Boom, Not Bust, for Employer-Funded Learning

The 2020 recession didn’t slow corporate spending on employee education and training. A $150 million investment in Guild Education, which helps employees find the learning they need, suggests continued growth in the market.

June 3, 2021

The number of entities seeking to help corporations educate and train their employee bases has grown significantly in the last few years.

Some of these organizations, such as Bright Horizons' EdAssist Solutions, Guild Education, Arizona State University's InStride and Edcor, focus on managing companies' tuition benefits programs by matching workers with courses and programs and providing external support. Other corporations pay to give their employees access to the offerings of online course providers such as Coursera for Business, edX and Pluralsight. "Competency marketplaces" such as LinkedIn Learning and the community college-focused Unmudl are also in the mix.

Spending on employee training and development often dries up during economic downturns, as it did in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, and some observers expected that might happen during the COVID-19-driven recession last year. But that's not what happened.

Many of these providers experienced meaningful growth in demand for their services, and an announcement Wednesday suggests more growth ahead: additional investment of $150 million in Guild Education, which values the company at $3.75 billion, up from about $1 billion a year and a half ago.

Paul Freedman, president of Guild's learning marketplace, said that any tendency financially strained employers might have had to pull back on educating their employees was "overwhelmed by the tsunami of the shift to a knowledge economy" and the fact that the "half-life of skills is shrinking."

When companies want to ensure that their employees have (and continue to have) the right knowledge and skills to do their current jobs effectively and be prepared to advance, they have a few options. They can invest heavily in creating their own education and training programs, as major companies like Amazon, Google and IBM do. They can try to work with colleges or alternative education providers to craft programs or credentials to train people for specific jobs.

Or they can find ways to give employees (and in some cases their family members) access to a wide array of learning opportunities at little or no cost, which has proven to be an effective way to retain employees.

It is in this latter domain that Guild, InStride and the other tuition benefit platforms generally operate. Guild works with companies (it won't say how many, but they include Walmart, Disney, Chipotle and Taco Bell) that collectively sponsor the tuition benefits of about four million employees. While only a small portion of those employees may ever use the benefit, those that do (mostly front-line workers) have access to roughly 2,350 programs from Guild's partner colleges and universities. Again, the privately held company declined to say how many academic partners it has, but it "has tripled from last fall," a spokesperson said. (Guild also does not reveal what colleges pay Guild when employees enroll in their programs.)

Guild chooses its providers of academic programs (mostly colleges and universities, but also boot camps and other alternative providers) "based on how strong their programs are for working learners," Freedman said. Then its employer partners decide which courses and programs from Guild's learning partners to make available to their employees.

"The quality of our courses are essentially double curated," said Freedman.

Guild's software and its coaches then help employees identify the courses and programs in its marketplace best suited to their needs.

"It's a very complex set of matches," Freedman said. "What are my job aspirations? Where do I have credit from, and will it count? Where am I located?"

Guild will use the new funds, which come from an array of venture capital firms, to double the size of the technology and engineering team that refines its platform and to place academic coaches in regional hubs across the country, rather than only in its Denver headquarters.

Ryan Craig, managing director of the investment firm University Ventures and author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (and an Inside Higher Ed opinion contributor), said the investment in Guild Education was a clear indicator of the growing attention being paid to the education and training of adult and working learners.

He said tuition assistance programs like those managed through EdAssist, Guild and InStride are valuable for companies and their employees. But the "next stage of evolution" that will be more important, Craig said, will be when intermediaries move beyond offering "off-the-shelf courses and programs … The real need is to go into a large employer, map out the roles, skills and career pathways for its future employees, and custom design programs … that take workers from point A to point B," Craig said. "Nobody is doing that at scale yet."

Freedman said Craig might be surprised how much of that Guild is already doing.

"Part of Guild’s mission is to help employers identify where their jobs of the future are going to be, and to help guide their employees down a path to help them prepare for those jobs," Freedman said. "We're making company's education benefit investment more strategic by connecting it to upskilling both for their desires and that of their employees."

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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