LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the late 1990s, UPS’s Louisville air hub, known today as Worldport, was wrestling with a significant problem. Needing employees round-the-clock, the company found retaining workers for its overnight shifts difficult. As it planned a much-needed expansion, the company knew the problem would only grow.
The solution? Metropolitan College – a unique public-private partnership that dramatically increased retention among workers during the wee hours each night. The average tenure of a third-shift worker grew from eight weeks before the program’s launch to three years as of fall 2022.
The program also provided more than 22,000 students over the past 25 years the opportunity to earn a college degree 100% debt-free.
Metro College allows University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College students to work at Worldport, earning a weekly paycheck and paying their tuition, academic bonuses and fee payment assistance. The program receives state support to fund up to 50% of tuition and fees. The company also provides academic bonuses that include semester and graduation bonuses. The program launched in the fall of 1998 as a partnership among UofL, JCTC, UPS, Louisville Metro Government and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
“Metropolitan College seemingly has no downside,” said UofL President Kim Schatzel. “Before my academic career, I spent 20 years in the industry, so I see the value of Metro College across the board. The state of Kentucky, UPS, JCTC and UofL have created a national model of what a combined education-workforce-economic development initiative can and should be.”
“In addition to paying for college, Metro College provides a student with a livelihood while they are in college,” said Ty Handy, JCTC president. “That is crucial for many students who must support themselves fully or partially while in school. And the added value of the career and academic guidance they receive cannot be underestimated.”
“For UPS, the success of Metro College has been integral to our ability to deliver what matters to our customers worldwide,” said UPS President Jim Joseph. “In addition to the steady source of talent to help us run our Worldport operation, the program provides student-workers the opportunity to pursue their dreams debt-free while also receiving competitive pay, benefits and work-life experience and guidance. Our community benefits by growing and enhancing the talent pool within the commonwealth. The program is a win-win-win for all involved.”
Thalia Almenares came to Louisville in 2016 from Cuba and began work at UPS in 2017. Through Metro College, she started taking classes at JCTC before transferring to UofL, where she graduated in May as a dental hygienist.
“UPS was the best bet for my dreams,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it when they told (me) they would pay my tuition 100% in full. But also, with the help of the UPS team, I overcame the language barrier and had a job to support my family while earning a great education. The program also provides you with a great work-life balance. I wasn’t sure if being a student and working simultaneously was possible, but UPS opened that door.”
Another program benefit is the chance to learn leadership skills and to rise in the ranks while still enrolled in college. Ask graduates Jeff Wafford (2003) and Donovan Neal (2019).
“Coming out of high school, I knew I couldn’t pay for college. I was planning to go into the military until a friend told me about UPS two months before the semester started,” Donovan Neal said. “I began in August 2012 in the UPS hub as a package handler and eventually got a role as a supervisor in finance and accounting.”
He graduated from UofL with a degree in finance and today works in human resources for UPS.
Likewise, Jeff Wafford progressed through the ranks of the multinational shipping company. He enrolled in Metro College two decades ago and started as a package handler. Now, director of public affairs, Wafford continues to tout Metro College. “Today, I have the chance to talk about it to our leaders here locally and throughout Kentucky and to the states I cover, in the Virginias and the Carolinas. They all want to know, ‘What can we do in our states to have a program like this?’ ”
The rigors of overnight work – Metro College students work 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. about 15 hours per week – and college enrollment can be daunting. Still, Metro College staff advise entering students to enroll as part-time students to adjust to the new routine. And they provide advice on life skills that students may need throughout college.
Yet Wafford notes that working overnight may not be as problematic as imagined.
“Twenty-three years ago, my then-college roommate and I were up at 3 o’clock in the morning, as college students sometimes are, and we saw this ad for Metro College,” he said. “We said, ‘We should do this. We’re up all night anyway. We have these loans we’re getting ready to take out and need some money.’ So the next day, we applied.
“I’ve talked about Metro College now for 23 years and hopefully, I’ll get to talk about it for the next 23 years,” Wafford said. “Let’s keep this program going for the future of the Commonwealth.”