Papa John’s is the latest employer to offer free college for frontline workers

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In a war for talent, employers are drastically expanding their benefit offerings to attract and retain workers.

Free college may be the most effective tool yet.

Most recently, nationwide pizza chain Papa John’s announced it is offering fully funded degrees from partner schools, including the University of Maryland Global Campus, Purdue Global, University of Phoenix, Colorado Tech and Western Governors University, as well as tuition assistance for associate’s and master’s degrees and professional certificate programs.

Roughly 12,000 full- and part-time front-line employees, including delivery drivers and kitchen staff who work as little as 10 hours a week, will now be eligible for the expanded education benefits program, including free college, according to the company, which is working in partnership with EdAssist by Bright Horizons.

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“Wherever you can differentiate yourself is pretty critical,” said Marvin Boakye, Papa John’s chief people and diversity officer.

Coming out of the pandemic, these types of benefits play a big part in the competition for talent and, as a result, more companies are offering opportunities to develop new skills, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s recent employee benefits survey

Now, nearly half, or 48%, of employers said they offer undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance as a benefit.

Among its clients, EdAssist has seen a 33% jump in the number of companies offering no-cost degree programs in 2022 alone, including employers such as Citi, McDonald’s, Synchrony, Raytheon Technologies and T-Mobile.

Other big names, such as Amazon, Home Depot, Target, WalmartUPS, FedEx, Chipotle and Starbucks, also have programs that help cover the cost of going back to school. Waste Management will not only pay for college degrees and professional certificates for employees but also offers this same benefit to their spouses and children.

Of course, employers paying for their employees to get a degree is not new. For decades, businesses have picked up the tab for white-collar workers’ graduate studies and MBAs.

However, many companies are now extending this benefit to front-line workers — such as drivers, cashiers and hourly employees — as well as heavily promoting the offering more than they have before.

A debt-free degree is a way to invest in workers

For employers, education-as-a-benefit is a cost-effective addition to core offerings, said Jill Buban, a workplace education expert and general manager of EdAssist.

“We’re seeing it shift a little in how they are thinking about attracting talent,” according to Buban. Employers are finding “it is a lot more cost-efficient to upskill their current base,” she added, rather “than going out and trying to find workers.”

“The majority of our leadership team were delivery drivers and moved up through the organization,” Papa John’s Boakye said.

Chipotle Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung told CNBC that employees who take advantage of the company’s free degrees are 3.5 times more likely to stay with the company and seven times more likely to move up into management.

Not only does free or discounted higher education improve recruitment and retention, it also cuts down on student debt while advancing the long-term well-being of employees, experts say.

Despite the advantages and what research shows is a strong desire among respondents to go back to school, less than half of employees said they have been able to pursue educational goals in the last several years, mostly due to the time commitment and financial obstacles, according to research by Bright Horizons.

“The more barriers we can remove, like out-of-pocket costs, the more successful these learners will be,” Buban said.

The struggle is even greater among minority groups, Bright Horizons found: 44% of Black employees said they are having trouble affording education, compared with 29% of white employees.

There’s a similar discrepancy among men and women. Roughly 36% of working women report financial barriers to education, compared with 22% of men.

“To have that paid for, it is a real game changer for someone who wants to go to school,” Boakye said.

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