University-Business Partnership Develops Employees

So, a guy walks into an auction and bids on a cow … .

This is no joke. During the Paint This Town Orange event at the Oklahoma City (OKC) campus of Oklahoma State University (OSU), they held an auction. One of the items auctioned off was — yes — a whole cow.

That first Paint This Town Orange event — known in Oklahoma City as PTTO — raised $300,000 for scholarships. (Orange, of course, is the OSU school color.) Another PTTO occurs this October, and organizers have already received a cow for the auction.

Some of the awards given out from that $300,000 were as small as money for a student to buy a textbook. If that sounds insignificant, it is far from it.

Investing in Employees
When Robin Roberts Krieger, vice president business & industry training and economic development, came to OSU-OKC four years ago, she met with Percy Kirk, senior vice president and central region manager of Cox Communications. He told her about a program he had started in Nebraska.

It sounded like an exact fit for what Krieger had in mind.

“We are primarily a certificate and associate degree institution, much more like a community college,” Krieger says. “Our main campus up in Stillwater is bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D., and we’re the satellite campus in Oklahoma City, which is really more the technical training, so half of our students come to school here and then transfer on to a four-year program. About half of them come here to go to work.

“So, they’re becoming RNs, they’re becoming police officers, firemen, etc. They’re getting either a certificate or a two-year degree and then going into the workplace. So it occurred to me that we had programs and we had companies that needed those programs,” she says. “We had low unemployment, and a lot of the companies were working on retention strategies and how to train up their workforce to move into supervisory and management positions.”

Here’s how it works. Cox identifies long-term employees who haven’t completed college. Their supervisors or managers have tagged them as people they’d really like to move up in the organization, but some of those jobs require a college degree.

“In our business,” Kirk says, “we have a big workforce. In many cases, we have people for whom this is their first real job after high school. We have a big portion of our workforce who either weren’t ready, weren’t able or just didn’t pursue a formal education. Then, as they have worked over the years, we have people who have been found to have really good leadership skill sets or technical aptitudes that enable them to grow. But at some point, it becomes apparent that without a formal education they could end up somewhat stunted.

“And so, the great news for us is that we found a terrific partner in OSU at OKC. And so we developed these cohorts,” he says.

Changing the Paradigm
Cox chose 16 employees for the first Cox Reaching Higher cohort. The first member of that cohort graduated with an associate’s degree and now is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at OSU-Tulsa.

This fall marks the beginning of the third Cox Reaching Higher cohort, with 10 members. These students are adults with families and full-time jobs, so they take night classes and online classes. Cox pays tuition, books and fees and allows them paid time off for their studies and classwork.

“What it did for their self-esteem and realizing senior managers saw value in them, I can’t tell you,” Krieger says. “It was almost an emotional conversation.”

Remember that scholarship that purchased a textbook? Well, here’s the story.

“I actually know of a student who was trying to decide between a book and feeding the family,” says Krieger. The scholarship bought the $127 textbook the student needed.

And the family ate.

“For you to lift up your economy, your people need to have jobs and move hopefully into middle class wages,” Krieger says. “If I take a veteran who just got out of the military and in 18 to 24 months he has an associate’s degree to become a nurse, a fireman, a policeman, he’s going to make $50,000 or $60,000 a year as soon as he graduates. That’s a game changer.

“All of a sudden, you’re changing a paradigm,” she says. “That’s how we change society.”

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