Explore the benefits of offering a learning stipend, how it boosts employee growth, and why it's a game-changer for companies aiming for long-term success.
Running a business is an expensive proposition—and offering a learning stipend to further employee education may seem like an extravagant expenditure. But every company should help employees further their learning goals, both personal and professional.
It sounds a little crazy. Why would you pay for your employees to learn things that they could potentially learn on the job? Or things that don’t affect their jobs in any way whatsoever?
We’ll show you that it’s not only worth your money, but that you’ll get a great return on investing in employee education. And that offering an education stipend is one of the best ways to do it.
What is a learning stipend?
A learning stipend is a designated amount of money allocated by an organization to support employees' professional development. It enables employees to invest in courses, conferences, books, or other educational resources of their choice, fostering a culture of continuous learning and growth within the company.
How Buffer Gets Employee Education Right
Buffer has developed a reputation for being progressive and not settling for doing things the way they’ve always been done. A great example of that is their unlimited Kindle books perk; employees get a free Kindle when they’re hired and can get any number of books they like, paid for by Buffer.
This is part of Buffer’s learning culture; constant self-improvement is one of the 10 core values of the company. When Buffer was ready to invest more in employee development, they added a monthly learning stipend, giving each employee $20 to spend every month on learning.
It doesn’t have to be on skills related to their job; it could be directly relevant, indirectly relevant, or on something else entirely. In 2017, at least two people at Buffer used their stipend to learn about weaving (we’ll talk about why this is important in a moment). Of course, there was plenty of job-related learning; employees learned about software development, wireframing, leadership, and data science as well.
Buffer isn’t the only company to excel in supporting employee education (Slack also does a great job), but they’re obviously fully committed to enabling employee learning, both on and off the job.
There’s a reason why Buffer is considered both highly successful and progressive.
Taking the Long View (or, The Danger of Specialization)
There’s been a trend over the last several decades to move from well-rounded, generally capable employees to specialized experts. It’s true of education, where students are getting increasingly specialized degrees, and is becoming ever-more true of the professional world, where highly specific skills are valued over well-rounded skillsets.
We get that. It seems like the best investment is to make sure that an employee in any particular position is going to have the greatest knowledge of that particular area.
But that’s a short-term solution. Highly specialized employees are great at doing what they do best, there’s no arguing that. But few positions—especially in today’s quickly changing professional environment, and even more so in the startup world—really only focus on one area. Employees are expected to cooperate, take on new responsibilities, be good communicators, and resist burnout.
Well-rounded employees are likely to be better in all of these areas than specialists. Burnout is an especially poignant issue; well-rounded employees may be more resilient to on-the-job stress. Which could save you a lot of money in the long run; specialized employees can cost up to 400% of their annual salary to replace.
Taking a long-term view helps employers see the importance of continuous learning; happier, more well-rounded employees are highly valuable. Not only are happy employees are more productive, but employees committed to learning and broadening their skillsets are great for companies who are changing or have difficulty finding someone with the exact set of skills necessary for a position. These employees are adaptable, a characteristic that’s often undervalued but extremely important.
In the long term, a well-rounded employee will outperform a highly specialized one. The benefits may be difficult to quantify at first, but the increased resilience, soft skills, and happiness combine to make an asset that’s tough to beat in terms of long-term value. And that well-roundedness will be helped by personal development.
Let’s take a look at the learning stipend, a great way to both attract and foster learning-focused, well-rounded employees.
Burnout is an especially poignant issue; well-rounded employees may be more resilient to on-the-job stress.
Why Pay for Non-Job-Related Learning?
This is likely the first question that many readers will ask in a conversation about learning stipends. Employee education is expensive. Buffer’s $20-per-employee-per-month system costs them $18,000 per year. Slack likely pays even more. What return are they likely to see on that money if employees are pursuing personal learning goals that have no bearing on their jobs?
In short, continuous learning contributes to other factors that improve employee performance. Studies have shown that workplace learning contributes to job satisfaction—and while we aren’t aware of any studies that show a connection between personal learning and job satisfaction or similar factors, there’s no reason to think they aren’t related.
Personal learning encourages self-determination, self-esteem, a sense of efficacy, and a desire for further learning. Buffer sums it up by saying that personal development creates a “more well-rounded individual.”
And while it’s tempting to always aim for specialists in every part of your team, the value of well-rounded, curious, self-teaching employees can’t be overstated. These are the employees that are going to be high performers, no matter if they’re at the executive level or working the front desk. That’s where you’re going to see a big return on your investment.
Let’s not forget job satisfaction, either; offering to help employees learn and meet their personal goals is a great way to show your employees that they’re valuable to you, and that their personal lives matter. There’s no better recipe for job satisfaction or retention. The longer you retain these hard-working, self-motivating, curious employees, the more benefits you’ll see.
It’s a repeating cycle.
Remember that it’s important to let employees decide where to spend their stipend. Even if you prefer that they spend it on professional training instead of personal, give your employees the freedom to choose what they want to learn about. Be open to indirectly related areas of training, or even professional development that seems completely unrelated.
Want to calculate training for your ROI?
Employees Happily Use Their Stipend on Relevant Skills
It’s easy to focus on the fact that companies are paying for non-job-related skills and wonder if your business can possibly afford that. But it’s also important to remember that employees will actively and happily pursue job-related training, as well.
Sometimes it’s directly related to their job; developers will gain skills in programming techniques, copywriters will improve their writing skills, managers will take leadership courses. Or it could be indirectly related, helping an employee become more versatile or transition to another role in the company.
No matter what employees are pursuing, they’re gaining valuable skills that can be put to use for your company. It’s easy to see how you’ll benefit from that skill-building when it’s directly related to someone’s primary job, but remember that developing other skills is important, too. When employees can help each other out or take on additional responsibilities outside of their primary areas, you have a better-connected, more capable team.
Offering a general stipend, like Buffer, is one option. You can also follow Slack’s model; they offer $500 per year on personal development and $2,000 per year on professional development. Giving employees the flexibility to learn what they want to learn shows them, again, that you value their learning and development.
And you might be surprised at how often people will choose to learn more about their jobs.
Instituting a Learning Stipend at Your Company
“All of this is great,” you might be thinking, “but I can’t afford to pay for employees’ personal development!” We acknowledge that it’s not going to be easy. Especially because it could be difficult to tie your investment in continuous learning back to your bottom line.
But as Buffer shows, you don’t have to invest thousands of dollars in each employee. Though we’d love to see that, we know it’s not possible for most companies. Yes, $18,000 per year sounds like a lot. But when you break it down to $20 per employee per month, it seems much more reasonable. At a small company, that might only be a few thousand dollars. And while that’s still a lot of money, the benefits we discussed above are absolutely worth that investment.
What if you can’t even swing that much? You can still offer learning opportunities. Offer to pay for one online course for each employee once or twice a year. It’s not too hard to find courses that are less than $50.
Still too much? Buy every employee a single book that will help them learn, whether job-related or not. Unless someone wants a textbook or an industry volume, you’re probably looking at $10–$15 per person (especially if at least some people are open to ebooks). Even if you decide to do that once per quarter, that’s a very affordable way to encourage learning among your employees.
Of course, we’d encourage every company to set aside money for a learning stipend. But we understand that many businesses will need to start small. Just because you can’t offer as much as you’d like doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start now. Offer what you can, and plan to offer more next month, next quarter, or next year.
Get Feedback from Your Employees and Get Started
Before you institute a learning stipend—or any other training and development—at your company, talk to your employees. Ask them what they would find useful or valuable. See what advice and feedback they have to offer.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to start supporting your employees’ learning and development with a stipend!