Free tuition program going gangbusters at FedEx hub

By Published: September 20, 2018 4:00 AM CT

Debra Clark thought there must be a catch when her manager announced FedEx was offering Memphis hub workers tuition-free online education at University of Memphis.

“I asked her was she serious. It sounded, like, too good to be true,” said Clark, a team leader, management trainee and seven-year employee at the FedEx Express world hub in Memphis.

Clark, 55, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1981 and spent a year at Southwest Tennessee Community College (then Shelby State) before quitting school and going to work. She raised two daughters who are now grown.

She thought about going back to school. After all, a college tuition reimbursement program that covers all employees has long been a pillar of FedEx’s benefits package.

But paying for college classes on the front end and waiting to be reimbursed was an obstacle, as were the logistics of juggling classes and work.

Then in mid-August, Clark’s manager emerged from a meeting and passed on news of the LiFE program, which stands for Learning Inspired by FedEx. It offers to take workers from whatever their education level, including no high school diploma, and lead them to a bachelor’s degree from University of Memphis Global.

“I signed up that day,” said Clark.

“You don’t have enough time in the day to get back to school and do everyday living, so I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ When she announced it in the morning meeting, I was like, ‘Sign me up,’” Clark said.

One month later, Clark was one of 753 who had expressed interest and more than 500 who had taken FedEx up on the offer, intended to enhance recruitment and retention of workers at the 11,000-employee facility at Memphis International Airport.

“You don’t have enough time in the day to get back to school and do everyday living, so I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ When (the program was announced) in the morning meeting, I was like, ‘Sign me up.’”
Debra Clark, FedEx Memphis hub worker

While ramping up to meet an enthusiastic response in Memphis, officials at U of M Global are preparing to take the LiFE program on the road to other FedEx Express hubs, starting with Indianapolis later this month, Oakland in October and Newark, New Jersey, in November.

On a recent afternoon in a FedEx training center near the hub, Clark was working her way through a LiFE program component called Prep Academy, in which workers prepare for admission while also earning 12 credits toward a degree.

Standing by in a learning lab were LiFE coach Mary Brignole, a U of M point person for people coming into the program, and Rachel Hemphill, the HiSET (high school equivalency test) coach. Hemphill works for HopeWorks, a faith-based career and personal development program that is helping with the FedEx program under a state grant.

New hires show up for orientation at the training center at a rate of about 200 to 250 a week. Each receives a flier about the LiFE program along with an orientation packet, and Brignole attends orientation to explain the online signup process.

Holly Snyder, a marketing representative for U of M Global, said, “It’s starting really strong. We’re getting calls from the other hubs about it, too. We knew it would be great and people would be interested.”

Brignole said, “Some of these employees have been here for years waiting for an opportunity to do this.”

A bachelor of professional studies in organizational leadership is what most workers would receive through the LiFE program. Students can petition the university if they want to go for a different degree, said Dr. Richard Irwin, dean of U of M Global.

The flexibility is important because officials are finding a number of workers who have significant amounts of college credit toward other degrees.

“Somebody who has been at the hub and is close to finishing the degree, we’re not going to make them change. That would be stupid,” Irwin said.

Irwin said the LiFE program was the idea of University of Memphis board of trustees chairman Alan B. Graf Jr., who is chief financial officer of FedEx Corp.

“The idea was to address a recruitment and retention challenge that they face with hub employees, and fortunately they felt that education was a solution to that challenge,” Irwin said. “It’s so wonderful they chose education and obviously us as a platform for that. Education has value to the individual, to the company, obviously to us, and to the community.”

“There’s a gentleman who’s a manager, he had over 100 credits at the University of Memphis, dropped out 27 years ago to raise a family and go to work for FedEx. He now has two daughters here. He is thrilled to death to now know he will graduate before they will."
Dr. Richard Irwin, dean of U of M Global

The U of M has offered online learning since the early 2000s and launched the University of Memphis Global brand in January 2017. Enrollment will pass 3,000 this fall and the strategic plan calls for 6,000 by 2022. “This program will blow that away,” Irwin said.

Irwin said the program is expected to show results fast, because of previously accumulated credits and the impact of an experiential learning component that awards students credits based on training by employers or during military service.

“We’re going to have graduates this year,” Irwin said. “There’s a gentleman who’s a manager, he had over 100 credits at the University of Memphis, dropped out 27 years ago to raise a family and go to work for FedEx. He now has two daughters here. He is thrilled to death to now know he will graduate before they will.

“We had a guy that got 30 credit hours of experiential learning based on his corporate training record,” Irwin added. “That’s an entire year of school that he’s leapfrogging ahead.”

Another person came with 552 pages of corporate training, so that was converted into credit hours, as are joint service transcripts from military veterans. “We take a great deal of pride of honoring and then fitting that into a degree program,” Irwin said.

Tuition reimbursement has long been one of the perks of working for FedEx.

The reimbursement is up to $3,000 a year for courses leading to an undergraduate degree. The first degree can be any discipline, but classes leading to a second or additional undergraduate degree must be relevant to FedEx operations and continued growth to qualify for reimbursement.

Like Clark, hub material handler Esther Jackson cited cost and logistics of attending classes while working as reasons for not using the reimbursement program. Jackson, 55, also had a year of college after high school and later served nine years in the Army.

Jackson was at the learning lab signing up for the program last week.

“My intent is to obtain a bachelor’s degree, obtain new skills and move up in the organization,” she said. “It’s really convenient to work and on the financial side, if that’s one of the things holding you back.”

Clark has been at the learning lab before and after her dayside shift, pushing herself to finish a bachelor’s degree in a year.

“Right now I’m at a place where I’m more enthused about going back to school. I see my job differently now,” Clark said. “I think what I really want out of it all is a better overall life, a way of life. I want to have a contribution to the job as well as my community. I think by this program being available for me, it will allow me to do those things.”

Information about Learning Inspired by FedEx is available online here.


Fedex Corp. Debra Clark University Of Memphis Hopeworks
Wayne Risher

Wayne Risher

Business news reporter, 42-year veteran of print journalism, 34-year resident of Memphis, University of Georgia alumnus and proud father and spouse of University of Memphis graduates.

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