In times of rapid change, workers want and need to update their skills to keep up. For them, upskilling and reskilling opportunities are no longer just a workplace perk, they’re a must-have. And for companies, they’re an essential strategy for helping employees thrive and keeping their organization competitive.

More than three in five employers say they invest in training because of the return on investment, according to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Companies benefit when employees learn, whether it’s through technology training, leadership development or education courses. 

So how can employees and employers avoid being left behind? We spoke with six experts to explore why continuing education is good for employees — and essential for companies too. 

It’s a clear return on investment

Michelle Weise, author of Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet, says that employees who expand their skill sets through continuing education will become more valuable to current and prospective employers — and better equipped to survive the future of work. “Ongoing skill development will become a way of life,” she says. 

The organization that prioritizes the continuing education of its employees will fare better with productivity, engagement and retention. Some 58% of employers say skills-based training improves employee retention, according to the SHRM study. Research shows that organizations with a strong learning culture are 52% more productive and 17% more profitable.

“In an economy where external hiring and replacing an employee costs more than upskilling a current one, improving retention is important,” says Gautam Tambay, co-founder and CEO of the online learning company Springboard. “Upskilling programs can both increase retention and offer a clear return on investment.”

It prepares your company for the future

What employees learned in school or higher ed is no longer sufficient to last them for their entire careers. A skills gap — the disparity between skills needed in the workforce and the number of workers with those skills — is a worsening issue in the U.S. and beyond, Weise says. “Over the last four decades, employers have retreated from training their workers in favor of ‘buying’ talent from outside of the company,” Weise says. But leaders who begin building their existing talent will reap dividends on their intermediate- and long-term competitiveness.

Nitin Gupta, VP of enterprise at MasterClass, says “the speed of technological advancement and business transformation is only increasing, and the ‘tech-celeration’ caused by the pandemic only made this problem worse.” The skills gap, he says, is particularly pronounced in the area of human skills — skills that “can’t easily be automated.”

It develops future leaders

When companies invest in learning opportunities for their employees, it has a ripple effect, says Stuart Curtis, senior director of global talent development at Workhuman, a provider of human capital management software solutions. “Continuing learning, in enabling employees to remain agile in their thinking, accelerates innovation and the ability of an organization to attract more innovative talent.”

Chipotle, for example, partners with Guild Education to offer employees the opportunity to earn debt-free degrees in more than 100 programs at 10 universities. Daniel Banks, director of global benefits at the restaurant chain, says investing in employees’ growth builds internal and external brand ambassadors, and also “helps develop leaders to prepare for future growth and drive innovation.”

It supports diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging

As a way to engage, retain and promote talent, continuing education is particularly important when it comes to workers from historically marginalized communities, says Lorna Hagen, chief people officer at Guild Education, which works with companies to provide education assistance benefits to employees. 

“Half of the learners we support identify as non-white, and 76% are first-generation college students,” Hagen says. As an example, Black workers at a prominent U.S. retailer that participated in a recent Guild Education program were found to be 88% more likely to receive promotions than non-participants.

Closing credentials and skills gaps in underrepresented frontline populations makes a meaningful impact, Hagen says, by providing “career advancement opportunities and economic mobility for those who have traditionally been left behind.” Creating this culture of opportunity helps all employees feel more involved, valued and respected — and can make any company a more inspiring place to work.