Magazine article Talent Development

College in the Call Center

Magazine article Talent Development

College in the Call Center

Article excerpt

An innovative "competency-based" degree program partners with large employers to close the skills gap and help frontline workers attain college degrees.

It had been nearly 25 years since Michelle, a sales account representative at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in New Hampshire, had put her dream of a college degree "in the deep freeze," as she now puts it. She was still a teenager when her first husband told her bluntly that she wasn't cut out for college. Soon after that, it wasn't a choice anymore-life just took over.

But after two children, a divorce, a new husband, and two decades in the workforce, Michelle's manager at Anthem told her about an information session for a new college degree program that was built just for workers like her.

She showed up 30 minutes early to learn more about the not-for-profit College for America (CfA), which promised to be flexible for working adults and fully covered by Anthem's tuition reimbursement plan. A short five months of hard work later, Michelle proudly accepted her fully accredited associate degree. She is now one of the first graduates of the innovative higher education model that has drawn praise from everyone from Fast Company magazine to the president of the United States.

How did an employee who had been out of the classroom for 25 years make it back to school-and succeed-without severe culture shock? How did she earn a quality degree in such record time, and for a total cost to her employer of less than $2,500? And, why is Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in New Hampshire so committed to her development that the company's state president brought her and four other graduates bouquets of flowers on their graduation day?

The answer lies in a new "competency- based" degree program designed to help employers solve the massive skills gap that is limiting productivity and economic growth across the country.

The need for more, better-educated workers

More than 40 million Americans have attempted some college, but lack the degree they need to earn a family-sustaining wage. At the same time, employers from coast to coast report difficulty in finding employees with the skills they need-including basic reading comprehension, writing skills, mathematics competency, and the ability to work in teams and solve problems.

When CfA founder Paul LeBlanc, president of CfA's parent school, Southern New Hampshire University, talks with businesses about their workforce needs, he says: "I ask them to raise their hands for three questions: Have you ever hired anyone who can't write a clear paragraph? Do you have anyone who works for you who struggles with basic spreadsheet or budget skills? Is there anyone on your team who you wouldn't feel comfortable delivering a presentation to a key customer? By the end of the third question, every hand in the room is up."

This skills gap has motivated increasingly more American employers to invest in supporting their employees' pursuit of higher education. According to the Benefits USA 2012/2013 survey of employers, 56.6 percent of U.S. employers, like Anthem, now offer tuition reimbursement to all employees, up dramatically from 34.9 percent in 2009. Also like most employers, Anthem limits the maximum annual reimbursement for an employee, with a cap of $5,000 per year, compared with an average of $4,236 in the insurance industry, $3,875 in banking and finance, and $3,045 in healthcare.

The motivations for corporate investment in employee higher education are many: better employee engagement; more productivity, loyalty, and retention; and the need to build the middle-management talent pipeline in the face of increasing Baby Boomer retirements. For firms such as Anthem, which have a large number of customer-facing employees, the benefits of a quality college degree are a critical complement to in-house training since customer service performance hinges heavily on whether employees have strong communication, problem solving, and teamwork skills. …

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