Posted in Small Business Hacks | by: Kinjal Dagli Shah

Why This Startup Pays Their Team $15 an Hour to Read and Watch TED Talks

Student Loan Hero does something a little unusual with their 65-person team—they pay them twice.

We reward employees with extra cash when they invest time into their own learning,” explains Kate Arambula, Student Loan Hero’s People and Culture Director.

Career development isn’t just for giant companies to obsess about. In fact, job growth is way more important to millennials than salary hikes, no matter where they work. Tie that with the fact that finding talented employees is a top concern for business owners, and we have a real hiring challenge on our hands.

That’s where the company’s Learning Rewards program comes in. The program has helped Student Loan Hero achieve nearly zero turnover while improving their team’s skills—and they’ve already had over 40 percent of people take part.

Here’s how to try out their unique program with your own team.

Step 1: Buy every new hire a Kindle.

When a new employee joins, they receive an Amazon Kindle along with a $100 monthly stipend to buy educational content.

But here’s the twist—they also get $15 an hour for actually participating in learning-related activities that spark their interest. There is no cap on how much they can earn.

Here are the two activities employees can get paid for:

Eventually, Arambula hopes they can pay their team for even more tasks, including:

  • Reading any old book that they think will improve their skill set.
  • Taking an online course through a university or a site like Lynda, Udemy, or Skillshare.
  • Enrolling in an in-person course at a local university.

Step 2: Build your own library.

The heart of the program is a virtual bookshelf that lives on an internal website. On that page, HR Generalist Shaun Moten curates a growing library of ebooks that folks can download directly onto their Kindles.

Here’s what the page looks like:

 

 

The books cover topics on leadership, finance, marketing, writing, SEO, communication, and other areas requested by the team.

Each book’s cover photo doubles as a link that directs people to purchase a paper copy if they prefer reading the old-fashioned way. And that’s when they can tap into their $100 monthly stipend to cover the cost.

Step 3: Give employees a reading journal.

Each team member then picks one of those ebooks—or any piece of content that would help them expand their thinking—and tracks how long it takes to read or watch it.

Once someone wraps up their activity, they fill out a simple survey to help color the rest of the program. It also helps them log how many hours they spent, so they can nab their cash reward at the end of the quarter. “Each person has a 40-hour goal for a year, with a cumulative team goal of 2500 hours over the year,” Arambula explains.

The cool part? A large chunk of their employees hit that goal.

In addition to the time estimate, the survey includes the following questions:

  • What was the activity?
  • Would you recommend it to others?
  • Would specific teams particularly benefit from it?
  • What are your top takeaways?
  • What can you apply to your position today?

That feedback determines if the resource stays in the library or gets tossed out. This part is key, considering that nearly half of employees say company development programs aren’t connected to what they actually do. It also determines how the learning can be shared with the rest of the Student Loan Hero team.

“If it’s not valuable, it shouldn’t be in our library,” says Arambula. “If it is, we then promote it.”

So why should you pay your employees to read?

The Student Loan Hero team has two huge reasons for launching such a creative career development program.

1. Employees who feel like they’re growing are less likely to leave.

Fact: People who don’t feel like they’re advancing in their careers are more likely to leave. Specifically, over 70 percent of employees who are a retention risk cite lack of growth as the main reason for wanting to jump ship.

Andy Josuweit, the CEO of Student Loan Hero, discovered this fact when he heard the CEO of another company speak about BetterBookClub.

“He raved about how his team embraced and appreciated the program, which led to higher employee engagement and lower churn,” Josuweit explains. “The motivation for our program is to help the team advance their skills and become better individual contributors and leaders.”

2. Skilled employees make your company better.

Dori Zinn, a writer at Student Loan Hero, read Eat That Frog! in her first two weeks on the job. Thanks to the book, she learned how to tackle the biggest/ugliest/most important projects first.

“It really helped me change my mindset,” Zinn says. “I’ve been able to take a step back and look at all my assignments on any given week and ‘eat the frog’ first thing Monday morning. It’s not scary or overwhelming and gives me a huge sense of accomplishment.”

Arambula is also an avid user of the Learning Rewards Program. She recently read a book called The Introverted Leader and connected with a lot of the scenarios outlined by the author.

I can now recommend it to other introverts and extroverts on the team,” she says. “Someone reached out to me and said they also found value in the book. That was really rewarding.”

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While the program is still in its early stages, Arambula expects to see a spike in participation as the first quarterly payout draws to a close.

“At Student Loan Hero, we educate our users to make better financial decisions,” says Arambula. “So why shouldn’t we educate our team too?”

About Kinjal Dagli Shah

Kinjal Dagli Shah is a writer and journalist living in Toronto. She has worked in newsrooms in India, the US, and Canada over a span of 15 years and counting.