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How education programs help franchises hire, retain top employees


Franchisees and franchisors alike are finding value in education programs. Sometimes the biggest hurdle is helping employees get over the fear of failure.

More franchisors and franchisees—especially those operating in segments with high turnover rates, such as restaurants—are looking into education-focused programs for their employees as they realize the many benefits that can come along with them. These programs not only attract and help retain employees, they also show employees that the company is invested in their future, which adds significant value to employees’ lives and improves workplace culture.

Early last year employees reached out to The Saxton Group, a large McAlister’s Deli franchisee, and asked for financial education assistance. After looking at various options, the Dallas-based operator and Matt Heston, its vice president of people, decided tuition reimbursement would be the best fit for the company. Jackson Hebert, manager of recruiting at The Saxton Group, took on the task of instituting the program, which is called TSG Tomorrow, and managing day-to-day operations.

TSG Tomorrow allows employees to receive $2,000 to $4,000 per year for educational assistance. Employees are reimbursed after successfully completing a course, and the program is open to all employees averaging 20 hours per week during the past year.

“We took a more conservative approach to eligibility requirements and offering because we’re so new,” Hebert said. “But as we get our feet in the water, we plan to offer higher reimbursement amounts in the near future.”

Launched January 1, about 50 employees applied for tuition reimbursement during the first semester of the program, and 30 students are anticipated to be accepted. Hebert estimated around $75,000 total will be given out to students the first year.

Next fall The Saxton Group expects between 50-75 employees to apply, and its goal by spring of 2021 is to have more than 100 employees participating in the program. It also plans to increase the total amount given out to students by between $25,000 and $30,000 per year for the next two to five years.

Human Element

From left: Craig Heide, chief people and culture officer at Border Foods; Lisa Schumacher with McDonald’s corporate; Jackson Hebert with The Saxton Group; Isa Rodriguez, a McDonald’s operator in Miami.

“We’re able to invest in our employees during the one to three years they’re with our company,” said Hebert. “It’s a benefit for us and them to invest in their future, to make sure they’re able to achieve their goals and enable them to be successful while we have an influence in their lives.”

Isa Rodriguez, a McDonald’s franchisee in Miami, has helped nearly 50 employees participate in the brand’s Archways to Opportunity programs, including high school completion, college tuition assistance and English Under the Arches, an English language learning curriculum for employees. The biggest challenges include communicating the information about these programs to employees, as well as helping employees get past the fear of failure.  

“It’s a fear and timing factor. When they get the message, oftentimes they’re not ready, or they have too much on their plate,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve had people who have known about these programs for two years before they say they’re ready. It’s a big time commitment and a lot of effort and work they have to put in.”

Despite the challenges, the reward of watching employees receive their high school diplomas or college degrees is well worth it. McDonald’s high school completion program hit more than 800 graduates at the end of 2019, with three to four graduates per week.

McDonald's opportunities

McDonald’s has a multi-faceted Archways to Opportunity program.

For the college tuition assistance program at McDonald’s, students must reapply each semester. Unlike The Saxton Group’s reimbursement program, students are given the funds up front, up to $2,500 per year once they’ve been employed for 90 days. Since implementing its college tuition assistance program, McDonald’s has noticed an uptick in retention, especially with managers.

“That’s what we hear from all franchisees who are big participants—they have the ability to retain and recruit more people, plus keep people engaged,” said Lisa Schumacher, director of education strategies at McDonald’s.

Rodriguez, for example, hired a shift manager named Jenny who completed the high school diploma program in three months, then went on to earn her college degree. Jenny is now Rodriguez’s ambassador for Archways to Opportunity, encouraging and assisting employees in the orientation process.

“People are an integral part of our business,” Rodriguez said. “And in order to have good people and serve our customers better, we offer graduate opportunities to empower our people with education.”

Craig Heide is chief people and culture officer at Border Foods, a large Minnesota-based Taco Bell franchisee that operates more than 200 restaurants in seven states. Taco Bell is fairly well-known for its employee education programs, including its Live Más scholarship and GED assistance, but Border Foods decided to take it a step further by offering its own scholarship program.

Border Foods team members who are seeking higher education are eligible to apply for the company scholarship, which can be used for tuition and other school costs. Last year, the Border Foods leadership team surprised scholarship recipients during work with a basket full of goodies and a large check with the printed scholarship amount.

“The foundation of Taco Bell is a focus on the development of team members,” Heide said. “All the things we do, from benefits to compensation to education programs, go through the filter of our purpose statement—making lives better.”

Border Foods sees between 25 and 30 applicants for its scholarship. Heide’s goal is to increase that number. To do that, the company has improved links on its website, put up more posters in stores and communicated with managers to make sure that employees know these benefits are available to them from day one.

“We can do a better job of getting that information out to our people,” Heide said. “This is one of those vehicles of which we show how much we really care.”

Heide also hopes to provide between 75 and 100 scholarships each year from Border Foods in the future. “We feel like it’s a connection point with our team members when we hear what they aspire to do, whether it’s getting their GED or college,” Heide said. “It’s part of a bigger picture…not just saying we can make lives better, but actually making them better.”

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