In June, a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant manager graduated with his high school diploma. He was told it would take 18 months because he didn’t transfer any credits from his short secondary education career in Mexico.
He did it in eight.
“As a manager, he brought a bunch of skills to the table from running a multimillion dollar restaurant,” said Rob Lauber, chief learning officer at McDonald’s. “Those things accelerated him through the process.”
That manager was part of a pilot that became Archways to Opportunity, the latest addition to McDonald’s learning strategy that launched in January and has since served nearly 2,000 employees. It includes English as a second language training, an online high school diploma program and college tuition assistance.
Because McDonald’s employee curriculum already has American Council of Education, or ACE, accreditation, the skills employees learn for their job can apply toward their high school and college degrees through a program called Credit for Prior Learning.
“We’re arguably the educator of the world,” Lauber said. “The skills people get working in our business can be applied anywhere, and many people go on to be successful in other places based on the skills they get at McDonald’s.”
Archways to Opportunity is designed to meet employees at their point of need, said Lisa Schumacher, director of education strategies at McDonald’s. To do that, it focuses on three common employee demographics: English language learners, those who haven’t finished high school and those seeking a college degree.
Not every program had to be created from scratch. English Under the Arches, McDonald’s language program, started in 2007 and provides speaking, listening, reading and writing courses for employees with varying levels of English proficiencies. The employee retention rate for EUA students after one year is 88 percent, 78 percent after three.
It was important to bring EUA into the Archways to Opportunity initiative because non-English-speaking learners are the base of the education gap, Schumacher said.
The next group is the employees who didn’t finish high school. For them, the company offers Career Online High School, a free program that awards a diploma, not a GED, to those who complete it.
The GED process has always been complicated and has gotten more so, Schumacher said. A new test launched in 2014 that required many people to start from scratch. There’s also a stigma around the GED because it points to someone who didn’t complete traditional high school. Because Archways to Opportunity was designed for working-aged adults, it made more sense to create a simpler, less-tainted process and outcome.
Like the restaurant manager who graduated in June, employees who have their high school diploma can access the program’s third component: tuition assistance. Restaurant owner-operators have to approve their workers and assist them through the application process. Once an employee presents a tuition bill — not a receipt — McDonald’s pays through a third-party vendor directly to the school.
“When you’re asking the employees to front the money, it can be economically challenging,” Lauber said. “It’s really about understanding the needs and the challenges of the people who can engage in the program, and making sure we take down some of those barriers.”
With 840,000 employees in the U.S., paying college tuition would be a tall order for the fast-food company to fill. Because of its current standing with the American Council of Education, however, both employees and the corporation get a break today.
Using Credit for Prior Learning, employees can put the skills they’ve built through McDonald’s job training and learning programs toward their high school and college degrees. Through partnerships with 11 colleges, McDonald’s has made sure its employees receive credit in areas that push them through programs faster.
“What happens often is those credits transfer differently from school to school or even from campus to campus,” Schumacher said. “We want to make sure people have the benefit of those credit recommendations, and they aren’t ending up in a bucket of electives that might not be as useful.”
Mary Beth Lakin, director of college and university partnerships at ACE, said McDonald’s was one of the council’s first corporate clients and began looking for accreditation in the 1970s. Other organizations have come to ACE for help in applying Credit for Prior Learning practices.
“If you look at some of the recent statistics on what we spend on post-secondary education, it’s time to start looking at training outside the college classroom,” Lakin said. “Think about somebody coming in who maybe has gone through three training courses that a college recognizes. For working adults, that’s a semester or two, and that saves them money and time, for the employer as well.”
Schumacher said the average McDonald’s restaurant general manager has between 18 and 24 credit recommendations that transfer into a two- or four-year program.
McDonald’s can thank its size for allowing it to offer such robust learning, but it can also be a curse for making delivering some Arches of Opportunity facets difficult to handle. The program, however, is designed to solve one of the more public problems posed by franchised business: lack of corporate control.
In March, McDonald’s announced the program publicly along with its plan to raise pay for its corporate store employees. The increase acted as a temporary balm for those lobbying for a higher minimum wage across all industries, particularly fast food — until it was revealed only 10,000 employees would see a raise. Because 90 percent of American McDonald’s restaurants are franchised, approximately 750,000 workers are at the mercy of their owner-operators.
Lauber wouldn’t comment directly on the wage issue, but he said education was a big part of McDonald’s ability to attract and retain talent, even at the franchise level.
“We’re looking at the holistic experience of our employee base. … The education component is really differentiated for us because it cuts beyond what we can do in our company-owned restaurants,” he said. “The education piece is the latch and could be the reason why people come to work for us. Education leads to higher wages.”
Owner-operator LeAnn Richards’ business is a perfect example. As owner of eight restaurants along the Arizona-Mexico border, she employees 420 workers and sees herself responsible for helping them grow as employees and productive members of their communities. That’s why she leads personal financial management classes for employees, as well as holds her general managers accountable for getting employees involved in Archways to Opportunity.
“I believe I grow business leaders,” she said. “Someone can come for a career, or they can stay for a year, but they better be developed and grow and leave knowing more and being better than when they came to work for me.”
Even while they’re still under her employ, Archways to Opportunity participants show signs of growth. Richards said when people finish a class, she sees them start to blossom. “They answer the phone with confidence. They start interacting with each other in a different way. Before that, their self-image of who they were was all tied up in ‘I didn’t finish high school’ or ‘I can’t speak English well’ or ‘I can’t afford college.’ Now they can.”
Before the company, employees and their communities reap the benefits, everyone has to know that the program exists.
“If you look at Starbucks and Chrysler, ‘free college’ is an easier message for people to digest,” Schumacher said. “They’re not necessarily dealing with the level of franchise model that we are. But we continue to stay focused on getting the message into the restaurants in hopes that we continue to see greater uptake.”
ACE’s Lakin said any company’s greatest challenge and responsibility is communicating so everyone understands how Credit for Prior Learning and related programs work. Depending on program complexity, teaching people about its benefits can be its own form of education.
That’s why McDonald’s deployed not only old-school methods, such as paycheck envelope stuffers and breakroom posters, but also an app that enables employees to calculate how many ACE credit recommendations they have based on their position and the training it took to get there.
Face-to-face interaction remains king, though. The fourth component of Archways of Opportunity is its advisory program, through which the company offers free educational advising to any employee. Through these advisers, employees can learn how to access financial aid, use ACE credits, select an area of study and make time for school.
It’s not enough to let managers and operators know about it, though, they also have to be engaged. As of June, Schumacher said there have been 100 to 200 enrollees in the high school program and 300 to 400 accessing tuition assistance. But that’s just the beginning.
Lauber has seen signs in the organization that lead him to believe the numbers will go up dramatically. For example, a couple of U.S. regional leaders are challenging owner-operators to engage one person in each restaurant in their marketplace. Considering that a typical region has 600 to 700 restaurants, that could equal 1,500 people.
That’s the approach owner-operator Richards took when the program began. She sought out one employee in each of her eight restaurants who needed a high school diploma. “The biggest challenge is getting that first person, and then it starts to spread like wildfire among the employees.”
“Our overall learning strategy is to help our individuals to be successful, whether we want to talk operationally — running our restaurants or serving our customers every day — or personally,” Lauber said. “We know education opens the door to other opportunities, and we want that to be part of why someone works at McDonald’s.”
Editor's note: The amount of employees helped by McDonald's Corp. programs was incorrect. Nearly 2,000 employees have been helped by the education programs since January 2015.