Locate where your workers are

Nearby colleges can benefit both business, students

By Lisa Leiter

Small businesses looking for ways to retain
loyal, motivated employees should look to the closest community

For the past 15 years Eli’s Cheesecake Co., at 6701 W. Forest
Preserve Drive, has partnered with nearby Wilbur Wright College, one of the City
Colleges of Chicago.

What began with a few training classes at the bakery
has blossomed into a mutually beneficial relationship, one that seeks to improve
the quality of life in the working-class Dunning neighborhood on the Northwest

“The fact is, our ties to the school makes another reason that we
have become an employer of choice,” says Eli’s CEO Marc S. Schulman. “We view
the role of the community college as the centerpiece of the

Wright College has had considerable impact on the firm’s
employees: Hundreds have taken classes there.

When Alice Smart started on
the assembly line at Eli’s, she assumed it would be a temporary job. Her
attitude changed dramatically once she was given the opportunity to earn her
high school equivalency degree at the bakery during her shift.

Now, 16
years later, not only is she still working at Eli’s, she’s been promoted several
times to packaging manager, overseeing 65 employees.

“I wouldn’t have
ever taken the time to go back to school . . . and the school came to us,” Ms.
Smart says. “(Without school) I would have just stayed in one place on the

Educational boost: Alice Smart has been promoted several
times at Eli’s Cheesecake Co. since earning a high school equivalency degree at
Wilbur Wright Collge, which is next door to the plant. Photo: John R.


Wright College, which Mr. Schulman has dubbed “Eli’s University,” helps
the bakery retain a loyal, skilled workforce by teaching English, sign language,
computer and management classes and other subjects. In turn, those Eli’s workers
often end up boosting Wright’s enrollment by sending their children — or
themselves — to the college.

Rebecca Smith, who works in accounts payable
at Eli’s, is an example. Her son, Keith, attended Wright for two years during a
paid internship in the information technology department at Eli’s. He worked in
the mornings and walked to classes in the afternoons.

“It made it
financially easy for me to work and still have a personal life,” says Mr. Smith.
“It was almost like working Monday through Friday and sitting in school at the
exact same time.” He now attends the University of Illinois while working part
time at Eli’s.



Linking up

College students provide a lower-cost, motivated labor pool for Eli’s.
Inexperienced line workers earn $7.75 per hour, while those with some experience
are paid $10.75. An intern position in information technology pays $12 per hour,
well below the $20-to-$25-per-hour rate for a professional with a college

Eli’s flexibility and proximity to the campus enable students to
work their way through school without spending excessive amounts of time and
money commuting.

Tania Alvarado landed her customer service job while a
student at Wright. Eli’s allowed her to continue with morning classes twice a
week during her shift.

“Since I took basic reading and writing classes,
the skills really apply to my job, helped me with writing e-mails,” she

The biggest challenge for Eli’s and Wright is funding the training

The city of Chicago’s year-old TIFWorks program — which takes
property tax revenue and reinvests it into businesses — recently awarded Eli’s
$169,000 for job training through Wright College. In the past, Eli’s and Wright
have won other types of government funds totaling about

Meanwhile, the bakery and the college often team up to host
community events, including a weekly farmer’s market during the summer

“As a community college, we are expected to reach out to the
community and improve the quality of life,” Wright College President Charles P.
Guengerich says. “I think we’re doing that with the help of

Meanwhile, Wright is seeking other corporate relationships. In
addition to Eli’s, the school has trained workers from other area firms
including R. S. Owens & Co., which makes Oscar statues for the Academy
Awards, and bus and truck seat maker Freedman Seating Co.