The following interview was conducted with Jennifer Hermann, director of human resources and occupational health services at the University of California at San Francisco’s Medical Center. Lifelong Learning Account (LiLA) legislation has been introduced in California, though there is neither state nor federal funding being put toward to support the initiative. From 2001 to 2007, the UC San Francisco Medical Center was the site of a six-year LiLA pilot program. In this interview, Hermann discusses her thoughts on LiLAs, what kinds of outcomes she saw from employees who participated in the program and what the role governments should have in supporting such activities.
1. Why do you think employers should be responsible for funding the continuing education of their employees if that education is not directly related to professional development?
I think, in general, it’s important for all employers, as part of their community contribution, to really give back to society as a whole. … We really think it’s important for there to be a qualified workforce out there for us all; whether it’s to replace regular turnover, whether it’s when we’re trying to expand, whether it’s in response to healthcare reform. It’s important to have a pool of candidates out there who have education.
I think by contributing to the LiLA program, in general, that I’m able to give a little bit back to the community so that in the event someone decides to increase their education in another industry, at least I’ve helped them get part of the way there. So I think in general it is a community, it’s sort of a commitment to the community that you work in and to — I think our society as a whole — to provide a better educated workforce, especially for adult learners. Because, generally, a lot of the funding in education is provided for use and I think that for employers who generally employ people over the age of 18 and now we’re employing people well into their 70s.
It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to kind of give back and provide education and support education even though it may not be for my specific institution or even industry.
2. Looking at the positives, what is the biggest advantage of running a LiLA program for employers?
Well, the beauty of the LiLA program — this is how we first got involved here at the University of [California] San Francisco Medical Center — is the fact that the employee actually has to put in some of their own hard-earned money into the program in order for it to work. The design of the LiLA program — at least in the two demonstration projects that we have here at UCSF Medical Center — was really built around the fact that the employee has to contribute part of their money, the employer matches that amount and then, in the demonstration, where a third-party matched that dollar amount … that small amount that the employee contributed was leveraged. It’s … that leveraged money, plus it’s the buy-in and commitment from the employee, that really makes this type of a program work.
That was one of the, I think, the attractive component of the reason we first got involved in the demonstration. My director, David Odato, and I thought, “You know this really makes a difference”.
We’ve learned from previous experience — when we’ve offered English as a Second Language courses to our employees and it was free — that we found the attrition rate was 50 percent over a few weeks. When we charged a nominal fee of $5 or $25, the attrition rate was almost zero. So, what it shows to us is that, if you spend some of your own hard-earned money, there’s more of a commitment. So, we feel, what a perfect world that is: the employee commits, the employer commits and together we, you know, have a little bit speedier path toward getting an improved education.
3. Have you noticed a change in employee retention at the UC San Francisco Medical Center since launching a LiLA program?
I don’t think it actually contributes to the overall retention rate. … We only had about an 18 percent attrition rate in the program that was a relatively small program here at UCSF. So, we currently have about 8,000 employees at the medical center and we only have about 55 participants. But I do believe, of our participants, we have about 50 employees in the second demonstration project and we had about 43 participants, I think out of those individuals we’ve certainly seen an improved retention rate.
Also, promotional opportunities; several of these individuals have actually gone on to get promotions, others have gone back to nursing school and there are, you know, several different specific stories of what I would consider success.
Plus the word has travelled. So even though our demonstration project was a very, very small percentage of our total employee population, what we found was word of mouth was from one employee to the other. “Well, I’m participating in this program and I doubled my money. I can go back to school and this helps me get my degree faster, or study X, Y or Z.”
And then word travels back to the human resources department, “Hey, can I participate in this? I didn’t hear about this,” or, “Is this open to everyone”?
So, that in itself shows engagement. It shows that there’s been employer engagement and interest into the success of the employee, even though it was on a very, very small scale, which is why I completely believe that we need to provide some type of, ultimately, federal policy change so that we can actually use this like our 401(k) or 403(b), so we can put money away for education on a reduced tax basis.
I do believe that having that money available — whether it’s portable or not — I think it’s something that we all should consider for the future because my opinion is all of our society is well educated, then, it helps just everyone in general.
4. Would it be easier for an employer to run a LiLA program if there was funding committed towards such schemes from the state or federal governments?
Well, absolutely. … I think that, absolutely, if there was a portion of the funding that would be allocated so that employers, it would be what I would call a “no brainer approach.” …
I do think that in the demonstration project, when we had the third-party funder adding their contribution, that made a huge difference. I think that really was the incentive that was needed. So, in the event a type of policy or program would be [created where] the employee contributes, the employer contributes and then it’s matched by federal dollars, of course I think that would encourage more and more employers to participate and really see the advantage.
And I think … the beauty of the LiLA design is that it is part of a shared investment and overall education and that’s what I think makes it so successful and appealing.
5. Is there anything you would like to add about the importance of LiLAs?
I just have to say, again, and I’m probably repeating myself, but I do believe that having the employee participate and be invested in their own education really gives this a head start and an advantage over other types of programs, like a basic tuition reimbursement program or even a tuition reduction. There’s something about having that investment, even if it’s on a very small scale, that shows that you’re interested in your own future and that you are responsible and accountable — that you just need a little help. I think that’s what really makes this program worthwhile and beneficial for everyone.
To learn more about Lifelong Learning Accounts, please click here.
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