The fueling of independent study

You’ve all heard the adage that “you never stop learning,” and it is easy to see why that is true. Life and life’s experiences alone teach us something new every day.

Beyond that, technological changes are forced on us at such a rapid pace that one is very much forced to adapt and learn in order to survive.

Just think about how social interaction has changed, from the days of one or two “land line” telephones in the home, to cellular phones, to the Internet, social websites, user-produced media and Skype-ing.

In the workplace, learning has certainly grown from one-off training sessions (training that happens on one occasion or in a short period of time), to entire curricula and learning systems that are fully integrated with human resource strategies. The technological changes in learning delivery methods have fueled an even greater abundance of information and independent study available at every employee’s fingertips.

Self-Directed Learning

Another area that some companies have been leaning toward is self-directed learning. Though some training may be necessarily required by the company for certain job classifications, a portion of an employee’s annual learning can also be in a path chosen by that employee.

Thus, employees are encouraged to learn new knowledge and skills that may be outside of their current arena. For example, a worker in a primarily technical field may be interested in learning more about the operations, financial or management side of the business.

Some employers have expressed concern that allowing an employee to even partially choose his or her learning path will result in “training that employee for a job at another company.” While this does happen on occasion, most research has shown evidence of the opposite effect.

Employees working at a company that actively invests in their future tend to be more loyal, while those who feel stagnant and not given opportunities for additional training beyond their current job skillsets tend to be the ones who leave.

I can certainly vouch for determining, at least twice in my career, that my only opportunity for growth was to work somewhere else.

Also, having a diverse workforce that is cross-trained in several functions means you will have a more abundant pool of talent available to replace those who do leave.

The Issue of Cost

While most employers buy into the fact that their workforce must be properly trained and be able to adapt to new challenges, there is always the issue of cost.

It is easy for me, as a training professional, to push the long-term benefits of investing in your people, but I cannot ignore the fact that many businesses continue to be in survival mode, and must look to cut where they can.


One area that both private and public institutions have been increasingly pursuing is the Lifelong Learning Account (LiLA). This is very similar to a 401k program. Employees can contribute pre-tax dollars, or dollars that qualify for significant tax deductions, toward their own continuing education.

In many cases, employers will match employee contributions in full or in part and qualify for tax benefits themselves.

Some states have already begun offering these tax benefits and the LiLA is picking up steam at the federal level. LiLA legislation was introduced by a bipartisan group in Congress in 2008 and reintroduced in 2011.

Legislators and businesses alike recognize not only the growing challenge of funding ongoing education, but the importance of developing a workforce that can remain competitive in today’s global, rapidly changing economy.

Stephen Howe is manager of maintenance and technical training for United Rentals. Founded in 1997, United Rentals is the largest equipment rental company in the world, with an integrated network of more than 850 rental locations throughout the United States and Canada. Howe is a past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC), a global organization of training managers from automotive aftermarket, OEM, supplier, service tool and training companies.