Workzone: Worker education losing perk

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Continuing education is a critical, even required, part of life for many professionals. Certified professional accountants, for example, must complete 80 hours of continuing professional education every two years to keep their license current.

Historically, many companies reimbursed employees for the cost of taking those courses and even let them attend classes on company time. As well as nurturing employees' personal growth, the thinking was, continuing education was a benefit that made valued employees more valuable to the company.

But this is one perk that no longer percolates in the business world.

A 2012 survey of 1,400 chief financial officers by Robert Half Finance & Accounting found just 26 percent said their companies help employees with tuition reimbursement, and only 5 percent fully reimbursed workers.

Compare that with a similar survey done in 2006, when 46 percent of CFOs said their company reimbursed tuition for staff members -- and 29 percent said that meant full reimbursement.

"It's certainly an area of frustration for a lot of people with a CPA license," said Andrew Sassaman, Pittsburgh branch manager for Robert Half.

A national economy that's been struggling for close to five years is one obvious reason for the change. A tuition reimbursement benefit can be expensive for employers, Mr. Sassaman said, and down times will quickly move it from a "must have" to a "must go."

One thing in employees' favor, he added, is that more continuing education courses are offered free online now, although he acknowledged that after a grueling work day "the last thing you want to do is come home and take a one-hour course online."

To say nothing of taking 80 hours' worth.

To meet that 80-hour requirement, Mr. Sassaman said, many CPAs prefer to attend two- to three-day conferences that may offer 30 or so hours of continuing education credit at one setting -- and those aren't free. At a cost ranging from $500 to $5,000, it doesn't take a CPA to understand the damage that can do to the family budget.

The hopeful news is that as the economy recovers, Mr. Sassaman expects tuition reimbursement may make a comeback, too, at least at larger companies trying to attract and retain top talent.

"But if the economy heads south again, it may not return."


Steve Twedt: or 412-263-1963.


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