Retaining female workers involves a need for more education

Women are sending a message and they are sending it with their feet. In 2020 alone, 2.5 million women chose to leave the workforce, on top of the 5.4 million women that lost their jobs during the pandemic. The stats are heartbreaking for many of us who were applauding the fact that women were participating in the workforce in record numbers just prior to the pandemic. Even if women still were not earning as much as men, the future seemed optimistic.

So, what is going to bring them back? We know childcare, flexible work schedules, and the ability to work from home are top of mind for working women. But in addition to these benefits, employers also need to focus on education, which takes the form of career planning, investments in learning and development, and customized training for the most lucrative and in-demand jobs of the future.

If this seems like a daunting task, there is one fool-proof place to start: Employer-provided education and tuition assistance benefits. These kinds of offerings provide opportunities for female employees that will propel them into the roles of the future where they are currently underrepresented, like data science, software development, and engineering. Women hold 56% of college degrees overall, but just 36% of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees, and compose only 25% of the STEM workforce, according to the World Economic Forum.

Investment in education is going to be essential for women if they are to have a role in the future workforce. For one thing, research has shown that the future of automation and advances in digital technology will disproportionately affect women, a segment of the workforce that is overrepresented in roles that are highly vulnerable to automation, including clerical roles like back office and administrative staff, customer service and call center jobs, and frontline service jobs.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that 11% of jobs currently held by women (a higher percentage than jobs held by men) are at risk of elimination due to artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies.

Without a doubt, women are exceptionally vital to our workforce. History tells us that when more women participate in the workforce, economies tend to grow. For organizations, recruiting and retaining female employees is not just about contributing to a diverse and equitable workforce, but building a workforce that reflects the fabric of our country and setting companies up to compete on a global level.

So, what can organizations do to promote the women in their existing workforce into high-paying careers and roles that will allow them continued success in the future? Below are four actionable ways to ensure female employees have the same access to education opportunities that will help grow their careers as men:

  • Remove cost barriers: According to EdAssisst Solution’s recent study of working adults, women have reported financial barriers as one of the most significant barriers to participation in education programs. Employers can help relieve employees of cost concerns by removing the need to pay upfront by paying the school directly, and perhaps even covering some or all of the program costs. T-Mobile, for example, covers 100% of tuition, fees, and books for employees, in addition to pre-paying tuition upfront, leaving employees with no out-of-pocket costs. As a result, the company has seen a 92% retention rate for education program users.
  • Offer short, non-degree options to remove time constraints: Providing a variety of programs for employees to choose from—such as boot camps, and professional certifications—will be key to the educational success of employees strapped for time. Raytheon Technologies recently expanded its education benefits program to include non-degree offerings for non-credit bearing certificates, certifications and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The program has proven successful among employees, with a 6% utilization rate in the U.S. and Canada across the organization.
  • Communicate and encourage women to seek out education programs: According to our study, more than half of women do not feel they are getting the guidance they need from their employers around pursuing education, including what programs are available to them, how to get started, or what skill sets will best benefit their career. Keeping an open dialogue with employees about education opportunities through manager discussions, annual reviews, employee newsletters, and even education coaches can help employees understand their best path to success. One company we work with that was seeking to increase female representation in leadership positions added success coaching to their education program, as well as increased communication to employees around the program. As a result, they have seen participation by female employees double compared to that of male employees.
  • Provide student loan support: Support for student loans is also worth considering, as female student borrowers have an average debt that is 9.6% higher than their male peers one year after graduation, which may prevent them from pursuing additional education. Orlando Health offers both a generous tuition assistance program and a student loan repayment program to complement it. In 2020 alone, Orlando Health supported 619 nurses on their journey to degrees, and has improved the financial wellness of nearly 600 nurses to date through student loan assistance. The health system has seen more than a 10% increase in employee retention among those participating in its education benefits program.

I would be remiss to not also mention one additional benefit that will have a direct impact on a woman’s ability to opt-in to an education program: childcare. If an employee has children and is already balancing work and family, offering a childcare benefit would help remove a major barrier to completing an education program—giving them the peace of mind that they can focus on the skills and content at hand without worrying about what their child is doing in the next room.

The organizations that continue to thrive in the future will all have one common defining feature—a commitment to diversity and fostering a culture of growth and development. Offering professional development and career advancement opportunities that are tailored to the future needs of the workforce will provide women with at-risk jobs the valuable skills they need to advance their careers and excel in their roles. Organizations who see the value in investing in both the skills development and diversity of their workforce now will find themselves leading the way in the future of work.

Dr. Jill Buban is the vice president and general manager of EdAssist Solutions at Bright Horizons, an employee solutions company, providing services such as childcare and education for working families.