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A Look Inside Chrysler’s College Ed Dealership Program

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Looking to curb the “dramatic” turnover rate in the automotive aftermarket industry, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) announced in early May that it was launching its Degrees@Work program— an initiative to provide “cost-free, debtfree” college education to employees at the automaker’s U.S. dealerships.

FCA and its dealers will cover all costs for associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs at Strayer University in roughly 40 fields of study. The program rolled out May 4 at 356 dealerships in the Southeast, and will expand nationwide in the near future. FCA has approximately 118,000 employees in its 2,600 dealerships, including about 18,000 employees in dealerships in the southeast region.

John Fox, director of FCA’s Performance Institute, said the reason for the move is simple: “The turnover rate is just dramatic in the industry, and it impacts a dealer’s bottom line. We think this will attract the best talent in the marketplace.”

Fox spoke to Ratchet+Wrench about the program and what it means for the modern repair industry.

 

HOW DID THIS PROGRAM COME ABOUT?

It is a big endeavor, and, to put it in context, let me start by saying that [Chrysler has had] 62 months of year over-year sales increases. The company is doing well.

And there are a couple key drivers of that, but one main one is that this business is not only about the product we deliver, but also about people. Dealers need to add new people to continue growth in the company. We have great people in our stores in every department to drive to where we are today.

Moving forward, we have to continue to be the employer of choice in every market. But in the business world, dealers aren’t looked at like that. Whether it’s sales, technicians, any position— there are great opportunities and we need people to see that.

So, we started working with Strayer University to focus on two key areas we wanted to improve:

How do we attract the top talent in every market—not just from the automotive perspective, but the overall personnel available from each market?

How do we retain quality people today and help improve their performance? In general, most people want to work hard at their job and improve. How do we help them do that?

That was really what drove the Degrees@Work idea.

 

HOW DOES THE PROGRAM WORK?

As we created this program together, we knew one thing for sure: It had to be simple. It needed simple enrollment, and most importantly, there’s no cost to the employee. As an option to go back to school and earn an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree, that’s a big commitment, so the process had to be simple.

The only requirement to join is that the employee has to have been at the dealership for 30 days. It makes sure that employer feels they fit in their culture and business.

[Within the first two weeks of the launch] on May 4, we already had students enrolling for summer term. It’s an exciting thing to me. We have students from all over the dealership, not just sales. We have techs, office managers, general managers all enrolling in our summer program.

Another thing for dealers that makes it simple: cost-effective enrollment. The dealership pays a monthly fee to be part of the program, and for that monthly fee, you can have as many employees as you want participate.

How an employee takes the courses depends on his or her location, whether it’s online or in person. Strayer has 77 locations around the U.S. Most are in the Southeast, but we’re agnostic as to what the students want to do.

I believe there will be a number of them that will take the online version, but it will be interesting to see. Students can attend either one—and there are lots of classes at night to make it more convenient.

Employees will also have access to a “success coach” that can help them apply past work as credit and adjust to the transition of going back to school.

 

HOW DOES THE PROGRAM BENEFIT THE COMPANY?

It helps both companies: our dealers, No. 1, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, No. 2. From a dealer’s perspective, it helps them become the employer of choice.

We need to pull the cover off of what the opportunities are in our dealerships around the country. As a tech, service manager, general manager or sales, these are careers you can advance in and provide a great living. We know that as they stay in our stores, their performances improve. That means dealer’s business is going to grow. Our dealers business is going to grow. Our dealers are the face of this company. As we work to bring in high-quality employees and train them and help them improve, our business will grow. We’ll continue to invest on the product side, and our dealers will continue to invest on the employee side.

 

WHAT DOES THE PROGRAM SAY ABOUT THE STATE OF EDUCATION IN THE INDUSTRY?

I think there is a huge opportunity in today’s industry. There’s a perception out there that these are dirty jobs. But the computing power in our vehicles today, and what our techs do to diagnose and repair—we have to build awareness that these jobs as techs are great opportunities for someone who’s interested in going into a career on the IT side of the world. Most people would never think that if you want to go into IT—getting a computer science or programming degree—they have an opportunity here. This is a different industry today, and we want people to realize that. I think people have a desire to grow. Too many people think a tech is just going to be a tech. There’s nothing wrong with that— it’s a great career—but now we need to show there’s an opportunity to grow.

A college degree is a great thing to have and opens a lot of doors. But I also believe it opens up a certain mind of thinking. It brings about innovative thought, which is what we need in our industry today.

I can tell you, from our partners at Strayer, companies today suggest that employees might not be completely ready to go into the workforce when they come out of school. So, how do we bridge that gap and how do we align them with the correct career paths moving forward?

We’re building this relationship with Strayer and customizing their content to the automotive industry. As we work toward offering classes—be it a finance class, human resources class, whatever it is—we have the ability to where Strayer can use specific automotive or FCA examples to show where you can use those when you come into work.

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