Talent   //   July 27, 2022

EY, others offering employees MBAs and masters degrees – but is it a good investment?

When global accountancy firm EY discovered, through an internal survey, that almost three-quarters (74%) of its 312,000 staff in over 150 countries wanted to “participate in activities that help communities and the environment,” action was swiftly taken.

In late February, a unique course was launched: the EY Masters in Sustainability, in association with Hult International Business School in the U.K. The best part? It is free for all EY employees, regardless of rank, tenure or location.

The online-only learning program, which students can work through at their own pace, is designed to expand sustainability and climate literacy among EY workers. The hope is that these newly acquired skills will accelerate innovative sustainability services for clients.

“Sustainability is one of the defining issues of our time, and taking a lead on climate change is a vital element of building a better working world,” said Carmine Di Sibio, EY’s global chairman and CEO, when the course was announced.

EY’s global vp of talent, Trent Henry, added: “This new Masters is the first of its kind and will help EY people tackle some of the most important issues organizations are currently facing.”

The Masters in Sustainability is the latest example illustrating how EY invests in its people by providing free higher education, all through a partnership with Hult. In June 2020, the organization announced what it claims is the first-ever fully-accredited virtual corporate Master of Business Administration (MBA) course, EY Tech MBA, which just over 55 employees have completed. And last year, a Masters in Business Analytics course was added.

EY’s budget for staff training is likely to be significantly larger than most other organizations. But as the Great Resignation trend drags on, more companies realize that investing in employee education – even if it’s not directly related to work – is good value. It can boost morale, generate fresh thinking, accelerate innovation, and – possibly most importantly right now – help attract and retain the best people.

Return on investment

Indeed, David Simpson, the admissions director for the MBA and Masters in Finance programs at London Business School (LBS), estimated that over 20% of students on the courses are bankrolled by their employers. Notably, Japan, South Korea and Latin American countries “lead the way” with sponsorship at LBS.

“Sponsoring their employees to take a full-time program costing up to £98,000 ($117,650) [per course] is a significant investment,” Simpson said. “However, it is a long-term investment with excellent pay-back because the employees return with new skills, knowledge, experiences and global networks to add to the firm.”

For Richard Wahlquist, president and CEO of the American Staffing Association, there is a more short-term need to open the purse strings. “For employers looking for an edge in recruiting and retaining employees, investing in training and development could make the difference in competing in the war for talent,” he said. 

To back up this statement, he pointed to the results of a recent ASA/Harris Poll survey, which surveyed over 2,000 U.S.-based adults, just over half of whom were working. Eight out of 10 respondents said an employer’s training offerings are an essential consideration when accepting a new job. The same study found that only 39% of the 1,054 employed people polled said their current employer helped to improve their skillset.

“We are experiencing one of the tightest labor markets in history and if an employer is not willing to train and upskill its workforce, its employees may begin to look for an employer that will,” added Wahlquist.

Values-based education opportunities 

And yet, employee development is hardly a new concept. As Caitlyn Vestal, senior manager of education services at Iterable, a customer activation platform with an HQ in San Francisco, noted, the likes of Starbucks and Amazon have “long touted their investment in employees as a differentiator” in the job market. 

“What is new,” she said, “is that businesses are starting to really listen to the needs of their workforce and, in some cases, be proactive about their employee education programming and development.” 

The traumatic events of the last two-and-a-half years have raised the expectation level for people to be better supported by their employer, financially, mentally, and in terms of career progression. “The Great Resignation is a direct manifestation of this new push for education and professional development,” Vestal added.

DeNora Getachew, CEO of New York-headquartered, youth-centered activism hub DoSomething.org, stressed that being attuned to what employees want is doubly important when courting Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) talent. An internal DoSomething.org survey, completed by 3,220 people in this cohort, showed 88% think it is important for brands to take actions around purpose.

“Young people want to work with companies that align with their values,” she said. “As they seek out companies that elevate their passion areas and support their desire to make the world a better place, it’s critical that employers offer the opportunity to learn about the most pressing issues impacting Gen Z and share actionable ways to get involved.”

More companies are evolving their approach to learning so that it is more “values-based,” according to Getachew, but leaders must complete their homework, too. “Offering values-based education opportunities meets the needs of Gen Z and reaches all generations in the workplace,” she added. “Education is a critical step in helping Gen Zers – and all employees – take action on the issues most pressing to them.”

This insight chimed with Dr. Lynda Folan, a psychologist and organizational development expert based in Perth, Australia. If training or learning is not provided, employees will soon become “outdated” in their thinking, knowledge, and skills. “From an organization’s perspective, if there is insufficient investment in the development of people, it will limit the capacity of the organization to drive change,” she said.

Further, Dr. Folan argued that companies failing to offer employees access to cheap, if not free, courses and encourage personal development will struggle to survive in the current fast-paced climate. “Organizations must invest in the ongoing development of their people so that they can remain agile and responsive to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world,” she said.