Ben & Jerry’s serves up online curriculum to employees

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Employees of Ben & Jerry’s get more perks than just free ice cream on the job — they also get access to online courses that aim to improve professional and personal development.

The ice cream chain, known for its progressive values and laid-back flavors like Cherry Garcia and Phish Food, is beefing up its curriculum program, called Core Academy, in which employees enroll in four- or five-week skills-based courses on subjects like activism and emotional intelligence. The program is in partnership with Champlain College, a private university in Burlington, Vermont.

Ben & Jerry’s recently added a fourth class built around unconscious bias, a decision the Vermont-based company made after adding the Black Lives Matter movement to its “Issues We Care About” webpage in October.

“It’s been interesting in that there’s obviously been a lot of stress globally, with various racial tensions in the U.S. and the refugee crisis outside of the U.S.,” says Colette Hittinger, global operations manager at Ben & Jerry’s. “We wanted to build a foundation course [to help employees understand] group identity and bias. People can be more empathetic.”

Hittinger says the company saw the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to engage its employees and bring people together to discuss diversity.

The online classes are designed in collaboration with Champlain College to help employees grow and develop, says Hittinger, who is also the Core Academy’s project manager.

Although the company develops the content for the Core Academy, the college creates most of the curriculum and education components and is paid accordingly.

Hittinger would not disclose the cost of the program or the fee structure, but noted that the classes are free to employees, who receive a jointly issued certificate from Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim and Champlain College, as well as a T-shirt and congratulatory letter.

See also: McDonald’s supersizes education benefits

More than four out of five employees at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shops are high school and college students, and about 80% of employees said Ben & Jerry’s was the first job they ever had, she says.

“A lot of [scoop shop employees] are seasonal folks,” says Hittinger, noting that those employees tend to work for three seasons over three years. “There’s a decent amount of turnover. We constantly have a new pool of folks who could benefit.”

The benefit comes at a time when other employers with workforces largely made up of minimum-wage and first-time employees are expanding their education offerings.

Ben & Jerry’s looked at their peers’ programs, particularly those offered by Starbucks, when designing its education and diversity in the workforce benefits. The company is “very open to the Core Academy being part of someone else’s courses,” Hittinger says.

The company is on track to develop one new course each year, she says, and each class can accommodate between 40 and 60 students.

The students work on a different module each week and complete readings, watch videos and engage with their classmates through a creative exercise. The class is overseen by a teaching host to ensure that students are completing the activities.

Ben & Jerry’s found that scoop shops with employees who enrolled in the program have outperformed other brick-and-mortar stores where employees were not enrolled, Hittinger says.

“The key is that people have to be interested,” she says. “How can you positively interact and influence others?”

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Continuing education Voluntary benefits Employee engagement Benefit communication Employee communications