Nelnet case study: mapping a path to employee retention

Challenge: Build pathways to spur employee growth and retention

“If we don’t know what jobs will exist in the future, how do we educate our people for them?” 

That’s one of the big questions Allison Gemelke was asking herself in 2020. Gemelke is a senior corporate trainer at Nelnet, one of the largest and most respected student loan servicers in the United States. Like many learning and development (L&D) professionals, she’d witnessed the rapid acceleration of career and skill changes during the pandemic — and recognized the risk it posed to businesses. At the same time, she was struggling to find educational programs that would provide real opportunities for advancement while accommodating employees' full-time schedules and addressing a variety of educational backgrounds.

To get ahead of the problem, Gemelke and the Nelnet L&D team identified two key challenges: closing the skill gap and retaining talent. First, they would help close skill gaps in critical areas such as cybersecurity, information technology, finance, and compliance. Second, they’d create sustained career pathways that could be tailored to different education and experience levels. 

These initiatives would help Nelnet achieve an even more impactful goal: Expand its culture of continuous learning. The company already had a clearly defined talent-acquisition strategy, a robust onboarding process and a strong sense of community, but Gemelke knew those attributes would go to waste without integrated, organization-wide support.

“It’s like building a house without a blueprint,” Gemelke said. “If I don’t know what I’m building, those resources and tools are just going to sit there.” 

Solution: Offer credit-backed microcredentials programs

With edX for Business, Nelnet was able to bring the blueprint into being and expand their award-winning Nelnet University offerings. 

The MicroBachelors® and MicroMasters® programs from edX for Business offered subject-specific content Nelnet employees needed to transition into new roles. It also gave the L&D team time to focus on the implementation of these programs and to move faster overall — a compelling benefit given how quickly many tech skills evolve and become outdated.

“If we had to develop all that content from scratch, it would have taken much longer,” said Gemelke. “It would significantly hamper our ability to get our associates the skills they need in the right amount of time.”

MicroBachelors and MicroMasters programs are tailored to fast-growing, business-critical fields such as cybersecurity and information technology, incorporating skill areas like leadership and innovation. 

Through the programs, Nelnet employees could build those skills while earning credits and powerful credentials. If they wished, they could even put their credits towards a full degree — whether they were returning to school or starting it for the first time. Nelnet was also drawn to the modular and stackable nature of the programs, which gave Nelnet employees a flexible way to upskill quickly, demonstrate proficiency and keep learning as jobs evolved. It would make the whole company more agile and growth-focused in the long run.

“These programs stood out because they offer the opportunity to enroll in college-level courses and gain real credit and a certificate, without the commitment of a full degree,” Gemelke said. “I brought it to the team and we developed a pilot plan.” 

The L&D team started with a small group of pilot edX programs. Of special interest was the Cybersecurity program. “Globally there is a known shortage of people with cyber skills. We wanted to put into place a process for getting our associates the knowledge and skills to fill this gap. edX made this easy to do.”

Impact: Above-target participation and increased retention

Above-target enrollments: Nelnet’s L&D team set a goal of piloting the MicroBachelors or MicroMasters program with 10 associates. In the end, they enrolled over 30. 

Improved retention: In the early days of the Great Resignation, Nelnet saw increased retention among employees who participated in the edX for Business program. Some employees have even moved into new roles.

Executive-level praise: The programs have drawn attention from a wide array of employees. The executive chairman of Nelnet’s board was so excited about the partnership that he requested an enrollment code for a data science course — a critical reflection of Nelnet’s culture of continuous learning. 

Based on the program's initial results, Gemelke said the Nelnet L&D team is considering other edX for Business offerings like professional certificate programs that allow employees to learn new skills without seeking a degree.

Results: One year later

65% employee pass rate

114 enrollments across 45 courses

600+ collective hours of learning in the program’s first year

 

Through the pilot program, Nelnet employees: 

  • Developed their foundational knowledge of business-critical skills.
  • Gained the confidence to tackle new career paths and full degrees.
  • Earned college credit based on their course scores.
  • Felt more connected to the organization, which resulted in higher retention rates.
  • Spent more time advancing their careers.

Nelnet employees took a variety of edX for Business programs, including:

 

Recommendations

  1. Select high-potential employees with targeted learning goals.
  2. Measure pre-learning performance and post-learning performance.
  3. Develop a plan to communicate impact and scale opportunities.

Looking ahead

What’s next for Nelnet? Given the success and popularity of the pilot program, Gemelke says her team wants to build more directed pathways for associate career development, tie career development to the core competencies of the organization, and create more opportunities for self-directed learning. They will:

  1. Expand educational offerings: The team wants to embrace credentials like certificates, as well as learner-driven programs that will give younger generations of employees the autonomy to map their careers and realize long-term goals.

  2. Emphasize core competencies: Nelnet plans to use Workday to manage their competency framework. That will enable employees to track certifications and facilitate 4x4 development conversations, which will focus on goal-tracking and accomplishments.

  3. Facilitate internal recruiting: Workday has a “gig” function that allows workers to enter skills and knowledge, which means leaders and recruiters will be able to actively seek out current employees with the skills they need for certain roles. 

Gemelke and her team know they have their work cut out for them. In the midst of technological advancement and a global fight for talent, no one can predict the future — but we can find ways to prepare for it. Gemelke says that process starts with people: Giving them structured development opportunities, helping them uncover new strengths, and inspiring them to map their own career paths. And that’s a story we can all get behind.

 

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