Rosemary Link
Rosemary Link

Greater Des Moines employers that provide tuition assistance when employees return to school are doing a great service for their workers and for the community, and they deserve our thanks.

More effort is needed, because the demand for better-educated employees is so great. “Of Iowa’s hot 50 jobs, 98 percent require post-secondary education,” Heather Doe wrote recently. The Department of Education tells us that only 25 percent of Iowans have an associate or bachelor’s degree, which means we have a serious gap between demand of employers and supply.

There are two reasons to feel hopeful. First, more than 60 employers in the region offer tuition support. Second, the common obstacles that prevent workers from returning to school are surmountable.

I would identify four main obstacles: finances, family response, employer expectations and “Can I do it?” anxiety.

There are many schools, from Des Moines Area Community College to the state universities to four-year private liberal arts schools such as Simpson College, that welcome adult learners. Simpson, for example, has welcomed students of all ages at competitive tuition rates for the past 30 years. Our program has produced many impressive success stories among our graduates.

Sometimes adult students think they will not be able to afford tuition, especially at private schools. This is not the case, because price points vary for adult learners at both public and private institutions. Federal loans and some grants are available. Most importantly, many employers are offering a hand.

For example, Bridgestone Firestone employs more than 1,700 people on the north side of Des Moines and runs its own “university,” which provides the bridge for staff to gain the confidence to return to the classroom.

Similarly, DuPont Pioneer employs more than 3,000 people in Iowa. It has highly qualified scientists and researchers, in addition to a wide array of sales and marketing, information technology, production and administrative staff who have the opportunity to apply for tuition support in the pursuit of higher education.

Even with education-friendly employers, workers are often greeted with reservations from family members, including comments such as, “Are you crazy?” “When will the children see you?” and “Who will do the laundry?” Such reactions can be daunting.

However, many of our adult students have dreamed of returning to school and completing the degree that was out of reach earlier in their lives.

Mario Rodriguez tells his Simpson adviser: “I call it a fire … a burning desire to learn at a level that only a college degree can offer.” He goes on to say, “I was recently promoted to the senior level of my position, and a big part of that was due to having completed my degree.”

Also, many adult learners speak of becoming role models to their own children as they do homework together and share study skills.

Although employer tuition support is expanding and companies such as Principal Financial Group Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. have renewed their commitment, direct supervisors vary in their response to staff returning to school.

It is crucial for adult students to engage with their supervisors to share progress, connect goals to the workplace and plan adjustments that may be needed to work tasks and schedules.

Last year, the Chicago Tribune praised two employers that have taken pride in their adult students and extended this to acknowledging the whole work team. Craig Weidner of Scot Forge, a manufacturing company, says, “If you take someone with the right attitude and dedication and give them opportunities, it’s a pretty powerful thing.” Scot Forge and Watlow Electric Manufacturing are reinvesting $400,000 to “further the education of their employees in the hope of retaining highly skilled workers and promoting them in-house,” the Tribune reported.

The “Can I do it?” anxiety is very real. Recently, a Des Moines detective returned to school at Simpson and commented, “You expect me to write a 2,000-word essay when the force wants me to write a maximum of three succinct sentences?”

Also, it can be alarming for workers to find their way through a myriad of research journals and sources when it has been a few years since they have done so. They benefit greatly from peer groups of encouragers and advisers.

As part of Simpson’s adult learning programs, Craig Peck offers a “Transitions” course to provide a bridge for adult learners to discuss their hopes and fears about returning to college. The purpose is to ease fears and establish confidence.

“When they first come into the classroom, people are clearly nervous, but we have fun with introductions and they soon get to know their classmates and find a new network of friends they will never lose,” he says.

Peter Koestenbaum is an organizational specialist who writes about education and the “Leadership Diamond.” His research identifies four elements to this diamond as critical to successful careers: vision, including facing the future and “thinking big”; courage, including taking a risk and seeking education; the reality of financial planning and fiscal responsibility; and living by the ethics of being true to ourselves and finding meaning in our work.

A degree helps us discover and unpack resources such as these and apply them to our lives in ways that guarantee promotion and future success, which in turn builds the strength of our whole community. As our president tells us, education drives the future.

Employers that encourage their workers to go back to school, and provide the resources for them to do so, discover that it is good business and good for the entire community.

Rosemary J. Link is associate vice president for academic affairs at Simpson College.