It may be hard to believe, but in tumultuous economic times, executive education is somewhat recession proof — at least as far as employees are concerned. People who have lost their jobs have more time to go back to school, while those who are still employed may feel the need to enhance their skills.
University administrators and instructors see no less interest in educational opportunities as the economy spins downward. Even businesses that have downsized continue to pay a portion of tuition costs for those employees who remain. But at companies where training and development programs are among the first to be eliminated, experts suggest such moves are shortsighted.
Andy Atzert, assistant dean of the Arizona State University W. P. Carey School of Business and director of the school’s Business Center for Executive and Professional Development, does see a diminished demand from companies for customized executive education programs.
“The reason is that they are very visible expenses, a big line item that a company can slash when desperate,” Atzert says. “They’re shifting back to open enrollment. They’re not necessarily cutting back on education funding for individuals. The money is distributed through departments and it’s a less visible expenditure.”
Employers benefit from executive education programs in today’s economy because the skills of employees who remain expand. For example, an engineer who is promoted to fill a vacancy might need to acquire knowledge about marketing.
Strange as it may seem after layoffs, another benefit is employee retention.
“When a company lays off people, it worries about the effect on people who remain,” Atzert says.“You’ve pared down, and you don’t want to lose more employees. That’s one of the reasons for not cutting the education budget.”
Atzert describes education, and that includes executive education programs, as being “a counter-cyclical business.”
“What commonly happens in an economic downturn is that when there is not full employment and not a lot of jobs out there, people seek opportunities to retrain,” he says. “People who are employed polish up their resume a bit, just in case. Insecurity causes a person to make oneself more competitive.”
Mike Seiden, outgoing president of Western International University, agrees that historically, education is recession proof.
“We don’t see any abatement coming to us for degree programs,” Seiden says. “When people are losing their jobs, they recognize that a degree is important, and when times are good, companies support their employees by providing educational opportunities. I don’t see any change in that, but I say that with a little bit of caution. This economic climate is a lot different from anything we have experienced in the last 40 to 60 years.”
While Arizona’s three state universities are facing budget cuts, and some smaller niche colleges are encountering economy-related problems, Western International, a forprofi t private institution that is part of the Apollo Group Inc., is not feeling a negative impact, Seiden says. Employer subsidies seem to be holding steady.
“But if unemployment increases substantially,” Seiden says, “and companies become more hard-pressed, who knows what will happen?”
Both ASU and Western International University have executive education partnerships with the Salt River Project. At ASU, the Small Business Leadership Academy provides CEOs of small and diverse businesses with a 10-week program designed to help take their businesses to the next level.
The first class, which consisted of 11 SRP suppliers and five SRP business customers, completed the program last November. A second group will start taking classes next August. Offered one evening a week at the ASU School of Business Tempe campus, the classes focused on such topics as business strategy, negotiations regarding terms of contracts, employee retention and corporate procurement.
“They learn what we look for as a procurement organization, so when they get my requests for proposals they know what to be prepared for,” says Art Oros, SRP manager of procurement services. “They have already shown tangible savings. The improvements helped them to maintain the edge they need in these times.”
The companies that participated are small businesses, many of which are minority owned.
“We had good diversity — all ethnicities and cultures,” Oros says.
At Western International, SRP helps to subsidize its own employees’ education as they pursue degrees.
“A company’s ability to help provide an education for its employees is paramount in today’s world,” Seiden says. “It not only helps ensure that the company will retain its employees, but it will improve productivity.”
Paul Palley, who teaches economics and statistics at the University of Phoenix, says his classes naturally turn to discussions of current events.
“The subject of bailouts is something that is brought up a lot,” says Palley, a city of Phoenix economist. “Students don’t really understand what’s going on. Bailout is not the best word. In many cases, it represents an investment — government purchasing equity. Sometimes students feel not enough is being done, and sometimes they feel too much is being done. It changes from student to student and from day to day.”
Kevin Gazzara, who recently retired from Intel, where he was program manager of management and leadership, is senior partner of Magna Leadership Solutions and University Research Chair for Organizational Behavior at the University of Phoenix. He has developed a statistical tool that enables employers to link training and development programs with business results.
“One of the first things to go in difficult economic times is training and development,” Gazzara says. “From our perspective, it should be one of the last things to go. Many organizations utilize training, but don’t know if they are getting a return on their investment. In tough economic times, I tell organizations to restrain from the urge to cut training to save some relatively small dollars.
“As managers are being asked to do more with fewer resources,” Gazzara adds, “raising their levels of skills so organizations can compete becomes essential, and the only way to do that is having the right training.”