Changemakers: JetBlue Helps ‘Crewmembers’ Navigate the Future of Work with College Access

COVID-19 caused commercial air travel to evaporate overnight. Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, airlines are operating with a fraction of prior customer demand. Many have gone out of business, and those still operating are facing deep financial challenges. In the fight to survive, some airlines are suspending flights, grounding aircraft, leaving markets, and laying off employees. Each airline is navigating these difficult cost-cutting choices in its own unique way, shaped by its leadership, culture, and values.

JetBlue, the fifth largest U.S. airline, exemplifies what it means to be an Impact Employer while under intense financial pressure. Celebrating its 21th anniversary, the airline currently serves destinations in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Although human capital represents approximately a quarter of its cost structure, the company has held the line against involuntary furloughs of “crewmembers” (as it calls all of its employees), fighting to maintain its 21-year history without involuntary layoffs. Even more impressive, JetBlue remains committed to continuing the JetBlue Scholars program, an innovative academic initiative that has helped more than 250 JetBlue crewmembers earn a college degree since its launch in 2016.

So pre-COVID how did a global airline create a best-in-class employer-sponsored college degree program and how has the program been impacted by COVID-19? Carey O’Connor, senior strategist at JFF, recently spoke with Kristy VanAlstyne, director of talent management at JetBlue and the leader behind JetBlue Scholars, to find out more.

CO: Leadership development has been a mainstay of corporate HR for some time. The new trend we are seeing among Impact Employers is increased investment in building the skills of entry and mid-level talent. JetBlue seems to be ahead of that trend with JetBlue Scholars. Tell me how JetBlue Scholars was started?

VanAlstyne: The JetBlue Scholars program was founded in 2016 as a new benefit to help crewmembers earn their college degree in a low cost, time-effective manner.

We knew that our crewmembers wanted help with earning their college degrees, but JetBlue didn’t think the traditional employer tuition assistance program would adequately address the unique needs of our employees. So we studied the barriers and challenges our crewmembers faced in completing their college degrees and then designed a customized solution for them.

The key ingredients for the JetBlue Scholars program are experiential credit, asynchronous online learning, and internal success coaches guiding crewmembers through their education journey. These ingredients are brought together on a technology platform that makes all stages of the education process — enrollment, course selection, mentoring and advising, testing, and graduation — easy for crewmembers. Our employees are busy and frequently on the move. They need the freedom to learn when and where they have time.

The key ingredients sound complex. Can you give an example?

Experiential credit is a relatively new concept that allows students to receive college credit for equivalent educational experiences acquired through prior college attendance, on-the-job training, or life experience. Many of our employees have some college credit, technical training, or military experience; however, traditional college degree programs do not credit this valuable experience toward their degree requirements.

We worked with our university partners to develop alternative credit pathways for several degree programs. Using these alternative credit pathways, crewmembers can quickly earn college credits by passing an exam demonstrating their subject knowledge or establishing their mastery of certain JetBlue training programs or Federal Aviation Administration certifications.

For example, our aircraft mechanics are required to earn and maintain extensive FAA certifications that require training and testing. Through JetBlue Scholars, they can quickly earn 60-plus college credits toward their degree because of those certifications.

That’s brilliant! Most companies require employees to take training classes, but they do not provide employees a way to get recognition for what they learned. Experiential credit helps crewmembers translate company required training and experience into currency they can use towards a college degree. So what is “asynchronous online learning?”

Asynchronous online learning means that a student does not “attend” class in-person at a set time. Instead, the student views pre-recorded lectures and online course materials at a time and place of their own choosing and engages with professors and other students via email, discussion boards, and other collaborative documents.

We knew we needed to offer courses to our crewmembers in a way that they could easily and regularly access. Many of our employees work varying shifts, which makes attending traditional college classes difficult. How can they commit to attend classes in Boston on Monday and Wednesday when they might be in Los Angeles one day and Orlando the next?

So asynchronous online learning allows crewmembers to learn on their schedule. They can work one day and attend class the next or even attend class while at work during a break.

Exactly.

That flexibility must be incredibly helpful for busy crewmembers who are trying to fit school into their crowded calendar. And the last key ingredient — success coaches — how do those work?

Success coaches are like college advisors — they help crewmembers choose their courses and course providers.

Course providers? Aren’t the classes provided by a college or university?

JetBlue partnered with WebAnywhere to create a technology platform that aggregates quality course provider content from several sources — including course providers like Sophia.org, Straighterline, and Study.com — which helps keep costs down. Once a crewmember has obtained 114 to 117 credits, they take their final semester online with Thomas Edison State University.

Wow. Higher education is definitely changing. You mentioned the cost of courses. How is JetBlue Scholars navigating the financial challenges caused by the pandemic?

All airlines are financially struggling because of the drop in air travel. I am proud that JetBlue is not only keeping the JetBlue Scholars program going during the pandemic, but also extending the benefit to crewmembers who volunteered to participate in the time-off and opt-out programs offered this past summer. We know these decisions were incredibly difficult, and we think it is important to provide our crewmembers with resources to help them plan their career choices during these uncertain times.

Pre-COVID we also recently expanded JetBlue Scholars to include pathways to master’s degrees, and we are exploring certification and apprenticeship programs as well. Upskilling and providing career pathways internally have become even more important since the pandemic, and continuing to prioritize internal hiring will be crucial to operating as a small airline. Ultimately, we want to offer industry certification courses like the aviation maintenance professional certificate, which can be expensive for crewmembers to obtain.

The financial pressure has to be intense. I’m impressed with how JetBlue is prioritizing its crewmembers as part of its recovery strategies. Thank you so much for your time. Before you go, any advice for others looking to implement a similar program at their company or wanting to think creatively about a total rewards strategy?

Don’t be afraid to think and do things differently, in nontraditional ways. A traditional tuition reimbursement program was not right for JetBlue’s culture, JetBlue Scholar’s founder, Bonny Simi, knew that we needed something different. Reimbursement programs require the employee to front the costs, which can be hard, and they do not help employees with the challenges of attending college while working. There continues to be significant innovation in the adult learning and higher education spaces, and it’s important to know what you want to achieve before designing a solution. Don’t be afraid to do things differently!

The Changemakers series is produced as part of JFF’s Corporate Action Platform, which features stories of Impact Employers. Visit JFF.org for more information about Impact Employers. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org