In high school, Jody Melcher had always been a good student. She wanted to attend college, but she wasn’t sure if she would be able to afford it. Coming from a single-parent household, Melcher thought she would have to spend most of her time working just to pay for tuition and books instead of studying.
Melcher now is attending the University of Louisville. Thanks to Capital Holding Corp., she’s doing so on a four-year scholarship. She’s also working, but only part time at Capital Holding. In addition, her work experience there could lead to a job offer after graduation.
It may seem as though Melcher is the beneficiary in this situation, but if you ask Irving W. Bailey II, Capital Holding’s chief executive officer (CEO), he will tell you who the real beneficiary is. “As we look to the future and a tighter labor market, it’s to our benefit as a corporation to have a strong image in a given high school (or college) from which we will draw a portion of our work force,” he says. “We also see, as do many corporations, the need to improve the educational system and try to do something to make a difference.”
During the past three years, Capital Holding, one of the largest stockholder-owned life insurance companies in the U.S., and its business units have committed more than $3 million to learning-related programs. It also has developed and continues to support 12 high school and college partnership programs because the company considers education to be a bottom line issue.
There’s good reason for this thinking; Kentucky ranks 50th in the U.S. in the percentage of high school graduates, with 52%. The national average is 66% In addition, Kentucky’s education funding is among the lowest in the U.S. In 1986, it ranked 46th. In 1989, it ranked 40th.
This is only part of the problem, however. Blue-collar jobs are dwindling in the state, which means there is an even greater need to increase the education of youngsters, as well as adults, so that they can move into service-oriented and technologically advanced positions.
The Kentucky State Dept. of Education is taking drastic measures to improve the status of education. In fact, a complete restructuring of all its public schools has earned the state recognition as having one of the most progressive school systems in the nation. It could be years, however, before such as company as Capital Holding could reap the benefits.
That’s why Capital Holding, based in Louisville, started taking matters into its own hands during the early 1980s. Even then it was feeling the effect of the state’s weak education system. When the company was expanding its information systems department, most of the people who had computer experience had to be recruited from the East Coast. “We are headquartered in Louisville, and we want to hire Kentuckians,” says Carol Bradley, Capital Holding’s community education relations consultant.
It was John Franco, the company’s former vice chairperson, who realized the need for a well-educated work force for the 1990s and beyond, and approached the superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools. In 1983, the company, the school system and Pleasure Ridge Park High School agreed to develop a curriculum that would begin to meet the needs of business, the community and students.
The result was Project Business, that today is recognized as one of the best of the more than 140,000 school/business partnerships throughout the U.S. The program provides Capital Holding with a direct link to intelligent, dedicated students who have business skills and work experience. It gives high-achieving, bright students from blue-collar neighborhoods an opportunity to develop work skills and to consider attending college.
Bradley is responsible for coordinating and implementing all of Capital Holding’s education programs. As a part of the HR department, her responsibility is to examine the educational and employment needs within the corporation and to monitor the changing requirements for entry-level positions. She then works with the schools to develop a synchronized curriculum.
“We try to supply and enhance the skills of students who will become future employees,” says Bradley, a former teacher. “With all the billions of dollars companies are spending on training and retraining employees, what’s happening here is a model of how the school system becomes aware of the needs of its graduates and what they require to get a job.”
From the company’s viewpoint, the program is people, not capital, intensive. In fact, costs are minimal, involving only the reprinting of 20 binders yearly and the help of employees from throughout the company. From January through May, at least one worker is in school from two or three times a week for a hour-long class. In addition to classroom time, employees interview, hire and mentor the students during a six-week internship.
Project Business, which is now in its sixth year, is a 55-minute class taught daily and jointly by Capital Holding employees and Pleasure Ridge Park High School instructors. Approximately 75 students apply each year, and 20 are selected. To be chosen, students must have a good grade point average (GPA), analytical ability, good attendance, and typing and communication skills. They also must be recommended by their instructors.
The first semester, which is taught by high school faculty, consists of written and oral communication skills, computer skills (such as a knowledge of dBase II and Lotus) and general business information. During the second semester, executives come on-site to provide firsthand information about the business world, economics, government and politics.
Classes also are held at company headquarters. Executives use role playing and simulation exercises so students can experience what it’s like to work in a corporation.
Each executive covers a different subject. For example, the vice president of HR notes similarities between high school and corporate life, emphasizing values, culture and communication. The vice president of corporate communications talks about the company’s publication and its importance in corporate identity, media relations and stockholder communication.
Required course reading includes The Wall Street Journal and such philosophers as Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke and Karl Marx. The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour is required television watching.
Each class has a community project that’s conceived and completed during the second semester. In their “businesses,” students elect a president, managers and work teams. The 1990 students worked on a project to encourage other Louisville companies to adopt the Project Business program.
Finally, each student has a six-week salaried summer job at Capital Holding, during which time he or she learns about the company from the inside. Salaries are based on performance, which is evaluated at regular intervals. One or two students are asked to continue working part time during their senior year.
Each year, one Pleasure Ridge Park High School student is awarded a four-year scholarship to a local college of his or her choice. That student must maintain at least a 3.0 GPA as a full-time student, have teacher and employer recommendations and maintain employment part time at Capital Holding.
This year, the company’s first crop of college graduates will interview for regular positions. Of the 20 who are eligible, six already have sent in resumes. Bradley, who keeps track of the progress of each student, says several have the potential to become employees.
Capital Holding has benefited from the program, but so have the students in ways no one expected. For example, a student in the 1989 class was asked to continue working during his senior year. He was excellent at many of the tasks he undertook and had planned to attend college, but his written and oral communication skills were poor.
Bradley pointed this out to him, saying that the dialect he used may be appropriate at home or when he was with his friends, but it wouldn’t translate positively in a corporate environment. On his own, the student took a six-month Saturday morning grammar class at a local college to eliminate the use of subjects and verbs that didn’t agree and double negatives that appeared in his speech.
When Bradley saw him a few months later, she was stunned at the improvement he had made. She says this is a result of taking these students out of their small environment and giving them the chance to see what the business community is like. Says Bradley, “Once the students begin to realize how important those skills are, they work hard.”
Personnel Journal, February 1991, Vol. 70, No. 2, pp. 68 – 70.