Andrew Cox is the director of human resources at WellStar Health System. He’s also ABD (all but the dissertation) in Bellevue University’s development and empowerment of human capital Ph.D. program.
Cox, who plans to graduate in late 2014 or early 2015, credits WellStar’s learning culture and tuition reimbursement program for much of the development and empowerment of his own career.
“I started work with the health system as a landscape tech in 2002. I had taken some college classes here and there, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he said.
During the employee orientation process, Cox learned that WellStar would help pay his tuition for postsecondary education.
He decided to earn an associate degree in management and supervisory development from Chattahoochee Technical College. He then went on to get a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Southern Polytechnic State University.
“Our professors told us to get our résumé together and start applying (for jobs) before we graduated,” he said. “I was talking to a WellStar human resources recruiter and she asked to see my résumé.”
Cox graduated in May 2006 and started the next day as a human resource specialist at WellStar.
“I’m so proud to work for an organization that was willing to take a chance on me,” he said. “My résumé was filled with warehouse and landscaping jobs, but they gave me the opportunity to move into human resources. They have encouraged me in every step of my education.”
Cox moved up through the ranks at WellStar, while acquiring a master’s degree in business operations from Southern Polytechnic. In 2011 he was promoted to director of HR at WellStar Kennestone Hospital and enrolled in the Ph.D. program. He was named WellStar’s director of human resources in February 2012.
“I would never have gotten the education that enabled me to move up the ladder so quickly without the tuition reimbursement program,” Cox said. “The debt load would have been too great without help.”
While many companies cut tuition reimbursement and other employee benefits during the recession, WellStar decided to up its game.
“We made a conscious decision to be an employer of choice and saw that benefit as being critical to our mission,” said David Anderson, executive vice president of human resources, organizational learning and chief compliance officer at WellStar. “We knew that if wanted to deliver world-class health care, we needed top talent.”
With a work force that’s 83 percent female and more than 30 percent 50 or older, WellStar aimed to be listed among Working Mother magazine’s 100 best companies and one of AARP’s 50 best workplaces for older workers.
“We knew if we could make those lists that our strategies and policies would be in line with the best in the country, and that they would meet the needs of our employees and support our mission,” Anderson said.
WellStar has made those lists repeatedly, and its career counseling and tuition reimbursement programs have helped set the health system apart.
“We hired a chief learning officer and offered individualized career counseling to our employees to help them make good education choices,” Anderson said.
Last year the company spent $1.9 million for tuition reimbursement, and Anderson was glad to see such high demand for the program.
In 2012, 800 of the system’s 12,500 employees were enrolled in an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree program. Others have gone through WellStar’s 12-module School at Work program, which teaches essential English, math and computer skills to enable them to attend college or be promoted.
The resources are available to any employee who has worked for at least six months. WellStar pays up to $4,000 a year for undergraduate course work and $4,500 a year for graduate coursework for full-time employees who earn a grade of C or better. Half-time employees receive 50 percent of that tuition reimbursement.
“Investing in people is just good business,” Anderson said. “Many of our clinical staff members are earning higher degrees and that increases their competency and their engagement. Eight years ago we were at the bottom quartile, according to Gallup employee engagement surveys. Now we are at the 97 percent level.”
He’s seeing more leadership positions filled internally and higher rates of retention and productivity.
“Decreased turnover is a great cost savings for the organization and higher engagement rates have been correlated with higher-quality care,” Anderson said.
Beginning in January, WellStar plans to outsource its career advising services.
“We wanted to take career counseling to another level and give people greater access to people who could help them find and research programs that would help them meet their goals,” Anderson said.
Cox said that if he could walk around wearing a sign to promote WellStar’s educational programs, he would do it.
“People helped me and encouraged me every step of the way,” Cox said. “I tell people that the hardest part is signing up for that first class, but the resources are there and they’ll never be sorry they took advantage of them.”
Many companies offer to help pay for postsecondary education. To find out if your employer is one of them, contact your human resources department.