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Tyson to offer workers free education

by John Magsam | April 26, 2022 at 6:52 a.m.
FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2006, file photo, a car passes in front of a Tyson Foods Inc., sign at Tyson headquarters in Springdale.

Tyson Foods said Monday it will begin providing free educational opportunities to all its workers starting in the summer through a program offering a variety of degrees and career certificates.

The Springdale-based meat giant is investing $60 million on the four year program through a partnership with Guild. Tyson will give employees access to 175 programs available from 35 of the country's universities and other learning providers through an online portal.

Guild, based in Denver and founded in 2015, works as a middleman between companies and education providers such as universities and colleges. It provides services for some of the nation's largest employers, including Walmart, Chipotle, Hilton and Macy's. In August, Target said it would spend $200 million in a four-year partnership with Guild to offer educational assistance to its workers.

In March of 2021, meat producer JBS USA and its subsidiary Pilgrim's began the Better Futures program to provide free two-year college tuition to more than 66,000 employees and their dependent children.

The Tyson Foods program allows employees to earn masters, undergraduate and associate degrees as well as other career certifications. Key focuses of study include supply chain and operations; agriculture; manufacturing and automation; leadership and management; business; and a wide variety of other subjects. Tyson Foods said the online programs will be provided to employees for free, including all tuition, books and fees.

"This commitment to our team members reinforces our belief that they are the lifeblood of our current and future success. Providing equity and opportunity to every single member of our team is part of our goal to make Tyson the most sought-after place to work," John R. Tyson, the executive vice president and chief sustainability officer at Tyson, said in a statement. "Providing education benefits will continue to lay a foundation for personal and career growth for our team members."

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, said the labor market is tight and companies are beginning to offer a wider variety of incentives and perks to attract and keep workers.

Jebaraj said that beyond higher wages, employers are offering perks such as more flexible work schedules, child care and things like education benefits to stay competitive.

"It's becoming a standard part of their compensation at these larger companies," Jebaraj said of education benefits.

According to a March report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the yearly total separations rate for 2021 was 47.2%, down 9.6 percentage points from 2020 but higher than 45.1% for 2019 . The separations rate is the number of total separations during the entire year as a percent of annual average employment. Of the 2021 separations rate, 32.7% was quits -- employees who left voluntarily with the exception of retirements or transfers -- while 11.6% was layoffs and discharges and 2.9% was for other reasons.

Michael Pakko, state economist with the Arkansas Economic Development Institute, said offering education benefits as perks is a growing trend as employers try to lure and keep workers after the covid-19 pandemic but it does create some challenges. Primarily, it must be continued year by year to really be useful to workers. Pakko said, on the plus side, educational perks can create a more skilled and better educated workforce for Tyson, but added there's no guarantee workers won't seek greener pastures later.

The new program is in addition to Tyson's Upward Academy, which began in 2016. Upward Academy is an on-site education program available at 46 Tyson locations that provides free ESL, GED, citizenship, financial and other classes to its employees. To date, about 5,000 employees have taken classes through the program.

The company said it spent $500 million on wage increases and bonuses for its hourly workers last year and has begun pilot programs for on-site subsidized child care, and some sites are offering more flexible work schedules. Tyson Foods employs about 120,000 in the United States.

Shares of Tyson Foods closed at $94.51, down 41 cents or less than 1% in trading Monday on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares have traded as low as $69.88 and as high as $100.72 over the past year.

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