Employer benefits focus on education, training

By JOANN PETASCHNICK - Special to The Freeman

Nov. 10, 2018

WAUKESHA — The U.S. Department of Labor’s recent numbers show that unemployment rates are holding firm at 3.7 percent, a nearly 50-year low. If you’re an employer, you don’t have to be told what this means: it’s tough to find great talent. Many businesses are having trouble hiring skilled and available workers, according to a report by the National Federation of Independent Business.

Businesses know that competitive benefits play an important role in a total package offered to employees. Studies indicate that nearly three quarters of companies offer benefits that go beyond the normal health and financial benefit products that are standard in workplaces. Forward thinking companies are looking for ways to attract new employees and that means increasing access to education and training.

Industry experts believe investing in employee development is a short-term expense for businesses that understand the value of well-trained and educated personnel. “Many of our member companies, including the vast majority of our member manufacturers, offer tuition reimbursement for their employees. When we bring students and educators to companies in the manufacturing, health care, construction/skilled trades and IT industries through our Schools2Skills and Careers Uncovered programs, countless companies we have visited talk about tuition reimbursement as a benefit,” says Amanda Payne, vice president of public policy for Waukesha County Business Alliance.

Wisconsin Oven in East Troy is one of those manufacturers. The company, which employs about 160, offers a tuition reimbursement program to its fulltime employees. “An employee must first work at Wisconsin Oven for a year and then, for approved courses, we will pay up to $5,250 per year toward books and tuition. In exchange, the employee agrees to continue employment with Wisconsin Oven for a period of time,” says Kelli Stimely, director of human resources for TPS/Wisconsin Oven.

Businesses invest in training because it’s smart, says Payne. “In a survey we sent out to all our member companies in the fall of 2017, 68 percent of companies said that employee retention drives their investment in training, while 49 percent said employee attraction is behind their investment in training.” In the same survey, many companies said their investment in training pays off in increased productivity and a higher quality of work.

Wisconsin Metal Parts, Inc. also reimburses employees for job-related coursework that they successfully complete. The Waukesha company also makes training for manufacturing or job-related skills available to its 130 employees at all levels, says Corryn Manderfield, who works in Human Resources.

“If an employee wants to advance in their career in manufacturing with us at Wisconsin Metal Parts, but doesn’t have the required skills, we try to do our part to help. It all depends upon where the employee wants to go. If we have an open spot for someone, but they need some additional help to get there, we will try to accommodate that person,” said Manderfield.

Training on the Job

Another way for businesses to find appropriate employees is to provide the training for those workers. Because Wisconsin Ovens has had difficulty finding qualified workers, they began a program to hire and train unskilled workers.

“Our program to hire and train unskilled workers is called WOC U and it’s held at our Wisconsin Oven location. People who are interested in taking classes through WOC U can go to our website and submit their contact information. The website address is: https://www.wisoven.com/careers/woc-u," said Stimely.

One type of training that you don’t hear too much about these days is apprenticeships, but research shows that more than half of the American public believe that recent moves to give apprenticeships and other technical training the same importance as a college degree will lead to a rise in more high school graduates seeking such training.

Wisconsin Metal Parts, Inc. sponsors apprenticeships in skilled trades like tool and die making.

“Some people think it’s old school, but it’s a great opportunity for the right people,” said Manderfield. The company has also started an online training platform offering a slate of courses in the skilled trades. “Employees can take courses at their own pace, at home on their own schedule. Whatever works for them,” said Manderfield.

Crushing Debt

Along with training, helping employees pay student debt has become an increasingly popular, though still rare, benefit that some employers are using to attract and retain young talent. The nonprofit organization American Student Assistance has found that student loan help ranked third in most important benefits, after health insurance and retirement plans, and before other perks like professional membership payments.

Some companies make payments directly to an employee’s loans, while others are making contributions to employee retirement plans. For example, if an employee is making a 2 percent payment on student loan debt, the company will contribute to the employee’s retirement account. The new benefit will allow employees to accumulate savings in their retirement accounts while committing their own money to student loan debt.

“Companies see these programs as a valuable talent attraction and retention tool, and it also benefits their business to develop their employees and help them get to the next level. Some of our manufacturing CEOs even talk about how a ‘rising tide raises all boats,’ meaning that if one company invests in an employee through tuition reimbursement and that employee ultimately ends up at a different company later in their career, it’s still benefits the industry as a whole,” said Payne.