What the NBA's MVP can Teach Us About Continuing Education

06/15/2015 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

During the 2011 NBA lockout, many players headed overseas to play with foreign teams and keep their skills fresh. Stephen Curry, the star of the Golden State Warriors, took a different approach. He used the downtime to re-enroll at Davidson College to finish his senior thesis and obtain his sociology degree. Before Curry could achieve his lifelong goal of walking at graduation, however, the lockout ended and he had to go back to work.

Not unlike Curry, many Americans would love to further their education but life and job keep them too busy; in Curry's case, he's been occupied winning this season's MVP award and leading the Warriors to the NBA Finals. While that may not be everyone's personal dilemma, it invites an important question to be asked in a broader context: What can employers do to assist in the process of education?

Coffeehouse titan Starbucks is leading the movement to educate the workforce. About a year ago, the company announced its plan to support all employees in their endeavors to earn a college degree through dedicated assistance both financially and programmatically. This seems revolutionary - an employer paying for part- and full-time employees' college education in a dedicated program. But it shouldn't be. Taking a page from Starbucks' playbook, in an ideal world, having employers pay to educate their future workforce would be the norm, not an exception.

Some employers do currently offer an option to pay for or subsidize education. However, it is still not the standard. Oftentimes it comes with a catch. The employer requires the employee to participate in additional training, or classes for renewing occupational licenses, where the worker is obligated to participate. For employees who do seek higher education, it typically is a secondary education to supplement their current degree earned prior to joining the workforce.

I think collaboration with employers is one of the biggest challenges to changing the fundamentals of workplace education to become a system producing true, meaningful results. This is a big change for employers - to think about engaging employees before they join the company. Having companies fund, participate and nurture the types of workers they'd want to hire helps guarantee employees are work ready. This investment is similar to how the NBA relies on the NCAA to develop and prepare athletes like Curry to play professional basketball. In a way, it's like an internship, as student-athletes do not receive payment but gain valuable experience that prepares to them to become an immediate contributor at the next level.

As an employer, I'm a guy that is passionate about hiring interns. My concept as a CEO and my company's chief talent officer is to hire for passion and train for skill. Early on in my work as CEO of HireVue, I brought in Michael Henneman, an intern from a local university who was pure, raw talent. His biggest asset was his enthusiasm. I brought him on board to run my social media channels and help create sales leads for HireVue's game changing digital interviewing platform. Through hard work, organization, and passion, Michael exceeded all of my expectations and was very successful in generating leads for the company. We then brought him on for a full time position in our marketing group. I am happy to report that Michael is still at HireVue. In the three years he's been with the company, he's been promoted three times.

Another part of that educational paradigm is the looming financial factor. When higher education institutions were first established, they were meant for the elite - royalty and aristocrats were able to become more educated. But in an age where education is less determined by our fate, why is it still so difficult to obtain? Curry was fortunate enough to enjoy a scholarship from Davidson, but I envision a day where all education, both secondary and high level, is free - funded by employers or at some level. But what can be done right now?

While higher education isn't free yet - unless you work for Starbucks or another big corporation - it can be more affordable and accessible. Community colleges and online universities provide flexible, cost-friendly options to higher education. In fact, more community colleges are offering classes online to meet the high demand for e-learning.

An online-based experiential learning experience is also an alternative solution, solving both the cost and flexibility issues. Like internships and apprenticeships, experience-based programs put the focus on learning by doing, rather than on studying. While this method is a good way to get the hands-on experience to really learn those theories taught in a classroom, it's also a great way to build the skills students would need in any job setting, like communication skills and teamwork. One such program that's making this happen is Knod, a project-based learning experience that I advise. Knod empowers students to work with real companies to complete projects, giving them two years of work experience before they graduate.

The recent spotlight on Curry serves as a reminder of the value people place on obtaining an education, but also the obstacles that prevent them from pursuing it. Employers can play a valuable role in removing these barriers by taking employee engagement to the next level and really thinking about it early on - before the hiring process begins. Engaging with prospective employees by nurturing their education guarantees a workforce that is work ready as they step out of their cap and gown into the office.