We’ve spent so much time over the past two years analyzing the way companies and offices have been disrupted by COVID-19 that we’ve lost sight of the fact that, for the first time in history, five generations are together in the workforce. Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2010, quietly began launching careers in 2020, entering workplaces that had been completely upended by a global pandemic. Today, it’s not unusual for Gen Zers to work alongside millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and even a few folks from the “Silent Generation” of workers born before 1945. As companies attempt to restructure and rebuild in the wake of COVID-19 and the Great Resignation, employers must understand that each generation represented in today’s workforce has different expectations that affect their job satisfaction and retention rates. These disparate worker demands are easy to see when it comes to the workplace benefits each generation most values.
For example, it is no surprise that good health care and retirement benefits are highly prioritized by the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers. Gen X looks for retirement planning and caretaker benefits for their aging parents, while millennials seek out companies with generous parental-leave programs and flex schedules that help support work-life balance. Gen Z is the most modern of the bunch, valuing paid time off, mental health benefits, and extras like accident and pet insurance. Identifying pathways to meet the needs of a multigenerational workforce while also supporting strategic business objectives is essential to successfully attract, recruit, and keep top talent in this new era of work. Fortunately, there is one employer program that can be embraced and adapted to appeal to all five generations: education benefits. Research confirms the vast majority of workers, regardless of age, see new skills as important for their professional growth. In the wake of the pandemic, three in four American workers agree new skills would lead to more job opportunities.
And in these times of high inflation and tight family budgets, student debt repayment programs are extremely attractive to younger workers, with 74% of millennial employees and 66% of Gen Z employees saying they would prioritize working for an employer that offered these benefits over one that did not. As someone who has dedicated her career to promoting access to quality higher education programs, especially among working adults, it’s fascinating to see this uptick in demand for workplace learning benefits that span all generations—and it’s especially interesting to see education benefits move from a “nice-to-have” company perk to a nonnegotiable competitive benefit.
Take McDonald’s, for instance, where the average crew member is 24 years old. A few years ago, the restaurant embraced education benefits as a strategy to not only increase satisfaction among its young employee base, but also to improve recruitment and retention. In 2015, McDonald’s launched Archways to Opportunity, offering a free high school diploma program, tuition assistance paid directly to schools, and dedicated success coaches. Since then, McDonald’s has helped more than 75,000 U.S. employees access education benefits, and awarded more than $165 million in tuition assistance.
Another example? Facing a major shortage of healthcare workers due to pandemic-related burnout, Memorial Hermann Health System has ramped up student loan repayment, tuition reimbursement, and upskilling/reskilling programs to attract a new influx of talent and nurture growth among current employees. This diverse suite of education benefits makes Memorial Hermann more enticing to a range of workers: Gen Z and millennial workers struggling with student debt, Gen X workers interested in earning a new degree to pursue a promotion, and Baby Boom and Silent Generation workers who want to quickly refresh their on-the-job skills through short-term credential programs.
Beyond the cross-generational appeal, education benefits, especially no-cost degree programs, are emerging as a powerful tool to support diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Three-quarters of Black and Hispanic employees (81% and 76%, respectively) report the pandemic has made them want to focus more on developing new skills; but more than half of workers (59%) say fears of student loan debt have prevented them from pursuing educational opportunities. Black and Hispanic workers are also significantly more likely to be saddled with higher levels of student loan debt.
Access to affordable education opportunities, including online high school, certificates, certifications, bachelor and master’s programs, as well as student debt repayment benefits, can help underrepresented workers of all ages carve out a more stable and lucrative career path. In turn, these competitive education benefits allow companies to not only attract a more diverse workforce, but also nurture talent from within, helping employees climb the ladder of opportunity from entry level all the way to the C-suite.
As we continue to adapt to this new normal in the wake of COVID-19, companies are forced to view employee recruitment and retention through a new lens, one that can perceive the unique needs of a more diverse and multigenerational talent pool. The broad appeal of education benefits presents a clear pathway for employers to attract and support this modern workforce while also offering life-changing learning opportunities for employees. When a company offers education benefits, everyone wins.
Dr. Jill Buban is vice president and general manager of EdAssist by Bright Horizons, the nation’s leading education-benefits provider partnering with 250 companies and 220 postsecondary institutions across the U.S.