By Amanda Jarboe, freelance writer

In this blizzard of change, the only thing safe to rely on is change. What a competitive business must find are skilled employees willing and eager to change quickly enough to spot relevancy, push efficiency, cut costs and stay put for this roller-coaster economy ride. You need employees that are smart and flexible. As a manager, you can’t afford to forget that employees who like to flex their mental muscles consider the company’s commitment to continuing their education. All the time. It’s right up there with salary and location when they weigh their options to accept a position or not.

“A company’s most valuable employees thrive on challenge and new levels of responsibility,“ says David Hakala of HR World.

Continuing business education programs specialize in building specific solutions to your organizational challenges that last several briefcases longer than most consulting contracts. Plus, for your employees to acquire by experience alone all the skills provided in a quality four-year MBA program would take decades and a little luck. Instead, selecting an online continuing-education program sponsored by an accredited university provides your employees with faculty instructors who cast an industry-wide net with their expertise, gather cutting-edge research trends and provide valuable networking. Often these kinds of contacts would happen as an employee criss-crossed the industry in advancement. Now with your support of continuing education, not only are you giving a good faith promise of challenges with your company, but you are earning an employee’s loyalty with your investment.

Don Wertman, chief operating officer of Seedway, Inc., supported one of his employees through a dual-degree, distance-delivered program offered by Purdue University and Indiana University. In 27 months, the employee earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics and a master’s of business administration (MBA).

“The tangible benefits to date are having employees who appreciate the company’s financial and moral support in pursuing advanced degrees,” Wertman says. “As well as the employee’s growth and development of business and analytical skills and the overarching satisfaction that comes with having completed challenging and inspiring course work.”

So now you have an employee in your mind’s eye, holding a sheaf of papers, a pen behind the ear and full of enthusiasm for this mental whitewater rafting. How can you make sure they make it through to the calm and not get gnashed on the rocks?

Tuition Assistance — Advanced degrees are a significant cash investment. That being said, neither of you should assume all financial obligation since the benefits to both are so entwined as to be inseparable. Most companies have a level or percentage of tuition they agree to pay. If not, establish one before you start paddling!

Educational Equipment — This set is more variable. Will the organization pay for books, computer access or a high-speed Internet? Again, a set policy ensures a predictable expense through the ranks.

Time Off — For employees who plan to continue working full time while pursuing their advanced degree, most of their course work will be offered online for flexibility and convenience of study. However, physically gathering as a class is vital. For example, the program Wertman’s employee completed required that he attend five one-week residencies. These residencies provide invaluable face time, cementing concepts introduced in the online curriculum and long-term connections with other industry students, as well as faculty. Offering time off, instead of requiring the use of vacation time, for in-class sessions reinforces the company’s commitment to the employee’s efforts.

Added Responsibilities — Confident skill is required to juggle continuing education, work and personal life. This same balancing encourages your employee to start flexing the business muscle, and your company begins reaping the rewards of their new responsibilities. This is especially true when the program requires a capstone project in lieu of a thesis. This project is an ideal opportunity to combine their detailed company knowledge with a solution backed by their education and the expertise of their classroom network.

We’ve described the advantages you as a manager can expect to see with continuing education, but what about other investors?

“The senior executives we report to are very supportive and impressed with our company efforts in pursuing advanced degrees,” Wertman says. “Also, as our various publics learn that Seedway staff members have or are pursuing advanced degrees, they are impressed with our commitment and vision.”