalMart. They partnered with American Public University (APU).to create specific programs for its frontline workers. Walmart provides a 15% tuition grant, which is available to all associates and eligible family members. Degree-seeking associates and eligible family members are provided required textbooks and materials at no charge with the company-provided book grant.

Another company we spotlight in this research is McDonald’s. McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity team focused on high school completion through Career Online High School (COHS), and initially began this initiative at non-franchised restaurants. As part of the company’s broader education strategy to upskill front-line workers and entry-level managers, McDonald’s decided to expand COHS beyond corporate-owned restaurants. Now, every eligible U.S. McDonald’s employee in corporate and franchise restaurants will have access to Career Online High School at no cost.

Another highly successful, but under-utilized program is apprenticeships. Today, 33% of employers offer some form of apprenticeship program, but only 14% have registered apprenticeship programs via the U.S. Department of Labor. Of all companies, 36% plan to either maintain or grow their existing apprenticeship program and an additional 10% plan to explore or start a program. Registered apprenticeship programs are an effective model for building skills and creating pathways to career advancement opportunities. Nearly nine out of 10 apprentices are employed after completing their apprenticeships, with an average starting wage of over $50,000. Apprenticeships have also been shown to increase a worker’s lifetime compensation by over $300,000 compared to their peers. In our report, we feature Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. A cornerstone of NNS’s talent development strategy is the organization’s nationally acclaimed apprenticeship program. This program offers tuition-free training in a wide variety of shipbuilding disciplines, from welding and rigging to dimensional control and nuclear testing, and accepts graduates from high schools, community colleges, as well as four-year universities and colleges. Currently, 44% of Newport News Shipbuilding’s production leadership team members are graduates of this program.

Q. Even companies that do well training employees can miss the mark on how to measure effectiveness. What are two things some companies should measure with middle managers, but don’t.

Martin: Not surprisingly, the most popular metric organizations assign to frontline worker development is also among the most relevant to measure: employee engagement. Over three-quarters of high-performance organizations track this compared to just half of their low-performance counterparts.

While measurement is important, it can be tricky. For instance, though many organizations don’t measure supervisor effectiveness at developing frontline workers at all, those that do are often measuring the wrong things. Our research found that the two most popular measurements are frontline worker retention and individual productivity improvements.

However, our correlation analysis revealed that only two measures correlate to market performance:

  • Number of workers taking advantage of tuition assistance benefits: 39% of high performers vs. 13% of low performers.
  • Number of workers advancing to higher skilled and higher paying jobs: 12% of high performers vs. 0% of low performers.

What we believe this means is that line leaders should encourage their workers to take advantage of development activities and the company-provided programs that aid in that endeavor. Then, they must follow through with opportunities for advancement to those who both contribute to the company and invest in themselves. While only one-third (34%) of organizations reward line leaders who do so via compensation and/or promotion, these practices are 2.5X more prevalent at high-performance organizations versus low-performance organizations (46% HPOs vs. 17% LPOs).

Q. What is the next step for this report in conjunction with UpSkill America and the Aspen Institute?

Martin: We are fortunate to collaborate with many great institutions on important research projects, and ATD is at the forefront of that list. The research we conducted with Aspen Institute continues to gain strong attention and we are discussing other projects we can pursue together. In the meantime, I’m really excited about research we are now conducting with Rob Cross (University of Virginia) and Inga Carboni (College of William & Mary) on the critical factors that drive (or inhibit) effective collaboration in organizations. That research will be available for our member organizations this Fall.


About Kevin Martin
Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin is the chief research and marketing officer at the Institute for Corporate Productivity. A highly sought-after speaker on all aspects of human resources and talent management, Kevin has overseen the production of hundreds of research assets pertaining to best- and next-practices in human capital management (HCM), and has extensive experience in global HCM. His team’s works are frequently cited in leading business and industry media. In his role, Kevin also advises the corporate and human resources leadership teams of many leading employers on human capital strategy and impact, and also serves as executive sponsor of i4cp’s distinguished Chief HR Officer Board. He has been recognized as a “Top 100 HR Influencer to Follow on Twitter” by Witty Parrot and a “Top 100 HR Influencer” by HR Examiner.

Prior to joining i4cp in 2012, Kevin worked for several years at Aberdeen Group, where he built one of the industry’s leading HCM research practices. Kevin serves on the advisory board for the University of Dayton’s School of Business Administration. He earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Boston University and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree from the University of Dayton.