SALT LAKE CITY — On the third floor of a downtown office building, Solomon Kalapala was chatting with a Microsoft customer on one computer screen while troubleshooting the customer’s misbehaving software on another.
“I’m basically running a repair,” said Kalapala. If the online fix didn’t work, he explained, “I’ll do an uninstall and reinstall.”
Pink Floyd blared in the background as Kalapala went about his work. His colleagues filled cubicles that stretched the length of the building, their work spaces adorned with the trumpery of office life — a mini basketball hoop, a life-sized cutout of the Big Lebowski. Next door was a break area with big-screen TVs, an Xbox console and a ping-pong table.
These aren’t typical call center employees, however. They’re among about 300 University of Utah students who have side jobs here arranged by a nonprofit called Education at Work.
Founded by a call center executive, EAW sets up partnerships between universities and large employers to provide jobs like Kalapala’s. The employers get reliable employees and prospective hires while the universities can offer students a novel way to work for tuition and keep their loan debt low.
The students also get work experience, said Taylor Randall, dean of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.
If we're trying to get people ready for jobs, the more we can make school look and feel like the real world, at some point, the better off it is.
Taylor Randall, dean of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business on the Education at Work program
“They learn a set of remarkable customer service skills,” said Randall. “In my mind, they learn it better here than they would just listening to it in the classroom.”
As students struggle with college costs and the strain of balancing work and school, Education at Work provides a little-noticed new way of leveraging corporate America’s thirst for skilled talent and colleges’ desire to tout how well they prepare young people for careers. The nonprofit employed 488 students on four campuses last year and has plans to expand to 1,521 by 2021.
Offering part-time corporate work can allow the school to say, “Yeah we've raised tuition, but guess what, we’ve got this program, you can pay for over half your education, in the University of Utah's case,” said Randall. EAW’s University of Utah graduates end up with half the student loan debt of their peers, the organization reports.
Kalapala spends about 25 hours a week at his Microsoft customer support gig, a quick downhill trek from the university campus in the nearby foothills. It beats his previous job — a summer of cold-calling alumni for donations — which he said he hated.
He makes $9.75 an hour, which is higher than the state’s minimum wage. Other students here work for Discover Financial Services, where the pay starts at $10 an hour. All EAW student workers also get up to $5,250 a year toward their tuition, depending on their grades and work attendance. Since EAW began operations in Utah in 2017, about 325 students have received $700,000 in tuition assistance, the organization said; Kalapara said he’s so far netted $2,200 toward his tuition.
Education at Work has similar arrangements with Arizona State University, Northern Kentucky University and Ohio’s Mount St. Joseph University. The companies pay EAW, which then pays the student workers, while the universities provide the office space. The University of Utah spends about $600,000 a year for the lease, utilities and janitorial services for the three floors Education at Work occupies in the downtown Salt Lake City building.
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