SANFORD - Juggling family and job demands can be difficult for full-time workers under the best circumstances. But it's even more challenging for anyone trying at the same time to improve their education and open new career opportunities for a better life.
That path got a little easier for Sanford employees at Tyson Mexican Original when the company teamed up with Central Carolina Community College to offer Upward Academy, part of Tyson's national initiative to offer free, accessible classes in the workplace.
"The mission of Upward Academy is to reduce the impact of social challenges for front-line team members and their families by providing classes in a familiar atmosphere with fewer obstacles around transportation and childcare conflicts," said Emily Hackerson, who directs Upward Academy from Tyson's corporate office in Arkansas. "Our front-line team members are the heart of the company, and that instability outside of work can greatly impact the experience of an individual or team within the workplace."
The partnership began one year ago when Tyson contacted the college to pitch the idea. Because the approach mirrored similar projects in the community, Associate Dean of College and Career Readiness Sandra Thompson bought in right away and got to work.
College officials began by meeting with employees across all shifts to determine what kind of courses they would be interested in taking. Many options were on the table, but there was clearly an intense demand for English as a Second Language classes and courses to prepare for U.S. citizenship.
Classes were organized twice a week in the plant between shifts, so employees could attend before or after work -- or during their time off. And many have. Thompson said 41 students were attending classes in May and a total of 58 had participated in Upward Academy during its inaugural year.
David Sutton, the Human Resources Manager in Sanford, believes the local Upward Academy has had a huge impact on employees -- especially the citizenship classes. "That's kind of a lonesome road, really," Sutton said. "There are some books out there, but I don't see many other resources available for people to get help. So, I think that's a great benefit we're offering to our team members to help them though that process.
"When they eventually bring their naturalization certificates in, you can see it written all over their faces. They're very happy. They're very satisfied. They're very proud."
Tyson's Upward Academy is currently offered in 43 locations across 10 states and Hackerson expects to expand the opportunity to four more states this year. While the number of employees taking classes is constantly changing, she estimates that about 2,000 people so far have enrolled in at least one class and team members have participated in about 200,000 instructional hours since Upward Academy was first offered.
Course offerings vary by location and all are offered in partnership with local community colleges or other organizations providing adult education. In places like Sanford, where the company workforce includes many recent immigrants and non-native English speakers, turnout is particularly high for English, citizenship and computer literacy. In other locations, classes may focus more on preparing employees for taking high school equivalency exams.
Upward Academy also is offered in North Carolina at Tyson facilities in Monroe and Wilkesboro.
With the interest and success they've had so far, Thompson and Sutton expect courses to continue into the second year -- most likely still focusing on English and citizenship, though offerings could expand at some point to include GED preparation or other topics.
Sutton hopes they will continue, because he believes the courses have been good for everyone -- obviously for Tyson employees taking the courses, but for the entire community as well. "It seems that our team members taking courses are more engaged in the community and involved in community functions," he says. "Having better grasp of English helps, and after becoming citizens, people want to participate more in the community."
For more information on Central Carolina Community College, visit www.cccc.edu.