When most teenagers start flipping burgers at McDonald’s, they probably don’t expect that job to be their ticket to college. But for Vanessa Jimenez, her part-time gig helped her find the path to her future.
Jimenez moved to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, at 13 to live with her aunt, and started working at her local McDonald’s at age 18. She rose through the restaurant ranks to the role of general manager, eventually overseeing five McDonald’s franchises in the Chicago area, earning her GED on the side.
Last May, with the support of the company’s Archways to Opportunity program, which provides career and salary advancement for workers along with tuition coverage, Jimenez earned her Associates degree in business administration.
“I always thought about my little brothers and my mom,” says Jimenez, now 31. “I have to be the example. I wanted them to see me and think, ‘Wow, my sister accomplished this.’”
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Education benefits like Archways to Opportunity, which is administered by workforce education provider EdAssist Solutions, are one way companies can equip employees with additional skills to succeed in the workforce. It could also prove to be a key for retention.
Educational advancement is top of mind for a growing number of workers. In last month’s Educational Index report from EdAssist by Bright Horizons, 80% of respondents said they’d be more loyal to an employer that financially supported their continuing education.
Half of respondents reported feeling unable to advance professionally because they can’t afford to assume student loan debt, and Black employees are twice as likely as their white peers to feel burdened by student loans. The opportunities for employer assistance are clear — and in the ongoing fight to recruit talent, more employers are listening.
In addition to partnering with McDonald’s, EdAssist serves over 250 clients including Verizon, Raytheon and Bank of America, with 400,000 active learners a year. The platform allows each employer to tailor the benefit to the needs of its employees, says Jill Buban, general manager of EdAssist.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Offering an education benefit to frontline workers at a place like McDonald’s, where the age range could be a 16-year-old with their first job or a 70-year-old grandmother who’s just working a few shifts for some extra spending money, is really phenomenal. It’s becoming more and more a differentiator for these large companies.”
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Beyond tuition assistance for employees pursuing post-secondary education, Archways to Opportunity offers English-language education instruction for McDonald’s employees, as well as the opportunity to earn a high school diploma through an accredited online program designed for working-age adults. A career navigation app allows restaurant employees to see how their on-the-job skills translate into career pathways within the company and in other industries like healthcare, IT and finance.
To be eligible for the program, employees must work at a participating franchise for a minimum of 90 days and work an average of 15 hours per week. Crew members are eligible for $2,500 of tuition assistance a year, and managers can receive $3,000 a year. Restaurant employees can use their tuition assistance at any accredited institution, including two and four year colleges and trade schools.
“Archways was created with the understanding that there is both an education gap and a skills gap in this country, and we believe we can be part of the solution to that problem,” says Lisa Schumacker, director of education strategies at McDonald’s. “For us, investing in workforce education is the shared value proposition that simultaneously advances the competitiveness of McDonald’s and the economic and social conditions of the communities in which we do business.”
Since the program’s inception, more than 75,000 restaurant employees have made use of the benefit, with McDonald’s awarding over $65 million in tuition assistance. In 2020, a study by Accenture found that Archways program participants were 2.5 times more likely than non-participating employees to get promoted, and their retention rates were two times higher.
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“Good talent is extremely hard to find…and with the kind of talent war that we’re in now, if you have good talent, you want to retain them,” says Buban. “There’s really been a renaissance around thinking about how to use these benefits [to the advantage] of both the employee and the employer.”
For employees like Jimenez, employer-funded education can be crucial to building brighter futures. With the money she’s earned thus far from McDonald’s, where she’s still working as a general manager, she’s been able to pay for her mother and four brothers to move to the United States, and has purchased her first home. With one degree under her belt, she now aspires to earn her Bachelors, and then a Masters — all while utilizing the Archways to Opportunity program.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and I don’t regret anything,” says Jimenez. “[It’s] never too late to go back to school. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”