By 6:30 a.m. most days, Luis Diaz is already at work, driving a forklift to the Goodwill Industries warehouse in Taft, where he works full time. Mid-afternoon, he heads to the University of Central Florida, where he studies forensic psychology, also full-time. Despite his paycheck, he racked up more than $12,000 in student loans in his first three semesters.
“I try to manage everything,” said the 20-year-old. “My education is important, but it’s a lot.”
His burden, however, is about to lighten. Last week, Goodwill launched a prepaid tuition program that will cover 100% of the cost of college or professional education for all of its employees, full-time and part-time. Diaz calls it “a big relief.”
In a historically tight job market, observers call it smart business.
“I think that [Goodwill] fact is a great incentive and benefit to its workers,” said Pamela Nabors, president and CEO of CareerSource Central Florida, the workforce development agency for Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake and Sumter. “And that’s something we’re seeing a lot more companies start looking at, and something we’re encouraging companies to look at.”
While most large employers offer some sort of tuition reimbursement program, Goodwill and a handful of other companies have started paying upfront, sending checks to public universities, community colleges and vocational schools. so that workers do not have to find the financing themselves and then wait to be reimbursed.
At a time when two out of five students drop out for financial reasons, prepaid programs provide a safety net.
The Walt Disney Company was an early adopter, launching its Disney Aspire program in 2018 with some of the same features as Goodwill’s new program: Regular full-time and part-time employees are eligible after 90 days. work, and employees can choose from a range of public institutions, study a subject of their choice, whether or not it is related to their current job.
Several other large companies followed. Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, announced in July 2021 that it would cover tuition upfront, pledging to invest about $1 billion in career-focused training and development over the course of of its first five years.
Amazon, T-Mobile, Boeing, BP and Starbucks also have different versions of the programs — though generally more restrictive than Goodwill’s — primarily for the purpose of attracting and retaining workers.
“It’s definitely a response to what we’re seeing in the labor market,” said Sean Snaith, director of UCF’s Economic Forecasting Institute. “And that’s something that could also help with retention, because if you just offer more money, when another company offers $2 more an hour, that worker leaves. But now the worker has the advantage of staying.
The most recent US jobs report shows the unemployment rate holding steady at 3.6%, near a 54-year low.
But Ed Durkee, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Florida, said recruiting employees was not the nonprofit agency’s primary focus.
“Our mission statement is ‘Building Lives That Work.’ And that also applies to our own employees,” he said. “We want people to invest in themselves by going to school to improve their position in the job market, earn more money and achieve their goals, whether it’s staying at home or working elsewhere.
Goodwill will match interested employees with “prosperity planners” who will help them focus on their career goals and navigate the college application process.
The organization has budgeted $500,000 for the program’s first year. And Durkee said, “We hope it will increase. We would love to spend more, as it would mean more employees would benefit.
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Goodwill of Central Florida already has 1,200 employees in its stores, warehouses and offices in Orange, Osceola, Lake, Brevard, Seminole and Volusia counties. This includes 100 workers hired since January. Durkee has also increased wages by an average of 40% over the past 18 months, including raising the starting wage from $9.50 to $13.50 an hour.
But with more openings to fill in retail, warehouse, transportation, human resources and internet technology, Nabors said, Goodwill’s new prepaid tuition will send a message to job seekers.
“It shows that the company is investing in the worker,” she said. CareerSource also launched a prepaid tuition program for its workers last year, although Nabors said it was not as broad as Goodwill’s.
Durkee said some workers should use the program to study photography, become licensed plumbers or electricians and improve their ability to speak, read and write English.
For Diaz, who started working at Goodwill in 2019 shortly after her parents landed a job there, the road ahead is a bit longer.
“I’m trying to get a certificate in behavioral forensics as well as my degree in psychology,” he said. “I really want to work for the FBI.”