Ask the Expert: Improving Program Retention and Completion

Heading into the New Year, you likely have goals to improve your workforce development program. But what can you do that will actually move the needle? Which measures will boost student engagement, retention, and job placement?  

We connected with Dylan Davis, Learner Engagement Manager at Interplay Learning, to find out exactly what makes a successful workforce development program. Davis started his career in HVAC and apartment maintenance before transitioning to the training side so he could impact the future of the trades and narrow the skills gap. 

Today, he manages learner engagement for some of Interplay Learning’s most notable workforce development customers and has supported programs with over 15,000 participants. In our Q&A, Davis shared his tried-and-true strategies to boost program outcomes. 

How to Boost Learner Engagement: Connect Their Why

1. What strategies have you found most effective in capturing and maintaining learners’ interest in workforce development programs?

Davis: My North Star is helping students define the “why” around their program participation. This is the missing piece for so many people. I try to connect programs to specific outcomes that excite learners and create new possibilities that align with their career goals.

It’s also important to communicate the reason why program components like certifications matter and the value of earning them. There can be a stigma around digital training because it’s so new. People think it’s less viable and doesn’t lead to a career. So, I connect that piece to people. 

Once people understand this, it’s like this huge lightbulb moment where they realize it can lead to a new career, better wages, and providing for a family. It’s also more convenient and as effective as a lot of the in-person training that’s out there.

2. How do you address diverse learning styles to ensure engagement across a broad range of participants?

Davis: There are two layers to this: your program itself, and the technology and training methodology you use. On the technology side, Interplay Learning does a lot of the work for you in the sense that there are visual aspects and there are auditory aspects. I have some learners who just download transcripts from videos because they’re big readers. Others take advantage of 3D simulations and virtual reality available through Interplay Learning. It’s hugely helpful to have a flexible product that allows people to dial in on whatever learning style is best for them. 

The other piece, I would say, is how you design the program around that technology. You have different learning styles, different lifestyles, and different ways it needs to fit in with people’s lives. You need to balance a self-paced format with enough structure that you don’t lose their attention. Introducing flexible training plans that have specific due dates can be a great way to achieve this balance.

A lot of the people taking this training are people with limited time, like single parents with kids at home who are trying to juggle a million things. Even if they can’t do much more than 10 to 15 minutes a day, that’s fine. They can still complete their program. They can still advance their career. Others may study for four hours a day and can complete it five times as fast. 

How to Retain Students in Your Programs: Relationship-Building at Scale

3. Retention is crucial for the success of any training program. What measures do you implement to reduce dropout rates and encourage learners to stay committed?

Davis: I’m a firm believer that there’s a reason why the teacher and student model still stands in education. To prevent dropout, students just need to know that they’re not doing it alone and that they have guidance along the way. Once that relationship is built, they will come to you when they need something, whether it’s just motivation or help getting a job. 

If the relationship isn’t there, you’re not going to hear from them when they’re thinking about quitting. When you have a relationship, you get a chance to remind them of their why, to talk them out of dropping out, and to get them motivated again. This is why Interplay ensures that customers have access to support that will help build this relationship with learners and keep them engaged in their programs. 

4. When working with larger workforce development programs, how can you provide that one-on-one support?

Davis: It really comes down to how personal you can be at scale. Interplay Learning’s technology allows us to still maintain relationships and personal approaches when you’re in the tens of thousands like we are with this program. I can leverage our technology to pinpoint which students are struggling and the right time to reach out. Then, I can contact them and make an effort to help them out. 

How to Increase Program Completion Rates: Multiple Modes of Motivation

5. Completing a program is a significant milestone. What methods do you employ to motivate learners to see the program through to completion?

Davis: One element is expectation-setting with upfront communication. I try and be very intentional to tell students that graduation is a big deal and that we do celebrate it.

Another motivator is the way Interplay sets up its programs because there’s a certificate for every course you complete. If you’re training consistently, you should be completing a course every one to two weeks. You get this constant validation that you’re getting closer. Each certificate you earn has value and builds confidence. 

We’ve also seen great success from our learner communities. It’s a cohort style where the students go through the program together and know each other. Students hear success stories from one another about getting jobs. The motivation has a ripple effect. 

How to Help Students Transition to the Workforce: Certifications and Continued Support

6. How do you help students make a smooth transition to the workforce? 

Davis: Whatever your support looks like for learners, it cannot end at graduation. It has to go at least a little bit beyond it. Because if you don’t do that, you’re creating this whole group of castaways who have graduated and have this new credential, but they don’t know what to do next. You need to have somebody there to finish that process, which is where I come in. 

In this program, I usually do email outreach. They already know who I am because of relationship-building—either we’ve talked or they’ve seen a video of me. I’ll send an email at the end where I do two things. First, I congratulate them and acknowledge their hard work in completing the program. Next, I leave an open-ended question asking what their next steps are. I’m hoping to generate a response and then be able to provide support based on that.

7. For the learners who have successfully entered the workforce after their program, what factors contributed to their success?

Davis: The biggest factors for successful learners are their motivation, drive, and determination. In our workforce development programs at Interplay, we provide learners with everything they need to take the next step in their careers. And so the missing piece is just them. We provide personalized support, managing their program and engaging with learners alongside a specified training plan. All learners need to do is remember their end goal and remain focused.

8. What role do industry certifications play in transitioning into the workforce?

Davis: We’re in an exciting job market in the trades right now. If there’s competition for a role and you have a certification, but the other person applying doesn’t, you’ll get the job hands down. This depends partly on the field. In HVAC, for example, if you want to work with anything with a refrigerant, you need your EPA 608 certification– it’s a requirement. This is true for safety certifications in other fields too. 

While you can get jobs in the trades without a credential, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to earn one down the road anyway. Having it already saves either you or your employer the expense of earning it later. If you have the time to get them, especially if it’s low-cost, it’s time well spent. 

Ready to launch your own successful workforce development program with practical methods to keep learners engaged and excelling? Interplay Learning’s Job-Ready Certificate Programs offer cutting-edge technology, industry-recognized credentials, and robust support to grow your program’s success. Contact us to learn more.  

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