Universities already know that a myriad of benefits stem from pursuing integrated partnerships with national and global employers.
What is possible, though, when a company as large as FedEx joins forces with a university the size of the University of Memphis to make a meaningful impact on recruiting and retaining employees?
We invited Dr. Richard Irwin, Vice Provost of Academic Innovation & Support Services at The University of Memphis and Dean of U of M Global, to join the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the enrollment benefits of pursuing truly integrated partnerships with national and global employers such as FedEx.
At the Memphis hub, FedEx experiences a 90% turnover every year. the retraining costs were just astronomical. At that point, FedEx had about a 3% uptake in tuition reimbursement, which was the traditional model. That’s 400 employees at best who might be taking advantage of that.
It wasn’t enough.
U of M listened to their needs, and a partnership was born.
Components of U of M’s Partnership with FedEx
The university customized many components of its program to meet FedEx’s needs.
One was a financial issue. “We were able to work out a direct bill, a deferred direct bill,” Dr. Irwin said. “So they pay us at the end of the term based on student’s successful performance in the class.” It meant U of M had to figure out how to stretch a dollar, though, to cover as many things as possible.
A second concern centered on academic readiness. FedEx needed U of M to develop on-ramps that would accommodate a student regardless of academic history. An estimated 50% of FedEx’s Memphis hub employees lacked even a high school diploma so adjustments needed to be made.
“We found a local partner called Hope Works,” Dr. Irwin said, “that deals with adults lacking a high school credential and they jumped at the chance to join us on this project. And so we’ve kind of brought them into our fold and we also created what we call the Life Prep Academy.” In addition, Dr. Irwin idenitified four freshmen-level courses that could get packaged into Prep Academy to demonstrate to students they could successfully complete collegiate work.
The Role and Potential of Employer Partnerships
“It gets back to listening to who the audience is going to be,” Dr. Irwin said.
That means finding out the boundaries, the parameters, the opportunities.
U of M’s Prep Academy, for instance, is self-paced, competency-based, and offers unlimited trials. “And so if there’s a bit of adaptive learning in it,” Dr. Irwin said, “we’ve got to be incredibly creative because we didn’t want this audience, per FedEx’s request … (to) be hit with a set of entrance exams.”
That approach is a path to failure. Once the audience found that U of M was willing to work with them, however, the opportunities went much deeper.
“I would encourage anybody that wants to pursue this route, which we have committed ourselves to doing because we think that it’s really the future of our growth,” Dr. Irwin told us. “A culture of flexibility needs to exist within the organization to be able to customize it to fit to the needs of the organization, the timing of the organization.”
FedEx, for instance, has setup a learning center at the hub where they typically do their new employee onboarding and orientation and other trainings. U of M staffs the computer lab at that center with one or more LIFE coaches and tutors who meet students upon request.
“That type of onsite presence is critically important,” Dr. Irwin said. “Another thing that we were already doing is we had a pre-assessed or credentialed a large volume of a FedEx internal trainings for experiential learning credit.”
Next Steps Advice for Corporate University Partnerships
How can a college or university set up a meaningful partnership such as this one?
Start by realizing that the partnership is mutually benefit. Be sure you can answer the question: What does each party gain from the relationship?
Both parties need to be cognizant of the other’s needs, so listen to your prospective partner.
With respect to higher education, it gets back to being flexible and accommodating, realizing that college-level knowledge that may come from a variety of sources and not necessarily just your institution’s classrooms.
“What is going to be a challenge and what FedEx has demonstrated tremendous sensitivity to us,” Dr. Irwin told us, “is that for someone to attain a degree, particularly if they’re starting in the Prep Academy, that is a long time horizon that exceeds well beyond the typical employee a term in the hub. So that thrills them that it could keep a prospective or an employee focused, or make them think twice about leaving the job so that they are with the company for a much longer a timeframe.”
Still, U of M relies on FedEx to keep that person engaged and employed. As Dr. Irwin said, “It doesn’t do us any good to have somebody only with us for a semester or two. They’ve got to be here for the longterm commitment.”
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