AGM uses their College Tuition Reimbursement Program to Improve Business Performance

Tucson, AZ | Submitted by Howard Stewart

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College graduates earn more, contribute more to the economic well-being of their communities, and are less likely to face unemployment. Yet, only half of Pima County high school graduates pursue post-secondary education. One local business aims to change this grim statistic through an innovative college reimbursement workplace initiative.

Perceiving the complexity of this educational, socioeconomic conundrum, Howard N. Stewart, President and CEO of Tucson-based AGM Container Controls (AGM), does everything he can to encourage his entire workforce to pursue their educational dreams. The business results speak for themselves, considering that the value of AGM’s stock has multiplied by a factor of 16 times in the last 23 years.

College tuition reimbursement workplace initiative

When Stewart rejoined AGM in 1989, a company that his parents had started, he was surprised to learn that no more than 3 percent of AGM’s employees were taking advantage of AGM’s college tuition reimbursement program in any given year. Knowing how postsecondary education attainment had positively altered the trajectory of his own life, Stewart set about to slowly modify AGM’s tuition reimbursement program in an effort to boost the program’s overall participation rate.

As a result, as recently as 2018, AGM achieved a new record high participation rate when 25 percent of all AGM employees attended college that year. This is an outstanding accomplishment, considering that on a national basis, most companies achieve no better than a 5 percent participation rate.

So, how does AGM achieve such spectacular results?

First, Stewart increased reimbursement rates for B grades (in addition to A’s) to 100 percent to decrease the fear among some employees that they might lose money by returning to school. Likewise, Stewart increased reimbursement rates from 50 percent to 75 percent for any employee who could pass a class at the C level. Interestingly, AGM employees complete 87 percent of such classwork at the B level or higher, with most employees receiving A’s.

Stewart also began to allow AGM employees to study anything that interests them – even if it’s not directly related to the company’s work. As such, AGM has helped a few employees work toward achieving degrees in what are commonly known as “the helping professions,” such as nursing, teaching and social work. Stewart’s reasons for doing so are twofold, in that such coursework doesn’t cost the company much money, and it ultimately helps to strengthen the foundation of his Tucson community.

Stewart also incentivizes his AGM employees to participate in the program. For example, he takes into account their classwork achievements at the time of each of their wage reviews. Each year, Stewart also recognizes these employees’ successes at company meetings, such as rewarding the top half dozen students or so with $2,000 in cash prizes.

What are the impacts of investing in education?

AGM’s tuition reimbursement program has achieved notable results. For example, AGM employees who take advantage of this program tend to enhance their professional skill sets, stay longer with the company and are far more promotable. In addition, their classwork helps them to improve their writing, computer, math, critical thinking and other important work skills, all of which enable such employees to become increasingly productive.

Stewart doesn’t tend to look at education as an expense, but rather as an investment. Furthermore, Stewart perceives that such investments in education are a win-win-win proposition, meaning that everyone benefits: the employees, AGM itself, and even the overall Tucson community. Lastly, as the company inevitably continues to grow, he sees that efforts like these will ensure that AGM has a pipeline of qualified employees.

Stewart’s interests in educational attainment don’t just end with sending his company’s employees to college.

Through a partnership with San Miguel High School, which is a parochial college preparatory institution based in South Tucson, AGM and other local businesses annually provides work opportunities to a 4-person teams of San Miguel’s students, all of whom come from families with socioeconomic challenges. In turn, these students earn wages at AGM that pay for almost 60 percent of their tuition. (Most of their remaining tuition is provided by donations to the school). Better yet, virtually 100 percent of San Miguel students go on to attend college!

Separately, AGM is one of 18 Southern Arizona Manufacturing Partners (SAMP) that work with Pima Community College (PCC) to help young machinists transition from high school to college. As such, AGM offers part time machining positions that enable such students to earn a decent wage while they work toward their future careers in machining and manufacturing.

Replicating programs like AGM’s will move our state forward.

Stewart’s workplace initiative is a great example of the role that Arizona businesses can play in helping to make progress toward the state’s 60 percent attainment goal. If Arizonans as a whole seek the kind of economic prosperity, quality of life and civic health that is more commonly available in leading U.S. states, then it will have to close its current educational achievement gaps that leave so many Arizonans behind.

As outlined in the Arizona Education Progress Meter, only 45 percent of Arizonans age 24-65 currently hold a two- or four-year degree or industry certificate. According to Achieve60AZ, in order to meet the goal of 60 percent by 2030, we will need to grow the number of Arizona residents with postsecondary degrees or certificates by roughly one million residents in the next 11 years, which will be no small achievement. AGM is surely doing its part.

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