There’s a good chance your first job was at a McDonald’s. The $21 billion restaurant franchise is the second-largest private employer in the world, employing 1.7 million people in more than 37,000 restaurants worldwide, according to various reports from 2018.
That means hiring and retaining workers is a constant challenge. The average turnover rate for fast food restaurants is now 150 percent — the highest it’s been since 1995, according to a report from MIT.
It’s not unexpected given the demographic of the average fast food employee, said Rob Lauber, senior vice president and chief learning officer of McDonald’s Corp., which is headquartered in Chicago. “For many, it is their first job or a transitional job while they go to school,” he said.
While McDonald’s recognizes that most employees won’t spend their careers with the company, they would like them to stick around for a few years at least. But in a low-unemployment economy, where even hourly employees have a lot of options, the company has had to get more innovative about how it attracts and retains staff. And they are using education as a way to do it.
Under the Archways
Five years ago, McDonald’s launched Archways to Opportunity, a comprehensive education strategy with multiple programs giving employees access to free general education options, as well as up to $3,000 per year in college tuition assistance after 90 days of employment. Employees and their immediate families can use the program to improve their English skills, earn a high school diploma, or help pay for a two- or four-year college degree.
One of the most unique aspects of Archways is that it doesn’t dictate what employees need to study or where they can study, said Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a nonprofit adult education organization in Chicago that has partnered with McDonald’s through the Archways program. “They can get whatever degree they want.”
While some employees use these training programs to move up in the organization, others use them to launch a career in another field. And that’s OK, Lauber said. Even if they are using the training to move to another job or field, they are more likely to stick around while they complete their education. It’s a powerful tool for attraction and retention. “Archways helps answer the question of ‘Why should I work at McDonald’s,’ and ‘Where will this job take me?’ ” Lauber said. “It gives people a reason to want to work here.”
Archways Goes Digital
In January, McDonald’s added a new element to its Archways arsenal. The Archways to Careers app, which anyone can download, offers self-paced content and real-time career advising to help employees map out the next steps in their professional journey.
Lauber sees the app as the entry point for employees to take greater advantage of the entire Archways program. “It creates stickiness and makes the program more accessible,” he said.
The app starts with a personal inventory survey that helps users identify their skills and interests as a way to think about what kind of career they might like. Then it provides information in easy-to-digest chunks that will help them think about their next steps. The content answers questions like, “How can I get a high school diploma online?” “How do I explore my education and career opportunities?” and “How can I get money to pay for college courses?”
“If you’ve never had someone to have these conversations with, they can be tough questions to answer,” Cini said.
The app provides links to colleges that offer discounted tuition on top of McDonald’s tuition assistance, as well as advice on how they can translate the training they have already received at McDonald’s into college credit.
Users can also access live advisers via the app to help them dig deeper into what career path they might want to follow and how they can get there with the help of Archways. “We help them consider all of their educational options,” said Kai Drekmeier, president of Inside Track, an educational management firm based in Portland that provides these student coaching services.
The advisers do more than just walk users through the college application process. They help them figure out how to make the most effective use of the program’s resources so they can be “smart consumers of education,” Drekmeier said. That includes thinking through how they will use the degree they are pursuing, and what it will take for them to be successful. “We want them to know that this is a real-time commitment, and they have to be sure they are going to show up and do the work. Otherwise they won’t get the benefit.”
The advisers also help them plan strategies for success, including how to talk with their managers about building a schedule around classes, how to make time for studying, and how to juggle child care and other responsibilities. Users are encouraged to reach back out to the advisers whenever they encounter a challenge or feel frustrated with the process. “We help them identify the problems they are facing and talk through the solutions so they can solve these problems on their own,” Drekmeier said. “Giving them that confidence makes a big difference to their future success.”
Gateway to the Future
Cini believes the combination of self-paced content and live advisers will be especially appealing to younger employees who are accustomed to finding answers on their own before reaching out to a person for help. Whether it’s online banking or ordering a pizza, millennials and Generation Z don’t expect human encounters. “They might be afraid to just call an adviser,” she said. The app may give them the answers they need, or it may give them the confidence to call an adviser to get more information. “It provides a gateway to career coaching.”
The app is still new, but McDonald’s is confident that it will further enhance the value of the Archways educational program and help the company attract and retain hourly workers for longer.
To date, Archways has provided tuition assistance to more than 35,000 employees, awarded $90 million in high school and college tuition assistance and celebrated more than 750 graduates in the Career Online High School Program. Lauber estimates that 60 percent of franchises have employees taking advantage of the program. And when employees achieve education milestones, franchise owners and corporate make a point of celebrating their successes with ceremonies, news articles and even profiles on the app. “We make a big deal out of it,” Lauber said.
That publicity and public acknowledgment reinforce the value these employees bring to the company and help spread the word to other current and future staff that these resources are available to them. “We want people to be able to pursue their passions. That’s our learning culture,” Lauber said.
The company is planning to conduct a study to measure the impact of Archways on attraction and retention, and Lauber is confident that it will prove the investments are paying off. “When people see that they can gain skills that will take them to myriad other industries, it gives them a reason to stay.”
For other organizations considering similar programs, Cini suggested they begin by looking at their existing tuition assistance offerings and how they are deployed and promoted. She noted that many companies treat tuition assistance as just another employee benefit. “Instead, they should view it as a strategic investment in their human capital,” she said. When companies switch their mindset, they will start to think differently about how they can leverage these investments to attract and retain talent.
Then make sure you really understand the needs of the target audience, Lauber added: “You have to meet them where they are and create something that will be impactful for each individual as they think about their future.”