Recipients of Working Mother Media's 2011 Best Companies for Hourly Workers Award

On May 3, Working Mother Media recognized twelve companies which won this year’s 2011 Best Companies for Hourly Workers Award. These “terrific twelve” are first-rate examples of the leadership businesses can show to improve the lives of our nation’s 73 million hourly workers.

By offering their employees flexible work arrangements, tuition support, health insurance, child-care help and more, the award recipients highlight the business value of programs that go above and beyond job-related training, to increasing opportunities for the personal and professional development of hourly workers.

This is especially important today as young people, especially those from low-income families, have been hit hard by the Great Recession. Opportunities for training and education are critical to get these young people engaged in the labor market and able to pursue careers. As Donna Klein, Corporate Voices’ Executive Chair and CEO said during the Best Companies awards ceremony,

“Since the 2007 recession began, the climb up the ladder to establish a career has become harder and steeper. 75 percent of those high school students who do not go onto college cite ‘money’ as the reason for their choice. Today young people have to work–they need to set aside the goal of more education or training…And that means they have little or no assistance in navigating between the dilemma of having to work and understanding they will need more education. They are at a choice point, yet they have little choice.”

The winners of the Best Companies for Hourly Workers Award are, however, helping their workers have a choice. All of this year’s winners offer their 626,000 employees tuition reimbursement to pursue their education, job-skills training, support with certifications, degrees and ESL courses, and life-skills training in financial literacy and computer training.

Bon Secours, for example, offers its hourly workers tuition pre-pay assistance to help reduce the financial burdens and concerns related to pursuing an education. The company also has an on-site School at Work program, which prepares high-potential hourly workers for nursing and other medical careers. It also puts a strong emphasis on succession planning– helping to encourage  employees to grow within the company and pursue careers.

And Capital One offers both customer service and leadership training for their nonexempt workers. Through Capital One University, a nationally-recognized training organization, the company offers traditional classroom courses as well as online learning tools and resources, and the financial support to pay for it. It also offers flexible work arrangements and encourages pumping breaks for nursing moms.

These work-life and educational supports play an important role in improving companies’ recruiting, retention and turnover rates, and thereby support their profitability and bottom-line. But they also play an important social role in helping lower-income workers manage work and life, and pursue an education–key to economic security and upward mobility in the labor market today.

Having employers and communities play a role in increasing the education levels of the workforce is critical today, when so many adults don’t pursue education past high school. According to 2010 census data, only 35 percent of the adult population over 25 have an Associate’s degree or higher. The rest fall into the broad category of not having a high school diploma, having a high school diploma, or having attended some college but haven’t earned a degree. This is troubling, given that research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has shown that a majority of jobs within the next decade will require at least some postsecondary education.

Indeed, the economic and job market  implications of not having higher levels of education are clear– the unemployment rate for adults without a high school diploma is a whopping 13.7 percent. It is 7.4 percent for those with some college or an Associate’s degree and only 4.4 percent for those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

But while education is the key to employment and economic security, the financial challenges of pursuing an education cited earlier remain a key challenge. In a recent AP/Viacom survey of 18-24-year-olds, forty percent who had graduated high school said that money was a “big factor” in deciding whether to continue their education past high school.  And, of college students who had seriously considered dropping out of college, 58 percent said financial problems were a factor.

Recognizing employers like Working Mother’s Best Companies for Hourly Workers, therefore, is important to identify best practices for enhancing the skills of the workforce, and to encourage others to do the same. As Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said during the awards ceremony luncheon,

“You’re transforming the way we do work in this country … you’re making us better… in many ways, you’re making history.”

One important best practice related to supporting education is workplace flexibility. According to “A Profile of Young Workers in Low-Income Families,” a report released by Corporate Voices at the Best Companies Awards ceremony, low-income youth whose employers do offer training or education programs are more likely to be enrolled in such programs than youth who don’t have that opportunity. It also finds that when lower-income youth have access to scheduling flexibility and control over their work schedules, they are much more likely to be enrolled in training programs.

There is also a business case for flexibility, as Corporate Voices’ “Business Impacts of Flexibility: An Imperative for Expansion” shows. The report, updated and expanded since its initial publication in 2005, also illustrates flexibility’s growing role as a strategic business imperative for both domestic and global enterprises.

In addition to the best practices spotlighted by the Best Companies for Hourly Workers, Corporate Voices is also identifying and encouraging those companies involved in innovative Learn and Earn partnerships with community colleges. These Learn and Earn partnerships, as outlined in “From an Ill-Prepared to Well-Prepared Workforce: The Shared Imperatives for Employers and Community Colleges to Collaborate,” engage both employers and educational institutions within communities to help individuals complete their postsecondary education.

As we continue on our road to recovery, let’s continue to think of the positive and valuable ways employers can help working families maintain economic security and help young workers build their careers– hopefully this year’s Best Companies for Hourly Workers will set the standard for employers in the future.