Pacific Seafood turns to free tuition benefit to keep talent hooked

More than 3,000 employees working at Pacific Seafood are now eligible to receive an enviable benefit: free college tuition.

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The Clackamas, Oregon-based food company partnered with provider Zovio–an education company that works with other employers including Delta Airlines and Novetta–to deliver a full-tuition assistance program. Employees are now able to receive free tuition to obtain associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees at Ashford University, an accredited online university. The employer covers fees, books and graduation expenses as well; costs are directly billed to Pacific Seafood.

“As an industry leader, we encourage growth both personally and professionally, and we believe that training and education are an investment in ourselves and in others,” says Bill Hueffner, director of acquisition and talent development for Pacific Seafood.

Hueffner notes the benefit is an investment “back into our company and the communities we serve.”

It’s also a way to boost employee retention: There is a three-year employment commitment after degree completion, Pacific Seafood notes.

The benefit, which is now in effect, expands the company’s existing education reimbursement program, which pays employees back to a maximum annual benefit of $5,250. The program is good for any junior college, college or university but is reimbursed only after successful completion of the course work with at least a B-level grade and proper documentation of covered expenses, the employer says.

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Related: What’s driving workers’ demand for education benefits?

The company, one of the largest seafood companies in North America, also offers tuition savings opportunities for employee family members.

Pacific Seafood is the latest employer to turn to free college tuition as a recruitment and retention tool.

Chipotle this month also announced that it will cover 100% of tuition costs upfront for 75 business and technology degrees through Guild Education, a Denver-based company that administers tuition benefits for employers. The move expands the restaurant’s existing education benefits, which have provided employees with more than $20 million in tuition assistance over the past two years. After 120 days of employment, Chipotle workers become eligible to pursue degrees from five universities: the University of Arizona, Bellevue University, Brandman University, Southern New Hampshire University and Wilmington University. Chipotle employs 80,000 workers.

Related: Chipotle to offer free tuition benefits to employees

While education benefits have been around for a while, free tuition benefits are relatively new and remain rare. Employers are turning to free tuition benefits as the war for talent heats up and employers see the effect student debt is wreaking on the workforce.

Discover, Disney, Bright Horizons and trucking company U.S. Xpress Enterprises are among other companies that offer workers free tuition in a bid to attract and retain talent in a highly competitive labor market. Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, allows eligible employees to pay just $1 a day to earn a degree through Guild Education. All Walmart and Sam’s Club workers in the U.S. who have been with the company for 90 days are eligible. It applies to all part-time, full-time and salaried employees.

“Employers, employees and education providers are in a position to come together to meet and address the skills gap in ways that are affordable, effective and easy to action for all stakeholders,” says Michael Purcell, president of Zovio Employer Services.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.