Fiat Chrysler offering free college to dealer employees

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on Monday announced a unique program that will offer dealership employees free college educations.

Through a partnership with Virginia-based Strayer University, employees of participating Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram and Fiat dealerships will be able to enroll in individual classes as well as associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs at “no-cost, no-debt” to the employees.

FCA US, formerly Chrysler Group LLC, said the university’s new “Degrees@Work” program is voluntary for U.S. dealers. The automaker will share the cost of the program with the dealers, who must pay an undisclosed flat monthly fee, regardless of the number of their employees who take classes.

Employees can enroll in online courses or on-campus classes at one the post-secondary institution’s more than 75 campuses, located in 15 states and the District of Columbia. John Fox, FCA US director of dealer training, said most of the participating employees likely will be enrolling in online courses.

“We looked at how we could make an impact,” Fox said Monday during a phone interview. “And a college degree is certainly something that’s a wonderful opportunity.”

The first phase of the program is rolling out now at the automaker’s dealerships in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. It is expected to be launched nationally in the third quarter, Fox said.

The goals of the program, according to Fox, are to reward employees who have helped the company achieve more than five years of monthly, year-over-year sales gains; attract new talent, while improving the skills of existing employees; and significantly increase employee retention.

“The longer people stay in their positions … their performance is going to improve and the final customer experience is going to be much improved,” Fox said. “It’s a great opportunity for our dealerships.”

Fox would not discuss financial details of the program, which likely will save those participating in the program tens of thousands of dollars. According to the private nonprofit corporation College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014–2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

Strayer says the Degrees@Work program is intended to help employees advance their careers, while enhancing their skill sets. The courses can be customized to prioritize and accelerate skill development in critical job functions, according to Karl McDonnell, CEO of Strayer Education Inc., which owns the for-profit college.

“Education and business must be inextricably linked in order for today’s workers and companies to succeed,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to helping develop the next generation of top talent and competitive companies with Strayer’s new offering for businesses.”

FCA US’ dealership network employs about 118,000 employees at more than 2,600 dealerships, including 18,000 at the 356 dealerships in the initial six states.

Unlike some tuition reimbursement programs offered by some companies, employees do not have to pay any upfront costs. Even books are included in the program, and employees do not have to reimburse money if they fail a course.

The program was developed based in part on input from dealers and their employees. Depending on the selected program of study, courses will range from business administration and accounting to education, information systems, and other areas.

“Our goal is to position our dealer network as the ‘employers of choice,’ ” said Al Gardner, FCA US head of Dealer Network Development and Chrysler brand president & CEO, in a statement. “Our collaboration with Strayer 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.”

FCA US is the only company in the automotive industry to offer the program, officials said.

The announcement comes about a month after Starbucks launched a similar program for its employees with Arizona State University.

mwayland@detroitnews.com

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