A $1 Billion ‘Model’ Employee Education Program
Big companies often seem to be conflicted — if not two-faced — when it comes to their workers. They pay lip service to their employees as their most cherished corporate assets, yet they routinely shed workers.
The payroll cutting is done in the pursuit of efficiency and profits, or because a company is jettisoning a business. That’s understandable, though harsh. These days, the obligation a corporation has to its workers, if any, is a matter of debate.
But back in December 1995, George David, then the chief executive of United Technologies, gave his answer. “As a private employer, we cannot guarantee anyone a job,” Mr. David said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. “But we are nonetheless obliged to provide employees reasonable opportunities to re-establish themselves, ideally on more favorable conditions, in the event of job loss.”
Granted, United Technologies is a big-tech company more than a bits-tech company. It makes products like jet engines, aerospace electronics, helicopters, air-conditioners and elevators. But all industrial products are increasingly animated and controlled by software. And the skills issues — and global competition — that United Technologies faces are common to any technology company.
Mr. David backed up his nice words with United Technologies’ dollars, and a commitment. The company, he said, would pay 100 percent of the cost of tuition and books for any employee seeking a college degree — associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree.
The offer came with no strings. An employee could choose any courses. And the worker could receive a degree one day, and go to work for another company the next.
In good times and recessions, United Technologies has kept the program intact. By now, more than 32,000 company employees have received college degrees in its “employee scholar program,” and more than 10,000 workers are currently enrolled. United Technologies has invested $1 billion in the program so far.
On Tuesday afternoon, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities gave its annual award for promoting higher education to United Technologies. This is the first time the association’s award has been given to a company.
David L. Warren, president of the independent colleges association, said the United Technologies program was the most generous it had seen. “We think it’s a model for the nation, one that hopefully other corporations might follow,” said Mr. Warren, the former president of Ohio Wesleyan University.
Nathan Boelkins, 33, a chief engineer at United Technologies’ Hamilton Sundstrand unit, has taken advantage of the employee scholar program, twice. He received a master’s degree in management, and is now studying toward a master’s in aeronautical science.
His course work has included some evening classes, but has been mainly online. The company gives employees three hours a week for study during their workdays, but, of course, most studying is done on evenings and weekends.
At Hamilton Sundstrand, Mr. Boelkins leads engineering teams that work on the electrical systems for Boeing 787 jumbo jets. His courses, he said, have improved his skills both in managing people and understanding sophisticated aerospace technology. “I feel like I have the right skills sets for anything that is thrown at me,” Mr. Boelkins said.
Not surprisingly, United Technologies has found alumni of the employee scholar program are both more likely to stay with the company than the work force in general and more apt to be promoted.
Measuring the benefit to United Technologies is tricky, but the program appears to have been a rewarding long-term investment, for the company as well as the workers. In 1995, when Mr. David announced the program, he noted that in the previous five years United Technologies had cut 33,000 jobs in the United States, about one job in three, while adding 15,000 jobs abroad.
In 1995, United Technologies had a global work force of 170,000, with 71,000 employees in the United States. In 2010, the most recent year figures are available, the company employed 208,000 worldwide, and 73,000 in America.