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Following in FedEx’s Footsteps: A Successful Approach to Staff Upskilling

With upskilling and reskilling now being industry imperatives, higher education institutions should look to partner with various businesses to meet their education needs.

As our world evolves and new technologies emerge, the need for new or elevated skills is increasing. No longer are humans pulling items from shelves in some of Amazon’s fulfillment centers, for example. Those duties have now shifted to robots while Amazon employees are taught engineering skills to communicate with, manage and repair the robots.

The workforce is constantly responding to evolving technologies, demanding agile critical thinking skills and requiring employees to upskill and reskill. As lifelong learners head back to university coursework, the need for skills-based learning opportunities increases. Lectures, research papers and essays, in these instances, are now changing to become more hands-on, skills-based experiences.

Experiential learning opportunities, whether garnered through certificate or apprenticeship programs, allow students to effectively align themselves directly with industry needs. In fact, in a global survey conducted in partnership with Hanover Research, Instructure asked 6,100 higher education students, educators and administrators to identify the skills-based learning opportunities students are most likely to seek out for career advancement, and certificates (56%) and apprenticeships (38%) were the top responses. Unfortunately, however, a number of students do not know about these programs, with 19% indicating they are unsure what skills-based learning opportunities their institution offers.

There are some universities, however, making strides to create flexible, experiential learning opportunities for more learners, including those who have to balance work and life while upskilling. Take the University of Memphis’ LiFE flagship program, for example.

FedEX Partners with University of Memphis

In 2018, FedEx reached out to UofM about achieving a corporate objective to increase and improve retention efforts, as the company had incurred extensive retraining costs related to more than 90% turnover annually. Wanting to create an incredibly student-focused program, they had to address two major challenges: many hub employees either didn’t have a high school diploma or weren’t college-eligible.

With this in mind, UofM and FedEx created Learning inspired by FedEx (LiFE), a program that not only offers eligible FedEx hub employees a higher education degree but also provides a performance-based admission pathway called the LiFE Prep Academy for all hub employees regardless of academic history. It allows FedEx staff to take four courses UofM currently offers.

Once they successfully complete those courses, staff are admitted to the University of Memphis as an official college student and receive twelve college credit hours—the average number of credit hours for one full semester. They can then continue with the LiFE program to earn a bachelor’s degree fully online through UofM Global.

As long as staff meet eligibility requirements and are in good academic standing, the program requires no out-of-pocket costs, eliminating another barrier for hub employees concerned about upfront costs. To ensure the success and sustainability of this initiative, however, both FedEx and UofM made commitments to developing a program with policies that accommodate staff needs.

Assessing and Addressing Worker Needs

Assessing a worker and their needs provides employers with insight into that worker’s abilities and skills, helping pinpoint opportunities for training and development. Making this practice standard leads to a more productive workforce and sustainable business.

For the University of Memphis, addressing worker needs meant spending five months (March to August 2018) designing a program that uniquely fit FedEx staff needs while maintaining academic integrity. For FedEx, commitment to the program consists of more than covering tuition costs, which staff requested fall within the $5,250 tuition reimbursement cap, but also entails policy changes. FedEx altered what grades would be acceptable for graduation, extended the length of time allotted for degree completion from four to six years and eliminated a work probationary period for staff deemed eligible for the program.

In addition to the opportunity to earn admission through the Prep Academy, LiFE students can take advantage of cost-saving opportunities like reduced tuition through reverse transfer programs with community colleges, corporate training at a reduced cost and the summer 3+3 program that acts as a buy-one-get-one-free opportunity for summer courses. With no risk and a very high reward for FedEx staff, the LiFE program has gone from a retention effort to a recruitment incentive.

Turning Retention into Recruitment

With the current worker shortage and rising costs for hiring and recruitment, businesses are increasingly challenged with finding qualified candidates. More than ever, it is imperative to retain employees, which, when done well, has its benefits. Satisfied workers can become champions for the companies they work for, willingly helping recruit others in the workforce.

For FedEx staff, the LIFE program has been an option for more than five years now. More than 80% of its graduates have advanced at FedEx and the program has grown to a broader FedEx population across the United States. Its success has not only fueled retention and recruitment at the company, but the LiFE program has also become a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative.

The diversity of the LiFE program population, from race and gender to first-generation students, speaks volumes to what is possible when we reduce barriers for students and customize programs specifically to enhance their access. Both accessibility and diversity have been key outcomes of the LiFE program for the University of Memphis, which has begun implementing the program at other organizations beyond FedEx. Skills-based programs like these are ideal for reaching learners where they are and providing them with the skills necessary to remain competitive in an ever-changing workforce. Skills-based and microcredentialing programs allow institutions to partner with organizations to build programs that enhance access to education and directly support retention and growth.

The LiFE program exemplifies the power of collaboration among higher education institutions and corporations to address workforce needs through innovative upskilling programs. University leaders interested in creating similar partnerships are encouraged to truly consider the workforce’s unique needs and circumstances and, if necessary, think beyond the traditional structure at their institutions.