Let’s just put it out there: You no longer need a degree to succeed in today’s digital era.

Tools and technologies evolve so rapidly that what students learn in their first year at an accredited university could be obsolete by the time they graduate. And the jobs these students land may be markedly different from the careers they’ve prepared for. As the rise of new roles such as AI research scientist and prompt engineer illustrate, we’re witnessing a radical shift in employment opportunities.

And that doesn’t even factor in the cost. With university fees trending upwards of £40,000, the debt students rack up for tuition could burden them for life. If you can build a good career in tech without having to pay for the degree…maybe you shouldn’t. And many aren’t, instead electing to explore alternate learning paths such as in-role training and development opportunities provided by prospective employers.

Employers are desperate for job candidates with the knowledge and practical experience to help fill the current skills gap. But traditional higher education isn’t producing talent that can immediately slot into these roles. The good news is that employees are hungry for opportunities to grow at work and are looking to employers to support them in lifelong learning. Providing training gives your employees a reason to stick around while helping them get even better at their jobs. And your organisation will be developing talent with the skills that will keep you competitive in the future. There’s no downside—here’s why.

The skills landscape is changing   

People leaders can no longer count on picking candidates from the top of their class each graduation year to fill roles with specific skills requirements. In fact, you may find it’s simpler to hire job seekers with strong general knowledge and help them learn the skills your company needs. If your organisation doesn’t already have a training programme, you have some work to do. I recommend sitting down with your chief technology officer to outline the skills your company sees as most important to future-proof the business. Then get moving on setting up a programme to support your employees in learning and implementing them.

It sounds more daunting than it really is, thanks to the abundance of quality learning partners out there. Just be sure to take a blended learning approach when developing your workplace training programme. Partner with an online learning platform that managers can use to help set up a curriculum for their teams. Make a range of webinars available, which are inexpensive to attend but can be as effective as the tech conferences of yesteryear. And consider one-on-one mentorships, either with internal leaders or outside experts. This mix of learning channels will allow your education programme to cater to a variety of learning styles and paces, which encourages your employees to continuously build their skills. And it’s likely to attract new talent as well, who will see you as an advantageous option compared to an expensive university.

The need for increased training opportunities 

The move away from traditional learning paths is already happening. Many big players, such as Amazon and SAS, offer training and development programmes to help their employees build the skills that will help them grow within (and beyond) their roles. Some companies, including Google, have also removed traditional educational requirements for certain positions and instead count their own online certificate programs as equivalent to a four-year degree. And where these prominent organisations go, many will follow.

A change in tides is coming. So don’t put off establishing a training programme—even if you’ll be doing so during an economic slowdown. You’ll never regret investing in your people. And if you wait until the market takes off again to begin training, it’ll be too little too late, hindering your organisation’s competitive edge against companies with workforces that are already equipped for the next technological revolution. And the benefits are greater than just giving your organisation an edge.

Workplace learning improves employee well-being—and retention

Today’s employees seek fulfilment beyond raises, bonuses, and the theoretical corner office. They’re looking for personal growth, mastery within their chosen field, and a sense of purpose that surpasses titles and hierarchies. So help them achieve their professional goals by offering them career paths, skills development opportunities, and training programmes to cater to their varied ambitions. You’ll empower them with the knowledge to contribute to the projects they’re interested in, which goes a long way in improving their well-being and their overall productivity. And by doing so you’ll help retain them too.

70% of employees recently reported that they would consider leaving their current role for an organisation known for investing in employee development and learning. And 90% said they would remain working for an organisation that invested in career development.

Those are striking numbers. They suggest that without individual professional growth, your talent will lose interest. And when they lose interest, they’re gone. So it’s in both your company’s and your employees’ best interest to help them grow their skills and learn the tools and technologies that can help propel their careers—and drive your business.

A look to the future

It isn’t up for debate: Upskilling and nurturing top talent is vital for continued success in today’s evolving technology landscape. Employers who wish to enrich their business with the best talent while working to close the current skills gap must facilitate a continuous learning journey. Specifically, one that encourages employees to take on new challenges and seek out opportunities for growth.

This isn’t a slight to a university education—there’s still tremendous value there for those who choose to attend. The communication and soft skills students develop are essential, as are the lifelong friendships that they build, which can become the basis of a strong interpersonal network. And taking those formative years to determine a career path can be very helpful for those still exploring their options. But potential students must weigh these benefits against ever-increasing tuition bills. And some will decide to forgo higher education. If your organisation is willing to invest in the skills of these self-starters, you offer them the opportunity to forge a tremendous career—without the debt.

Laura Baldwin
Laura Baldwin
President at O'Reilly

Laura is the first President of O'Reilly and is responsible for O'Reilly's businesses worldwide. She began working with O'Reilly as Chief Financial Officer and along her career added Chief Operating Officer to her responsibilities. Prior to O'Reilly, she was a consultant to the publishing industry and managed several large consulting engagements across all genres of publishing and media.