Getting in on the Ground Floor

Companies investing in front-line employees are benefiting from a better trained workforce and a steady stream of talent.

unity of paper human team workThe debate is long over about the value of companies investing in their workforce to ensure access to the very best talent possible.

After all, the workforce is the face of the company. They are the ones creating the products and delivering the services that define value to customers. Traditionally, companies would focus most of their workforce cultivation efforts on mid-level or senior management, training college-educated workers and grooming managers. Most companies typically overlooked investing in entry-level workers, usually pointing to the high turnover rate of lower level employees as justification.

That has changed thanks to a forecasted labor and skills shortage. According to estimates from the federal government, by 2020 a college degree will increasingly be a necessity as 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, and 30 percent will require some college or an associate degree.

But the current higher education graduation rate is stagnant, and the economy will face a shortage of 5 million workers with the necessary education and training by 2020, say researchers from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

To address the projected shortage, many companies are rethinking their approach and are creating innovative new ways to attract the best entry-level employees and train them with the knowledge and skills they need to advance within the company. Companies investing in front-line employees are benefiting from a better trained workforce and a steady stream of talent who can move up and fill open positions within the company.

For example, to help it recruit the very best entry-level employees possible, insurance giant Aon is building an apprenticeship model in the United States that mirrors the success of its longtime apprenticeship work in the United Kingdom. According to Aon Chief Talent Officer Aaron Olson, to launch its apprenticeship program, the company is partnering with City Colleges of Chicago’s Harold Washington College to offer students the opportunity to earn their associate degree while also getting on-the-job experience. Students in the apprenticeship program will spend 20 hours in the classroom and 20 hours working each week over a two-year period. The students involved will be paid for the work they do, and their education will be subsidized. Aon will be launching its U.S. apprenticeship program in January 2017.

Olson said the apprenticeship program delivers a host of benefits back to the company. “Most companies are competing for the same students who are attending traditional four-year institutions, but thanks to our partnerships with these colleges, we can create a compelling brand on campus and really stand out as a company,” he said. “Students see it as an opportunity to get experience and exposure by working and studying at the same time. They can avoid the high costs of college and focus on relationships instead of paying down college debt. It’s a great way for these students to stand out from their peers.”

Aon has experienced a higher retention rate with these employees versus their four-year colleges, Olson added.

“The program also reinforces our commitment to diversity in the workforce and helps us attract a wider base of employee candidates,” he said.

Fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. also is rethinking its focus on entry-level employees. The company recently unveiled its latest initiative, Archways to Opportunity, which builds upon traditional workforce development programs and offers options for all levels of workers. McDonald’s developed the program to lead the industry in promoting workforce education, helping participants learn English-language skills, get a high school diploma and move on to an associate or bachelor’s degree.

The McDonald’s initiative is unique because it offers resources to workers in lower, entry-level positions unlike many workforce development programs that are typically directed at employees in higher echelon positions. It also offers education and career advising services, provided by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL, to help students at all levels meet their education goals.

“We believe Archways to Opportunity allows people to work toward their goals at their own pace,” said Rob Lauber, global chief learning officer at McDonald’s. “We are proud our employees are enrolling in a program that helps them get the skills and education they want wherever they might be on life’s journey. Offering that flexibility was paramount as we wanted to ensure we were creating a program that worked not just for some of our people but for all of them.”

The components of Archways to Opportunity include:

  • English Under the Arches — Provides an English as a Second Language program that teaches the English needed to communicate effectively and confidently with customers and staff every day.
  • High School Completion — Creates opportunities for employees to obtain a high school diploma at no cost.
  • College Connection — Helps employees find the most efficient and affordable path to a two- or four-year degree program.
  • Advising Services — Helps students identify the best educational and career paths.

The Archways to Opportunity program has been widely praised.

“The progress McDonald’s has made with Archways to Opportunity will have a profound impact on the lives of so many of their employees,” said Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren E. Buffett. “By providing free high school completion courses, assistance with college tuition and academic advising, McDonald’s is ensuring its workers have the tools to succeed throughout their careers and that in turn makes our entire economy stronger.”

John Colborn, chief operating officer of Philadelphia-based nonprofit JEVS Human Services, said, “When companies like McDonald’s provide these kinds of programs, they not only enhance life opportunities for their workers, they also gain a more engaged and talented workforce.”

The Walmart Foundation and Goodwill Industries International also recognized the importance of investing in front-line workers, which is why they developed their new career-training initiative, Careers in Retail. The Careers in Retail initiative is designed to equip experienced, entry-level retail employees with the skills and credentials they need to advance to in-demand, mid-level retail positions and was made possible by a two-year, $3 million grant from the Walmart Foundation. The program will be initiated by eight selected Goodwill agencies across the United States and will be facilitated by third-party credentialing organizations including community colleges and career-training businesses.

As evidence of its commitment to front-line employees, Hilton Worldwide recently unveiled a new industry-leading GED assistance benefit that will give thousands of eligible employees the opportunity to earn their high school equivalency diploma. The new program marks the largest, most comprehensive high school diploma assistance benefit provided by a major hospitality company in the United States. The GED assistance program is available to all full-time U.S. employees at Hilton-owned and managed hotels and corporate offices with six months of service or greater. The new benefit will provide one-on-one advising and test preparation support. It will be free of charge and will also cover the cost of GED testing.

Focusing attention on entry-level workers also helps develop the company’s future leadership potential. Workers who learn the business from the ground up bring a unique perspective to their future role in the company because they have personally witnessed a host of problems emerge and become resolved.

Kimo Kippen, chief learning officer at Hilton Worldwide is just such an example. Kippen began his career as a busboy and today aligns learning to corporate strategy at one of the world’s best-known hotel brands.

When asked about the GED assistance benefit, Kippen said, “At Hilton, we are working with team members across our corporate offices, owned and managed properties globally, who are our greatest asset.”

Regardless of their position, Kippen said, employees are encouraged to take advantage of numerous development programs at Hilton, including the GED assistance benefit, Hilton Worldwide University and its leadership development curriculum.

Ensuring access to a steady stream of qualified talent has always been important to an organization’s success. Those companies that invest in a well-trained and certified workforce at all levels within the company will have steady and continued access to a deep pool of qualified labor which will make certain that they continue to stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive.

Lynn Schroeder is vice president, client relations for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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