Colorado Springs Workers Receive Free Education Through Company Programs | business
Trinity Bastin, Elena Bautista Rios and Janet Reyes all work at Amazon’s fulfillment center near the Colorado Springs airport. When they’re not at work, they’re probably in class or taking online classes at Pikes Peak State College on the company’s bill.
Bastin wants to get a degree in computer science, Bautista Rios hopes to be an elementary school teacher, and Reyes is enrolled in a general studies curriculum and plans to later major in college. All three women hope to graduate in a few years without taking out student loans, as Amazon will pay all tuition and fees up to $5,350 per year as long as they remain employed by the online retail giant.
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Amazon is among a growing number of large employers offering to pay tuition and other higher education costs to attract and retain employees amid a nationwide labor shortage that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. UCHealth also pays the cost of dozens of college programs for its employees across the state to move into higher-paying jobs, offering everything from pharmacy technician and phlebotomist certificates to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in respiratory therapy, social work, and behavioral health acquires.
Many other companies with a Colorado Springs presence — including Chipotle, Lowes, Target, Walmart, and Waste Management — offer a similar benefit through Denver-based Guild Education and its network of colleges and universities, which include the University of Denver and the College of Business belong to Colorado State University. Guild Education offers more than 2,200 academic programs through its network of higher education institutions, ranging from high school diplomas and English as a second language to software development and product management.
Rachel Romer Carlson started Guild Education in 2015 to help employers bridge the gap between what employees want and what employers pay for educational services that help entry-level and low-income workers into higher-paying jobs switch. The company has since raised $378.5 million in venture capital to expand its reach, and over the past year has more than doubled the number of students using its platform, which is now available to more than 4 million workers.
“Our research has shown that 63% of employees will stay with their employer if they have the opportunity for career development and career opportunities,” said Romer Carlson. “Companies can help by offering education and career mobility. This creates a way for employees to stay with the company.
“A key insight into Guild’s early work is that employers can help their employees avoid debt (student loans) entirely, and we’re helping employers find a way to do that.”
Debt-free education programs have been developed by Starbucks and Amazon over the past decade to provide educational benefits more comprehensively than the tuition-reimbursement programs that many employers have offered for decades but were primarily used by white-collar workers. Debt-free programs appeal to a broader cross-section of the workforce because employees don’t have to find the money to pay for college tuition and books and have to wait months to get reimbursed by their employer.
“Ask a worker to pay up front (for college tuition) and then reimburse them at the end of the year often meant the workers would put that expense on a credit card or get a payday loan, so reimbursement worked for.” Salaried workers, but not entry-level workers,” said Romer Carson. “The return on investment (from paying directly for college courses) is so high that employers should ensure every employee has this opportunity.”
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An April Harvard Business Review article written by executives from Guild and Walmart said the financial burden of enrolling in college programs is the number one barrier to enrollment and the number one reason students drop out of college. Findings from Denver-based restaurant chain Chipotle showed that employees who attend their free college education program (via Guild) are 350% more likely to stay with the company and seven times more likely to advance to management.
Amazon’s program with Pikes Peak State College, which is not operated by Guild (though the college is attempting to join the Guild program), began May 31 and has already attracted 100 students — mostly for courses in information technology, healthcare, and general studies. said Chelsy Harris, the college’s associate vice president for strategic partnerships. The average age of program participants is 28, with the majority having little or no college experience, she said.
“You can save money by spending money on an educational grant to improve (employee) retention. It can be a win for both the employee and the company,” Harris said. “Programs like this not only help employees avoid debt (student loans), but also help them get the education they need for a job with a decent wage and advancement opportunities. It doesn’t have to be a full two or four year degree; It can be certifications that can be earned much faster.”
None of the three Amazon employees were aware of the company’s Career Choice program before taking a job at the giant fulfillment center, but all three said they will stay with the company until they graduate and maybe beyond. Bastin, 22, said that without the college payments program, she probably wouldn’t work at Amazon and will likely stay with the company if it offers her a job in her new career field after she graduates from the program.
“I’ve taken college courses in the past, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do (professionally). I finally figured it out,” Bastin told the manager, so I checked. I had read that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs are in high demand so there would be more opportunities. I enjoy having the ability to pay for my college (courses) because they are very expensive.”
Reyes, 29, wants to pursue a four-year degree but hasn’t decided what career she wants to pursue, so hasn’t decided on a major just yet. However, she eventually wants to start her own real estate business to buy homes and convert them into short-term vacation rentals.
Bautista Rios, 24, just started the early childhood education program at Pikes Peak State College but later wants to transfer to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to pursue a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She said her niece and nephew and love for children inspired her to become a teacher and she started taking college courses three years ago with financial support, but the Amazon program will make her graduation easier and less expensive make.
UCHealth’s Ascend program, which pays entry-level and other low-paid employees to take college courses to move into higher-paying jobs, launched in February and has already attracted 126 employees in southern Colorado, including Kristine Hoffner. The 20-year-old UCCS student, who will complete his bachelor’s degree in cellular molecular biology in December, was hired as a phlebotomist in September 2021 and completed the program’s medical assistant training; after all, she wants to use the program to train as a medical assistant.
“One of the reasons I applied to UCHealth is because I want to be a Physician Assistant and can continue working there and gain the 1,200 hours of clinical experience I need to achieve that goal. I wanted to get my foot in the door at UCHealth (as a phlebotomist) and move up the clinical ladder,” said Hoffner. “Programs like this allow companies to retain good employees and give them opportunities to grow professionally.”
Both UCCS and Pikes Peak State College have college payment programs with UCHealth and Aamazon, but neither school has made much effort to make additional such arrangements with local employers.
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However, some employers are already considering such schemes; The Ent Credit Union, which already reimburses employees up to $10,000 a year for college courses, is considering expanding to direct course payment. Chris Beiswanger, UCCS Director of Admissions, said other companies have contacted him to learn more about the Amazon program so they can offer similar benefits to their employees, but have yet to set up or launch such a program.