Yawns, smiles and laughter. When your friends do one of those things, it’s hard to not follow their lead. Each of those things is contagious, and once someone gets going, it’s hard for those around them to not join in. But there’s something else entirely different that is proving to be quite contagious at Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer hot dog plant in Columbia, Mo. — continuing education.

“One or two employees may start a continuing-education program, talk about it at work and soon after someone else is interested in it,” says Jeff Memmer, a catalyst site coordinator for Kraft Foods and current student in a dual-degree, distance-delivered master’s program. “It’s a common topic and part of the plant’s culture.”

Kraft offers its hourly and salaried employees the opportunity to pursue both credit and non-credit educational opportunities. Some employees attend technical short courses specifically related to their job, while others return to college to finish a bachelor’s degree they started or earn a graduate degree. Regardless of the program, it has to relate to the type of work the employee currently performs or will potentially perform in the future, Memmer explains.

Companies can create a more productive and efficient workforce, along with developing its next generation of leadership, by supporting professional development through continued education.

“It’s a win-win for the employer and the employee,” says Michael Eddy, director of continuing education at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “For employees, it’s a pathway to enhancing their skills and qualifications, and employers end up with more qualified employees who are capable of providing more value to the company.”

Supporting employees’ educational efforts is a way for companies to reward people and build loyalty, Eddy says. The employees become more confident in the organization and the possibility of future promotions.

Companies take different approaches to helping their employees participate in continuing-education programs, according to Eddy. After they have worked with the employee to identify the right program or have approved the employee’s original program request, some companies offer to pay all or a portion of the employee’s tuition. In other models, an employee can take a class and then submit a request of reimbursement based on a level of success predetermined by the company. If a company can’t financially support its employees, it may offer to give employees time off for educational pursuits.

Since most employees can’t afford to stop working and go back to school full-time, they take advantage of local colleges’ night and weekend programs. Others, like Memmer, who travel extensively or can’t commit to a specific class schedule, enroll in distance-learning programs.

“People want distance-learning opportunities,” Eddy says. “It gives them so many options in terms of the institutions they can enroll in and the convenience of studying at any time and any place. Plus, employers like it because it doesn’t take the employee out of the workplace.”

Matt Buyers, the vice president of operations and human resources at JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding LLC in Loveland, Colo., believes in the value of continuing education because he wants his employees to “do things better and different tomorrow than they did today.”

Buyers oversees the company’s training and development initiatives and encourages co-workers to participate in professional development programs. At the same time, he admits he’s making an investment in the career of someone who may end up working for his competition.

“It’s hard for [employers] to measure their return on investment in the case of continued education,” Buyers explains. “We see how our performance improves as a result, and we hope that the investment builds loyalty. But, it’s a gamble.”

Some companies protect themselves from this gamble by requiring employees to commit to working for a certain length of time after they complete their education, Eddy says.

While some employees definitely seek continued education hoping for a raise or promotion, it’s not always the reason. A recent study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that 95 percent of the adults who reported taking work-related courses did so in order to maintain or improve skills and knowledge they already had, and 83 percent took courses to learn a new skill or method they didn’t already know. Only 10 percent hoped to get a new job with a different employer.

Enhancing his analytical skills and better understanding the approaches to problem-solving are two benefits Memmer has experienced in the master’s program he is enrolled in through Purdue University and Indiana University.

“It has really helped me improve as a manager and leader,” he says. “One of the best aspects of doing this program while I’m working full-time is that I can immediately apply what I’m learning to issues and projects that come up at work.”

Memmer has seen how the contagious desire for continuing education has positively impacted the employees at his plant. They’re learning, taking on more responsibilities and being promoted. Continuing education may not normally come to mind when someone says “contagious,” but Memmer hopes that at his plant it will continue to rank right up there with smiles.