The restaurant industry’s continued labor woes prove employees just aren’t looking for better salaries. 

The average hourly earnings of workers in leisure and hospitality rose roughly 12 percent in December 2021, year-over-year. However, in February, 863,000 quit their jobs, representing about 21 percent of the private sector. It was the most since November, when 881,000 quit their jobs.

MORE: McDonald’s Not Losing Sight of Value as Inflation Soars

Restaurants are now tasked with going beyond the dollars and offering employees benefits that persuade them to stay, develop, and potentially grow within the company. 

McDonald’s has done this through “Archways to Opportunity,” a program committed to helping workers further their education. 

QSR chatted with Lisa Schumacher, director of education strategies, to learn more about the program and how it separates the burger giant from the field.

Could you explain the background behind how McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity was founded in 2015?

Archways was created with the understanding that there is both an education gap and a skills gap that exist in this country, and a belief that we could be part of the solution to that problem. Thought partners like the American Association of Community Colleges and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning were instrumental in helping us create the program.   

As one of the largest employers in the U.S., we have the ability to reach millions of frontline workers and provide them with access to skills training and education. We know our restaurants serve as the first job for many of our employees, so we provide them with training in basic job-readiness skills—like responsibility, teamwork, and effective and clear communication. Individuals learn a lot in their first jobs. And those skills are critical in any job and any career path. We also know that when employers go beyond that and also invest in additional skills training and formal education, there is a benefit to the individual, the employer and the community. For us, investing in workforce education is the shared value proposition that simultaneously advances both McDonald’s business and the economic and social conditions of the communities in which we do business.

Archways to Opportunity helps our restaurant employees at their point of need—whether that’s learning English-language skills, through our English Under the Arches program, getting a high school diploma, through our partner Career Online High School—which is an accredited online high school district designed specifically for working age adults—or completing a college degree with the financial support of tuition assistance and access to academic and career advising services. We also created a career navigation app that allows restaurant employees to see how the skills they’re learning at McDonald’s translate into career pathways within our system, but also in other industries like healthcare, IT, and finance. 

What would you say are the biggest reasons for its success?

We’re able to change so many lives with this program. The Archways program reaches all lifecycles of our employees, from high school workers’ first jobs to grandmothers who want to stay busy. The program is a win-win for employees and employers; employees are given access to no- or low-cost education programs to foster long-term professional success while also developing the skills they need to be successful on the job and acting as an effective hiring and retention tool for the company and our franchisees. Additionally, each of the participants pursuing their diploma are assigned a success coach, which has been integral to their success.

What separates McDonald’s educational offerings from the other top restaurants in the country?

Our biggest differentiator is the power of choice we give employees. While we have specific no- and low-cost degree partners, such as Colorado Technical University and Western Governors University, as well as an online partner employees can leverage to get their high school diploma, we recognize that many employees want to pursue education most when it is in their backyard—and that’s often at their local community college. And we provide flexible tuition assistance so they can do just that.

In terms of the top benefits employees seek when looking for a job, where does education rank? How much has that increased in recent years?

Across the board, employees are looking for more from employers. Recently, McDonald’s surveyed 5,000 restaurant crew and managers to ask what matters most to them and we found that, in addition to pay and benefits, training and growth opportunities are something our and our franchisees’ employees are focused on. Given the success of our program and the notable impact we’ve seen on restaurant employees, it’s clear that education benefits are a high priority when looking for a job.

Additional research by our provider, EdAssist by Bright Horizons, recently found that 87 percent of workers say learning new skills will be important down the line and almost two-thirds (60 percent) of workers don’t just want, but expect, education benefits. EdAssist also found that 94 percent would stay longer at a company if it offered some kind of education benefit programming. Since the launch of the Archways in 2015, McDonald’s has awarded $165 million in tuition and college assistance to more than 75,000 restaurant employees. In 2020, our team at McDonald’s conducted a study that found Archways program participants are 2.5 times more likely to get promoted and have two times longer retention rates.

Which Archways to Opportunity resource do employees take advantage of the most?

Our two largest programs are the high school diploma and college programs. The Archways high school completion program gives employees who may have experienced education trauma, whether that be moving schools, pregnancy, work priorities, finances, etc., a new opportunity to get their high school diploma. This program is self-paced with no grades and offers 10 career tracks for participants to choose from and work toward. To date, we’ve had more than 1,500 graduates from the high school completion program.

The Archways college tuition assistance program breaks down the barriers to affordability and accessibility.  Now more than ever people are getting an education in all different phases of life, including as adults or parents. We’ve seen that what was once the non-traditional student is now the new traditional student, and we want to make it as seamless as possible for all students and remove barriers to education. Crew working for just 90 days and 15 hours a week have access to $2,500 annually at any accredited institution—including four-year, two-year, and trade schools.

What’s the typical age range or demographic of employees who use Archways to Opportunity? 

The Archways to Opportunity program is open to all restaurant employees working for at least 90 days and working an average of 15 hours per week or more. We see crew and managers of all ages using the Archways benefits.   

Could you explain the formation of the Archways to Opportunity mobile app, and in what ways that’s made it easier for employees to connect with resources?

In 2020, McDonald’s launched Archways to Careers, a mobile app designed to help employees understand the valuable and transferrable skills they are developing during their time working in a McDonald’s restaurant. The app allows users to leverage those skills into a future career by finding education and growth opportunities within McDonald’s and other industries like healthcare, IT and the trades. Users can take an interest assessment to identify fitting career paths and work with a career advisor, in real time, to plot a personalized educational pathway.

Have there been any notable additions to the Archways to Opportunity program during the pandemic?

Many of the programs we offer were already 100 percent online—like the Career Online High School program and all degree programs offered by our college partner, Colorado Tech University.  However, early on during the pandemic we did quickly transition our ESL program, English Under the Arches, from a face-to-face model to a virtual one. I’m pleased to say that we’ve seen a lot of success with this model and will continue to offer it.

As it relates to evaluating the program, since joining forces with EdAssist we’ve been able to introduce new reporting tools, allowing us to address what’s working well and what’s not. Our franchisees now have access to more detailed information on how benefits are being used by their employees, which provides a greater sense of ownership to our franchise owners. Our shift to a ‘direct bill’ capability with EdAssist will also make a significant difference for participating employees. Rather than worrying about uploading itemized receipts or lists, we’re able to directly address those payments in real-time, removing barriers for those who may not be able to afford up-front payments.

Employee Management, Fast Food, Story, McDonald's