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New effort in Spokane County aims to help workers finish higher education

Jan. 13, 2017 Updated Fri., Jan. 13, 2017 at 10:29 p.m.

Justine Denison, who works in talent development at STCU, is finishing college using the credit union’s tuition reimbursement program to help defray the cost. She is one of about 86,000 working adults in Spokane County who have some college credits but no degree or professional certificate. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Justine Denison, who works in talent development at STCU, is finishing college using the credit union’s tuition reimbursement program to help defray the cost. She is one of about 86,000 working adults in Spokane County who have some college credits but no degree or professional certificate. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

By the time she hit her late 40s, Justine Denison felt ready to move into management.

She’d found her passion in corporate training and had spent years helping her colleagues at Spokane Teachers Credit Union hone the skills they needed to succeed at the credit union.

But Denison hadn’t finished college. Without a diploma, “I realized that I would see my career plateau,” she said.

Denison opted to return to school, using STCU’s tuition reimbursement program to help defray the cost. After four years of night classes, she graduated from Whitworth University in November with a degree in organizational management.

Across Spokane County, about 86,000 working adults have some college credits but no degree or professional certificate.

Greater Spokane Incorporated views those workers as an untapped resource. With some additional training, they could help address skilled labor shortages that will become more acute as baby boomers retire.

On Friday, GSI launched an initiative aimed at helping adult workers return to school. By 2025, the goal is to boost the percentage of adult workers in Spokane County with a degree or certificate, now at 40 percent, up to 60 percent.

An educated workforce has multiple benefits, said Todd Mielke, GSI’s chief executive officer.

“The No. 1 question we hear from (corporate) site selectors is, ‘What talent is available?’ ” Mielke told the audience at GSI’s Friday breakfast meeting. “From local businesses, we hear, ‘I have openings that I can’t fill.’ ”

Education also makes a clear difference in workers’ earnings potential. The wage gap between workers with a high school education and a college degree is widening, with college grads earning 56 percent more in 2015, according to national research. Workers with college degrees also are more likely to own a house, be married and save for retirement than those without degrees.

“A high school education doesn’t let people have the kind of life they want,” said Christine Johnson, chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane. “We’re allowing people in our community who don’t have postsecondary training to live lives that are very difficult.”

GSI launched the return-to-school initiative, called Greater Minds, with support from business leaders and educational partners. The initiative also received $40,000 from the Lumina Foundation of Indianapolis, which promotes postsecondary education.

To coax working adults back to the classroom, GSI is developing a navigator program that will act as a first stop for employees evaluating which certificate, degree or online program fits their needs. It will be a neutral source of information about the area’s colleges and universities.

In addition, GSI will work with companies on ways to encourage and support workers returning to school. Not every employer will be able to provide tuition reimbursement or flexible work schedules, but some can offer incentives.

Spokane County, which has 2,100 employees, has budgeted $50,000 this year for tuition reimbursement for county employees returning to school to pursue degrees and certificates related to their work. County commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on the formal education policy.

Spokane County drew on other employers’ policies to create their own, said John Dickson, the county’s chief operating officer. STCU’s model was one of the programs county officials evaluated.

At any given time, 8 to 10 percent of the credit union’s 640 workers are in school and receiving tuition reimbursement.

“We were founded by school teachers. Encouraging education is part of our DNA and our roots,” said Ev Hopkins, STCU’s chief administrative officer.

Employees can receive up to $7,000 each year in reimbursement for credits toward a bachelor’s degree in a work-related field, and up to $8,225 annually toward a master’s degree. STCU also provides tuition reimbursement for professional certificates.

Subsidizing tuition is a large financial commitment. However, “we consider it part of our cost of doing business,” Hopkins said.

Some employees earn their degrees and leave STCU for other job opportunities. But it’s a fairly small number, Hopkins said. Providing tuition reimbursement helps STCU build a loyal and skilled workforce, she said.

Denison, the STCU trainer, benefited from a company policy that allows employees to apply for jobs that require a degree while they’re enrolled in school.

After she started taking classes at Whitworth, she was promoted to a manager in talent development, a human resources-related field.

Returning to college after an absence of nearly 30 years was daunting, said Denison, now 54.

The Davenport native had completed about two years of credits at Gonzaga University after graduating from high school. But she lacked a focus in her studies and eventually moved away and started working.

When Denison contemplated school again, she was a single parent with a daughter in college and a son in high school.

Denison was often the oldest student in her classes, which included a mix of marketing, finance, strategic planning and human resources law. But the material was relevant to her daily work experience. She drew on real situations for some of her long-term assignments.

Denison attended class from 6 to 10 p.m. two evenings per week plus every other Saturday. Her son, a high school senior, enjoyed turning the tables on her.

“Don’t you have homework to do?” he’d ask.

Being able to talk to co-workers about the demands of juggling school, work and family was helpful, Denison said.

“If I can pass one class, I can pass one more,” she often told herself.

Denison graduated with a 3.97 grade point average, and she’ll walk in Whitworth’s graduation ceremony this May.

She encourages other working adults to finish their degrees.

“It’s never too late,” she said. “You’re never too old.”

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