From left to right: Saja Manjang, Joi McAtee (Degrees Work), Bosede Juleus, Josh Clay, and Jerid Flener

Employee recruitment and retention are always challenges for employers. But the steady economic growth and record-low unemployment rates that the Louisville area has been experiencing can make it especially difficult.

Universal Woods, a local manufacturer that helps its employees go back to school, is a prime example of how smart workforce investment contributes to increased employee loyalty, productivity and, ultimately, the company’s bottom line. “Our sales have grown significantly over the past five years and continuous learning, we believe, is an essential component of that growth,” says Paul Neumann, CEO and President of Universal Woods.

“Our team is our greatest resource” 

Dollars and cents are always rightfully top of mind for employers. But what’s often lost on them, according to Neumann, is that investing in programs that help employees return to school actually helps save a company money over time.

“We offer a robust tuition reimbursement program along with the support of Degrees Work. It’s far more cost-effective for us to help employees take advantage of college courses than to facilitate all of that training in-house,” Neumann explains.

Universal Woods benefits from the skills of more highly-training employees throughout the company. “The employees who have completed a degree while working here are critical to our infrastructure. They work in every facet of the business – IT, engineering, marketing, product development, accounting, etc.” Neumann says.

Bosede Juleus, a member of Universal Woods’ Organizational Development department, elaborates on the company’s philosophy: “Human Resources is more than just hiring and firing. Our team is our greatest resource, so we do everything possible to help team members enrich their lives. We’re all working toward the same goal, so we have to support one another.”
How does this approach to employee development impact the attitude of workers? Josh Clay and Jerid Flener, who work on the production floor at Universal Woods, are both pursuing master’s degrees with the help of the company’s tuition assistance program. They readily admit that this kind of support from their employer has made them more committed to their jobs and less likely to jump ship for another company.

Mayor Greg Fischer joined Mary Gwen Wheeler of 55,000 Degrees, Michael Gritton of KentuckianaWorks, Kevin Stakelum of Humana, and other community leaders to announce the launch of Degrees Work in 2017. Humana is Degrees Work’s largest employer partner.

Making it possible

Not all employer tuition assistance programs are equal. Not only does Universal Woods pay their employees’ tuition fees up front, but it also partners with Degrees Work – a KentuckianaWorks program in partnership with 55,000 Degrees – to make sure employees have the support they need to be successful.

The model for Degrees Work is simple: employers pay a flat annual fee based on the number of employees who can utilize the services (you can see the different levels here). In return, Degrees Work College Coaches help employees seeking to get their degree set tangible goals, navigate the financial aid landscape, enroll in the best-fitting program at a local school, and guide them through to a successful outcome.

“The College Coaches at Degrees Work bring the expertise that allows us to help our workforce get to the next level,” said Paul Neumann, President & CEO of Universal Woods.

In the complicated world of college enrollment and financing, this kind of one-on-one assistance can prove crucial. Saja Manjang, who works on the production floor at Universal Woods, knows that better than anyone. He came to the United States from Gambia about a year ago and was intent on furthering his education. With the guidance of his College Coach Joi McAtee, he decided to pursue an MBA from Bellarmine University. But his progress was impeded when he had to travel back to Africa briefly during an important time in the enrollment process.

Thankfully, Joi was able to step in and serve as his advocate while he was away, making calls on his behalf and working with Bellarmine to waive certain entrance requirements based on Saja’s previous experience. This allowed him to begin his studies on time in the program that was the best match. “Universal Woods and my College Coach stood by me through these challenges and I am very grateful,” Saja says.

From the employer’s perspective, partnering with Degrees Work is a win-win. “It’s about investing efficiently,” says Paul Neumann. “Degrees Work gets us a better ROI from the efforts we’re making to develop our team”.

It’s also a matter of expertise. “At the end of the day, we’re not college counselors,” Neumann says. “The College Coaches at Degrees Work bring the experience that allows us to help our workforce get to the next level.”

You can learn more about Degrees Work here.