You spend months, possibly even years, hunting for the right job. You make it through hurdle after hurdle, from multiple interviews to onboarding, and you are ready to start training. And then, you are asked to sign a Training Repayment Agreement Provisions (TRAPs) agreement. And as sketchy as the name sounds, you do it because, well, you need a job! Before you know it, you find yourself on the hook, either right away or when you try to switch jobs, for thousands of dollars of repayment for training your company asked you to do—all in an effort to secure employee buy-in.
Training repayment to guarantee employee buy-in
This is the situation a growing number of employees, especially ones in industries with lower pay and high turnover, are finding themselves in. A recent Skynova survey of around 1,000 employees’ and managers’ opinions on the topic of training repayment showed that “over three in four employees agreed being required to pay for their training if they quit within a year of being hired would increase retention.”
In July 2022, the Student Borrower Protection Center released a report titled Trapped at Work: How Big Business Uses Student Debt to Restrict Worker Mobility detailing the issue. “These firms’ weapon of choice is ‘shadow’ student debt, or nontraditional forms of credit used to finance higher education and job training,” according to the report, leading to what they call “massive financial consequences if they exercise their right to find work elsewhere.”
Many experts find the practice to be not only unethical, but potentially predatory on employees. Marina Kats Fraigun, a Los Angeles-based lawyer and owner of Fraigun Law Group, explains that the California government, among other states, has become “somewhat critical” of these types of agreements. “These agreements make it difficult for the employee to leave the job, which interferes with their freedoms. I don’t think there are really advantages to this for the employee. To the extent it gets them training, it is training they could get on their own for less money and which does not tie them to the job,” she says.
Here’s what employees should watch out for if their employers ask them to pay for training, and what employers should consider before using this strategy for retention or to create long-term loyalty.
The government investigates the debt-inducing practice
While employers might think they are protecting their investment (a well-trained employee) and preventing them from leaving for a competitor with all their training, they are also risking imposing thousands of dollars of debt on their new hire. In 2022, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “launched an inquiry into practices and financial products that may leave employees indebted to their employers,” according to a press release. Specifically, they were researching whether the employees had a “meaningful choice in accepting employer-driven debt products,” as well as the “terms and conditions for these products, including whether they might impede someone from seeking a better-paying job.” They pointed employees struggling with this to their “submit a complaint” page.
Fraigun says that employees should refrain from signing any sort of TRAPs agreements, or similar agreements, that might interfere with their ability to leave employment. “It effectively traps them. It is usually not worth it,” she adds.
Types of training—and which might be subject to employees having to pay
But, not all training is created equally. Jennifer Messina, Ph.D., a New York City-based certified psychologist and founder and CEO of FORTE Collective, says to first consider which type you are dealing with:
Optional professional development training: “Companies should invest in their high-potential talent and provide a budget for professional training opportunities. Only motivated employees would proactively seek these opportunities, and as long as the training is aligned with the role/employee growth path, the company should cover the total cost.”
Required corporate or professional training: “It is only sensible that the company carries the total cost.”
Advanced certification/degree programs: Messina says in this case it’s “reasonable” to expect some literal buy-in from the employee, sharing the expense of the tuition. “The rationale here is both the level of investment in formal degree/certificate programs and the fact that the employee will benefit throughout their career as a direct result.”
Before signing anything, determine which type of training the employer is referencing, especially if they present you with an agreement that seems vague on that distinction.
Payment and employee buy-in to the company mission
If only all bosses learned how true motivation works before leading a company—but many haven’t. It might seem logical to think that if a company financially invests in an employee, that the employee will feel more long-term loyalty or commitment to their employer. But experts say that may not always be the case.
“Employees who are not motivated to engage in professional training will often fail to reap the benefits. In my experience, access to specialized training is highly appealing to individuals who are motivated to grow in their roles. Therefore, the requirement that they pay for such training would either demotivate them to attend or decrease their engagement with their current company,” Messina says. “Asking employees to report on learnings, identifying ways to apply training experiences to improve their work performance, etc., are better alternatives to drive ‘buy-in’ than requiring employees to pay for their professional development.”
Varying expectations by industry
Instead of determining expectations and realities across all industries, focus on best practices within your own to determine how common and ethical this practice may or may not be. Neil Thompson, the San Diego-based founder of Teach the Geek, works frequently with tech professionals looking for training to better present concepts to not-so-techy professionals. He offers trainings for which employers often reimburse employees, an expectation in the tech industry, he says.
“Many companies, especially in the tech industry, also have learning and development departments that provide trainings for employees. These departments also partner with vendors to provide trainings for employees. In both cases, there’s no cost to employees. Since many employees have to do more with less due to layoffs, companies would be smart to provide trainings or risk employees burning out due to the increased workload,” he says. He also noted how employees might feel a lack of motivation if employers ask them to cover their own training.
“When employees are well trained, they’re more likely to care about the company’s mission. I worked at a company that wouldn’t pay for the training I wanted to do, only the training it wanted me to do,” he says. “After a while, I didn’t care one bit about the company’s mission because I didn’t think the company cared about me. So while I was well trained, I was becoming well trained for my next employer.”
How employers can increase loyalty and motivation
First, the current job landscape isn’t your father’s workplace. This means that expecting 30 years of loyalty from an employee just might not be realistic anymore. “Loyalty and commitment to a company have changed dramatically over the years—a long tenure today can be between one to three years—versus the lifetime commitment of another era,” says Rosalind Franklin, executive coach at Boyden, a California-based leadership and talent advisory firm.
According to the Top Employers Institute World of Work Trends Report 2023, offering workshops and training to support employee development has increased by 8% from 2021 to 2023. The report notes that employers are recognizing the importance of investing in their employees’ professional development as a way to increase retention, engagement and productivity, according to Trevor Bogan, a Charleston, South Carolina-based regional director of the Americas for Top Employers Institute.
“As a result, many companies are expanding their training and development programs and offering more opportunities for employees to learn new skills and advance their careers. This is seen as a key trend in the workplace for 2023 and beyond,” Bogan notes, adding that putting employees in the “driver’s seat” of their own learning is much more effective.
Companies wanting to build an educated employee will invest in their people, rather than trying to secure employee buy-in through less genuine means. Franklin adds, “Many companies will state as their core value that ‘their people are their most valuable asset’… investing in employees can demonstrate that tangibly.”
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