Panel: Corporations Are Key to Increasing Post Secondary Attainment

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Corporations need to invest more heavily in job training and tuition assistance programs if the United States is to increase postsecondary attainment among young people, business and higher education leaders said Wednesday.

Lack of cash is not an issue, said Michael Echols, executive vice president of strategic initiatives and the Human Capital Lab at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb.

Rather, he said, the biggest hurdle is showing business leaders that there will be a return on the investment.

“If we can show senior management the value of investment, they will invest more,” Echols said. “That’s what they do.”

Echols was one of several panelists who spoke at a discussion titled The Workforce Readiness Pipeline: Community College and Business Partnerships.

The discussion was one of several events at the annual partners meeting of Corporate Voices for Working Families being held this week in Washington, D.C. Corporate Voices is a nonprofit business membership organization and its core mission is to advocate policies that benefit employees and businesses alike.

Much of the workforce readiness discussion was devoted to getting corporations to view tuition assistance programs and other educational opportunities for employees as investments, as opposed to seeing them merely as expenditures.

One of the “dirty little secrets” within many companies, Echols said, is that while tuition assistance programs are often used to entice prospective employees to join the company, once people are hired, there’s a corporate reluctance to spend the money.

He cited Verizon Wireless as an example of a company that understands the value of tuition assistance programs and the importance of measuring their impact. He said Verizon covers 100 percent of its employees’ coursework through a tuition assistance program called LearningLINK. A company web site says the coursework must be related to their careers at Verizon.

A Verizon presentation states that LearningLINK participants were terminated only about half as frequently as their peers, and that the vast majority of their managers noticed an improvement in participants’ overall job performance.

Rick Laferriere, manager of the CVS/pharmacy regional learning center in Boston, recounted how he developed the learning center concept after a long career at CVS that began when he joined the company as a cashier at 17.

The learning center, actually a mock miniature CVS/pharmacy, focuses on providing training for youths 18 to 24 who are working toward earning a GED.

Besides the one in Boston, other learning centers have been set up in Detroit, Washington, D.C., (where there are two), Cleveland and Plainfield, N.J.

In Boston, it is located in the same building as Boston’s Career One-Stop, the federally run job search center program for unemployed individuals, allowing the youths to take advantage of both programs. It is run through a partnership with Jewish Vocational Services, an organization that provides vocational and educational services, and is also part of the Kellogg Foundation’s New Options Initiative, a program to provide alternative credentials for youths who have failed in the traditional education system.

Laferriere said the mock store gives youths a chance to train for a job in a CVS store without the pressure of having to deal with actual customers.

Training takes place over a period of 10 hours over two days. Youths get training in working in the photo department, the beauty department and store management.

Of the 65 youths who began the first three cohorts of the CVS portion of the New Options Initiative, 71 percent successfully completed the training, and roughly two–thirds now work at CVS in Boston or Detroit, according to a case study done by Corporate Voices.

Laferriere said retention rates have improved as well, with turnover down from 40 to 30 percent.

“This program is a highly attractive program for these youth and they’re really excited about it,” Laferriere said.