Headquartered in Tampa Bay, TECO Energy is an S&P 500 company that proudly refers to itself as “a learning organization.” These aren’t idle words. The company provides a robust tuition assistance program that goes far beyond providing funds for professional development. TECO’s unique arrangement brings in professors from Hillsborough Community College (HCC), St. Leo University and the University of South Florida to teach credit-bearing classes at the TECO headquarters.

That means that TECO employees can pursue degrees in industrial management, business administration and liberal arts without having to leave their workplace. Part of what makes the program so successful is that it recognizes that college bureaucracy, family schedules and long commutes are three of the biggest barriers to adult students completing their degrees.

“College isn’t easy,” said Bruce Napier, a TECO senior administrator who oversees the employee education program. “It’s not just the homework and papers but trying to navigate the system itself.”

The unique arrangement began in 2007 with about forty linemen and electricians taking classes from HCC professors. The credit-bearing courses put the employees on a pathway to earn an associate of science (AS) degree in industrial management or an associate of arts (AA) in either business or liberal arts from HCC.

Since then 560 individuals have become active in the program and 140 have earned associate’s degrees. Fifteen of those students have gone on to earn bachelor’s degrees in business administration through a similar partnership with St. Leo University initiated in 2012. This year, the program saw its first student earn a bachelor’s degree in leadership studies and public administration through TECO’s newest partnership with the University of South Florida.

Partnerships between businesses and colleges to educate and credential employees remain rare. In this case, the partnering entities all realize benefits from their collaboration. “We get an educated workforce. The most unexpected side effect is the coming together of employees from different areas,” Napier said. “They will study together on nights and weekends and learn from each other. It certainly has boosted morale and improved communication between individuals and different sectors.”

Gina Yaquinto, a business administration professor at Hillsborough Community College, has taught in the TECO program since it started in 2007. She values the collaboration because it allows her the chance to teach working adults and admires the company’s culture, which prizes educational achievement. “The environment opens itself up to learning by creating an atmosphere based on academic success as well as the success of their employees,” Yaquinto said. “Unlike a traditional college program, this program extends itself beyond the classroom encouraging students to develop new techniques and to value the importance of an education.”

Other features of the program include:

  • Classes meet one night a week, in eleven-week terms. The program runs year-round through four terms.
  • TECO reimburses full tuition and fifty percent of books and required class fees. Employees are also encouraged to apply for any state, federal and local grants or scholarships for which they may qualify.
  • TECO employees also have the option to attend classes at a college campus of their choosing.
  • Other TECO employees and program grads offer tutoring in core subjects.
  • Spouses and children of employees, who are enrolled HCC students, can also take classes at TECO headquarters, though they are not reimbursed for any tuition or education costs.
  • Students range in age from 18 to their 60s. Most students take one class at a time. Younger employees with no family commitments have been known to take two or three classes at a time.

To qualify for the program, TECO employees must be in good standing and have worked for the company for at least six months. (the agreement comes with a payback provision should the employee leave the company after a certain period of time after the reimbursement) Matriculating employees must take HCC’s college placement test and orientation, which is offered on-site.

For most employees with at least four years of work experience, HCC offers Prior Learning Assessments (PLA’s), which can award eligible student up to 30 credits for their experience, applicable toward an associate of science degree in industrial management, leaving only 30 credits (10 classes) to be completed through classes.

As proof of the unique partnership, students can attend graduation ceremonies at either the TECO headquarters in downtown Tampa, the HCC campus, or both. “We hold our own graduation for employees. It’s a different ceremony, short, sweet and to the point with photographers and food.” Napier said. “But [employees] can also go to the commencement on the HCC campus too if they choose to. Many do.”

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