SOUTHERN ILLINOIS -- For many young adults, the fast food industry provides an opportunity for a first job, but one local franchise group is setting the bar high on a national level in providing educational opportunities for its employees.
The Moreland/Bishop family-owned franchise operates 14 McDonald's restaurants across Southern Illinois. While the company has its own training programs and opportunities for advancement within the company, its leaders realize that its employees are often in a transitional phase, working to pay the bills while furthering their education.
In 2015, the national corporation launched "Archways to Opportunity," a comprehensive education strategy with multiple programs designed to help its employees reach their potential. Partnering with Cengage, an education and technology company out of Boston, Massachusetts, Archways provides employees with an opportunity to earn a high school diploma as well as tuition assistance for higher education.
According to the McDonald's corporate website, more than 24,000 employees have taken advantage of the program and 130 of those come from the Moreland/Bishop corporation.
"We are averaging 2.5 employees per store in the program," said Barb Mileur, a training manager for the local franchise. "That's in the top 5 percent in the nation."
Wendy Mercer is one of those. The 37-year-old mother of four works at the Carmi location. Family circumstances caused her to be short in credits to graduate high school.
"I just never finished," she said. "Now, I'm home-schooling my kids and I thought I really needed to finish, to show them you can't ever quit."
Mercer took advantage of the online high school program and completed her degree requirements in about seven months.
"We did a graduation ceremony for her with a cap and gown and cake," said Stephanie Bishop. "We do that for all of our graduates. We make a big deal of it."
Mary Moreland echoed her daughter's words. "Our employees are our family," she said.
That is certainly how Mandalin Vail of Marion feels. Vail has worked at the Marion location for about four years, earning her way to a management position.
"Kelly told me about the Archways program and it seemed like the golden opportunity," said Vail. "It has helped me so much. It paid for all of my books."
Vail said the financial boost combined with the help she gets from her "work family," has paved the way for her success in college.
"Everyone is here to help," she said. "They just grab you with open arms."
Vail said Mileur has been especially helpful. "She trained me and helped me become a better person. My people skills are so much better."
Mileur said that Vail is a valued team member. "She is in her second year of the Archways program," said Mileur. "She is now helping other employees with their applications."
Bishop and Mileur both say the program has been beneficial to the business. "Our employees feel valued," said Mileur. "They know we care about them and want to help them achieve their goals," added Bishop.
According to Cengage's Kristina Massari, the program has also increased the employee retention rate for the Moreland/Bishop organization to 70 percent, more than double the average for the restaurant industry.
"McDonald's is one of the flagship programs of developing a full suite of offerings," said Taryn McKenzie, executive director of corporate and workforce partnerships at Cengage.
McKenzie said the program's "secret sauce," is the course offerings and structure of the programs. Archways also offers online opportunities in eight different workforce areas.
"Students work at their own pace, they have an academic coach available 24/7, and there are no failures," she said. "They work to get a 70 percent or better to continue to the next level."
Bishop said the online courses are offered at a 40 percent discount. "They also get a free laptop," she said.
Archways is available to all of Moreland/Bishop's employees. "They have to have been with us for 90 days and work at least 15 hours a week," said Mileur.
"If they apply, they get it," said Moreland.
Mileur did note that students who have a full-tuition scholarship do not receive the funds.
While the initial program offered cash awards of around $700, Bishop said the success of the program has prompted an increase for next year.
"Our crew employees get $2,500 a year and shift managers will get $3,000 a year," she said.
"McDonald's wants to be America's best first job," said McKenzie. "We did a study last year that found that 40 million Americans have no diploma. Each of those can cost our economy around $500,000 in benefits. Plus, those with a diploma can earn that much more over their lifetime."
"We're calling this the million dollar difference," she said.
Dawn McGill of Herrin is another that has taken advantage of that difference. The 33-year-old single mother just earned a B.S. in geology and psychology while working as a crew trainer.
"This made it possible for me to complete my degree," she said.
Vail will be taking advantage of the program again this year as she continues attending John A. Logan to become a paramedic.
"This really is the golden opportunity," she said.