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Employers and Ivy Tech partner for affordable, free college and skills training

By Aubrey Wright, IPB News | Published on in Business, Economy, Education, Statewide News
Sherry Dunbar-Kruzan points to an injection molding press at TASUS in Bloomington. As the talent development and recruiting manager, she works with Ivy Tech Community College to set up education and skills training for employees. (Devan Ridgway, WTIU)

Julie Hays, a quality control inspector at Cook Medical, smiles as she tells the story of how she decided to go back to college.

With basic classes out of the way from her first try, she took two classes per semester at Ivy Tech Community College Bloomington while working full time. She finally graduated in December with a certificate in business administration at no cost to her, because of the My Cook Pathway program.

“It was just overwhelming, you know, just to be unable to finish in December and think, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’ve really done this,’” Hays said.

Hays is one of thousands of Indiana employees whose education or training is being paid by employers. Ivy Tech has been a partner as these employers seek relevant and custom courses.

Indiana business leaders, such as the Chamber of Commerce, noted the recent increase in skills-based training can help fix the state’s leaky talent pipeline and fill available jobs. In 2022, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s cabinet suggested employers improve the workforce by offering more training and learning in the workplace.

Read more: Skills training increasing at Ivy Tech as Indiana’s employers need educated workforce

“Showing that they invest in their employees is such an important and impactful way to keep their their employees happy, satisfied, and ultimately, on the team,” Sarah Cady, an Ivy Tech Bloomington employer consultant, said.

The cabinet highlighted Ivy Tech for its Achieve Your Degree Program. It’s a partnership with about 300 Indiana employers that helps workers earn certificates or associate degrees with no upfront costs.

That program, along with My Cook Pathway, helped Hays earn her certificate for free. And now, she even might go back to Ivy Tech and complete her associate degree.

“I’ve learned so much,” Hays said. “If anyone could ever have the opportunity to use the program, they should.”

Covering the cost of professional development

That cabinet recommended that more Indiana companies offer programs like My Cook Pathway. Amanda Sparks, an HR business partner, helps connect Cook employees with education opportunites.

Many employees pursue a dream they’ve had while paying nothing or very little, Sparks said. Cook provides tuition assistance up to $5,250 each year and offers 10 tracks of classes for certificates and associate’s degrees that relate to roles in the company. Cook also partners with Indiana Wesleyan University and Purdue Global University for bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“I’ve seen somebody’s confidence level go way up, and know that they’ve achieved something,” Sparks said. “It could have been somebody that never thought that they were going to be able to do that.”

TASUS mission statement
TASUS, a plastic molding company, follows the Toyota Production System philosophy. Dunbar-Kruzan said TPS prinicples highlight developing employees and growing leaders. (Devan Ridgway, WTIU News)

Sherry Dunbar-Kruzan is the talent development and recruiting manager for TASUS, a plastic injection molding company, in Bloomington. Ivy Tech is a next-door neighbor and a “huge investment” into growing TASUS’ employees, she said.

TASUS follows the Toyota Production System’s principles, she said. Two of the philosophical pillars emphasize respect for employees and continuous improvement. If an employee works for TASUS for at least one year, the company will pay for their education at Ivy Tech.

Read more: Education is ‘cornerstone’ of Indiana’s future economy, Chamber of Commerce says

In her industry, Dunbar-Kruzan said people come and go easily from jobs. But TASUS wants to retain its employees, she said, so she has to think about investing in and improving them.

“We want this to be a career, not just a job,” Dunbar-Kruzan said. “We want them to look at this as, ‘I can start as an operator, and I can end up in management, if that’s what I choose to do.’”

Flexible and customized courses at Ivy Tech

Emily Sandberg, Ivy Tech assistant vice president for communications, said 157 employers and more than 21,200 students have taken classes or used services with the Ivy+ Career Link program. The effort was launched in 2022 as a career development program for students, employers and the community.

Cady works with local employers and industry partners to create specialized training for employees. Each employer is assessed to see what skills are needed, she said.

“Is it an upward career ladder move? Is it onboarding new employees?” Cady said. “From there, I’ll take that information back to the Ivy Tech team, work with some faculty members to identify programs where we might be able to connect our existing — either academic or skill-based — programs with the needs of the client.”

Sarah Cady
Sarah Cady, an Ivy Tech Bloomington employer consultant, works with the Ivy+ Career Link team to connect employers with education and training for employees. (Lucinda Larnach, WTIU News)

Dunbar-Kruzan said TASUS employees work with the college for soft and technical skills.  She said she works with Cady to set up courses, and Cady also helps TASUS receive grants to pay for employee education.

“The great thing about Ivy Tech is Sarah and I got together and I said, ‘This is what we’d like to do,’” Dunbar-Kruzan said. “‘She said, let me figure it out. Let me get somebody that’s an expert in that, and we can make that work.’”

When employees are promoted as leaders, they often don’t have the necessary skills, Dunbar-Kruzan said. Recently, Ivy Tech has provided leadership training for TASUS employees, including communication skills, conflict resolution, and technical skills.

“We are absolutely about growth opportunities,” Dunbar-Kruzan said. “Any job that we have open and available, we post internally before we post externally.”

Ivy Tech Bloomington has “off-the-shelf options” for industry standard courses, Cady said, such as ServSafe, CPR, Microsoft Excel and human resources certifications.

Read more: Ivy Tech’s Cyber Range to boost cybersecurity training

But some employers want something tailored to their workplace and create custom classes. Cook Medical sought out training for programmable logistics controllers — computers that help run manufacturing equipment, Cady said. The head of Industrial Technology at Ivy Tech in Bloomington learned more about the program to build a customized course.

Sparks said Cook’s partnership with Ivy Tech is popular because of the degree paths offered.

“I encourage any organization that is thinking about starting a tuition-type program for their employees to reach out to Ivy Tech and see what options the achiever degree program offers,” Sparks said. “It’s a really great partner, for us and for the people in the community.”

Aubrey is WFIU/WTIU’s higher education reporter and a Report For America corps member. Contact her at aubmwrig@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @aubreymwright.