May 4, 2015; NBC News

NPQ has written often about the changing contracts between nonprofit employers and their workers. Employees are likely to have many more jobs in their careers now than 50 years ago, and they need to keep their skills and knowledge bases growing to remain marketable. On the other hand, nonprofits need to make best use of the engaged intelligence of every paid employee so that they can remain attentive to the dynamics occurring at the parameters of the organization. For this, they need to be continuously learning as environments become more complex. Still, many organizations do not acknowledge this employment era shift in their personnel policies.

One example of an employer trying such a program is Chrysler. The automobile manufacturer founded by Walter Chrysler in 1925 has undergone a series of dramatic transformations over the past twenty years. In 1998, Chrysler merged with German automaker Daimler-Benz AG to form DaimlerChrysler, but that union did not last, and in 2007, Chrysler was sold. The recession of 2008–2010 hit the automotive industry especially hard, and Chrysler was not immune; the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2009 and participated in a bailout from the U.S. government so it could remain in business. In May of 2014, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), NV was born by merging Fiat S.p.A. into the company, and the Chrysler Group LLC remained a subsidiary until December 2014, when it was renamed FCA US LLC to reflect the merger.

Now, Chrysler is again making news with a different kind of transformation. Instead of just offering employees the typical package of vacation, sick days, and medical insurance, Chrysler is following in the footsteps of another large and international brand that wants to be associated for building work cultures that promote employee engagement: Starbucks.

On May 4, 2015, FCA announced that all 118,000 employees who work at U.S. dealerships would have the opportunity for free college tuition. FCA US is launching this initiative in collaboration with Strayer University, an accredited (albeit for-profit) university offering associate, baccalaureate, and master’s degrees. The fact that the educational provider is limited to one may be a serious problem in the design, harkening a bit to the notion of a “company store,” but the new Degrees@Work program will enable Chrysler employees to earn no-cost college degrees and help FCA US dealerships attract top talent, improve the skills of existing employees, and significantly increase employee retention.

“Many of our dealers have expressed concern over the availability of talent to fill open positions due to business growth and turnover, especially in metro markets,” explained Al Gardner, head of Dealer Network Development and president and CEO of the Chrysler brand. “Our goal is to position our dealer network as the ‘employers of choice.’ Our collaboration with Strayer Education, Inc., demonstrates our focus on building our dealers’ hard-working employees’ skillsets to help them perform at an optimal level while also investing in their long-term success.”

The first phase of the Degrees@Work program is being launched to dealers in the Southeast, with up to 356 Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram and Fiat dealerships in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. Employees may study business administration, accounting, information systems, and more. Courses will be offered online with 24/7-access for employee flexibility around work schedules, as well as at Strayer campus locations throughout the United States.

“Dealers tell us that education is a benefit frequently requested by their employees,” Gardner said. “With the increasing cost of a college education, offering free college degrees without the burden of debt presents a significant value that we are pleased to provide and that differentiates us from [other companies in the automotive industry]. It will certainly help us attract and retain strong talent.”

Has your organization thought about how it might support employee learning as a benefit? Tell us how!—Debbie Laskey