Considerable research and reporting draw lines connecting education and professional development with a host of benefits: Improved skills, proactive filling of skills gaps, happier employees who are more loyal to their employees, and increased job satisfaction and morale throughout the organization, to name a few.

While that connection often refers to in-house development, such as employee upskilling or reskilling programs, a similar—if not stronger—case might be made for encouraging employees to pursue general education, whether a high-school diploma or GED, a bachelor’s degree, or post-secondary degree or certificate.

Corporations that support employee education reap significant benefits, and more large corporations, from McDonald’s and Starbucks to Verizon and Walmart, are offering some sort of tuition reimbursement or other educational assistance.

Marianne Merola, the education programs manager at McDonald’s, recently addressed The Learning Guild’s Learning Leaders Alliance. Along with a panel of partners, Merola described the ways that McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity program, which supports employee education at several levels, has helped the corporation meet key business goals.

Start with a focus on employees’ needs

Employees at a large corporation like McDonald’s, as well as employees of McDonald's franchisees, come from an enormous range of economic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. While some are seeking advanced certifications or degrees, many may have never finished high school—or they completed their education in another country and therefore lack academic credentials that could help them advance in the US. They may struggle with English-language skills. Many of these workers may believe that they have few options for upskilling or progressing in their careers.

But offering them a step up in the form of support for schooling can change that: Obtaining a diploma or GED can increase their earning power. It also sharpens skills and builds basic knowledge that enables them to perform better in their current roles while also potentially mapping out a career development path.

Kari Greenfield of Smart Horizons, a partner with the Archways to Opportunity program, said that three-quarters of the employees who complete a high-school diploma through the program go on to post-secondary education. And 70% say the skills they learn in the high school are helpful in their jobs with McDonald’s.

These programs clearly provide tangible benefits to employees; in addition, investing in their education increases employees’ motivation and creates good will and loyalty: “Any employer should constantly be thinking of ways to recruit and retain good employees,” Merola said. “You can't look at your phone or turn on the TV without hearing about how hard it is to hold on to or just attract good employees, and these programs are way to do that.”

In addition to boosting recruitment potential and retention, “you also want employees to be happy and to feel fulfilled and to feel like, ‘hey, I am getting something pretty cool besides a paycheck from working here.’ I think that is kind of priceless,” she said.

Reap the business benefits of educated workers

Beyond the feel-good benefit of investing in your workforce and generating good will and loyalty, companies are clearly motivated by the practical benefits of employee education assistance programs. These can include:

Reduced turnover does more than improve company culture and morale; it saves money that would be spent recruiting and training new hires. It also contributes to building institutional knowledge and skills.

Finally, investing in your employees offers a benefit increasingly valuable to organizations: It helps the company build a leadership pipeline or “bench.” Even before the pandemic, companies struggled to build a strong leadership pipeline. And with a wave of retirements and resignations during the pandemic—a wave that shows no sign of abating—the dearth of up-and-comers ready to step into increasingly challenging leadership roles will be felt even more acutely.

Investing in employees, preparing them for leadership, and nurturing their deep connection with your organization are all ways the leaders can future-proof the workforce and the company.

What if we educate them—and then they leave?

A common objection that learning and business leaders hear when they propose supporting employees’ educational endeavors is that the company will invest in training employees who could then leave for a better job elsewhere.

Businesses implement tuition assistance in myriad ways, some designed to forestall this issue. For example, a tuition assistance program can:

  • Be repayable by the employee if they leave within a certain time period
  • Apply only to skills the employee needs for the specific role they are in or aspire to
  • Be capped at a certain dollar amount per term, year, or employee

In addition, research from LinkedIn Learning and others shows that workers are more likely to remain with employers that invest in their professional and personal development. Improving employees’ skills thus offers both short- and long-term benefits, as better educated employees will perform better and are likely to do so, at your organization, for longer.

McDonald’s experience bears this out. Greenfield pointed to data that Smart Horizons has gathered indicating that “employees engaged in this program are staying 2.3 times as long” at their jobs.

Devon Coombe of CAEL, another Archways partner, said that some employees use their career exploration app, Archways to Careers, to research potential future careers, “But there's also a ton of conversations that are going on about ‘how do I continue to develop my skills?’—upskill, reskill in various areas—because I want to stay within McDonald’s.”

Merola adds a telling statistic: The program recently implemented a change where franchise owner-operators now pay half their employees’ costs when they participate in the Archways to Opportunity programs. “We have found that 86% of our franchise owner-operators, representing 90% of our restaurants, have opted in,” she said. “You're taking on a risk anytime you provide training or education to employee; you take on a risk that they could leave. But they've seen over the years that it’s well worth it and that it pays off.”

Education support is a good investment

Describing a panel of owner-operators who participate in the Archways to Opportunity program, Joe Adolf, the vice president of the Center for Corporate Engagement at Colorado Technical University, outlined four ways the program benefits businesses:

  • It creates ‘brand ambassadors’ for the individual store and for McDonald’s.
  • Many business leaders truly do want to help their employees; this is a meaningful way to do so.
  • Employees will remain with the store for as long as they are working on their credential, whether that’s a high-school diploma, a certification, or an academic degree.
  • Perhaps most importantly, it’s more cost-effective than replacing employees.

“We cut right to the heart of the matter from a business perspective, which is that the cost of tuition assistance is lower than the cost of turnover. So when you look at it just from a pure dollars and cents perspective, that, as far as an investment goes, is a very smart place to place dollars,” Adolf said. “It's pretty simple to understand what a business cost of turnover is, and TA or tuition assistance generally is the best bet.”

Data on Archways to Opportunity prove Adolf’s points: When McDonald’s engaged a third-party data company to look at results, Merola said, they found that “restaurants that had high participation in Archways actually had lower turnover; they had better retention than restaurants with little or no participation in Archways.”

“The other interesting thing that we saw was a correlation between high Archways participation and sales; those restaurants had better sales,” Merola said. “It's a correlation not causation, but I suspect there's something—I think there's a reason why restaurants that have high participation in education and training tend to have higher sales.”

How to get started

Not every company is as large as McDonald’s of course, so the panelists offered suggestions for getting started, no matter the size of your organization.

Merola suggested surveying employees to identify the greatest needs, whether for a GED program, an ESL program, or something else, and prioritizing program goals according to the most acute needs.

Pointing to the “small but mighty” Archways team, Adolf said, “I would argue that you don't necessarily need a huge amount of resources, but I think what you need is great intentionality.”

Mix well-defined goals with those intentions, add an education provider like Smart Horizons or CTU, and “get inspired by the opportunity to create wonderful outcomes,” he said. “You'll be able to inspire educational partners to come, alongside you and find ways, whatever your budget is, to make it work. There are lots of creative ways to get from point A to Point B.”

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