Disney has always been in the business of making dreams come true, and they’ve recently extended that policy to their workforce.
Disney employs thousands of hourly workers to run restaurants, operate rides and deliver cheerful customer service to the millions of guests who visit their hotels and theme parks. Many of these workers aspire to get college degrees, but the prohibitive cost often has made that dream inaccessible — until now.
In 2018, Disney launched Disney Aspire, a 100 percent tuition-paid education plan available to all of the company’s 82,000 hourly workers and cast members based in the U.S. The leadership team committed $150 million to fund Aspire over the first five years and are pleased to have met and exceeded that financial commitment in half the anticipated time. They plan to continue the investment into the future.
Employees can select from more than 130 college degree and education programs offered through several institutions, including Purdue University Global, North Carolina A&T State University, University of Arizona, University of Central Florida, Valencia College, UMass Global and others. Disney Aspire most recently welcomed Johnson & Wales University to its growing network of education providers. Most courses are online, though a few programs in Florida can be attended in person.
There are no minimum grade requirements to get the tuition assistance, and if someone fails a course they can take it again.
This program is more than just a tool to attract workers, says Chris Trout, vice president, learning and development at The Walt Disney Co. “It’s a reflection of the Disney culture. We are growing the future talent of the organization.”
Into the future of work
Aspire was championed early on by Disney’s CHRO and CEO who see Disney Aspire as a way to generate greater mobility within its ranks and to help employees build a career path within the company and the surrounding community. “It’s a 21st century approach to investing in our people,” Trout says.
Employees can use Disney Aspire to get their high school diploma, complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree, learn the English language or a new trade, or complete stackable certificates in a variety of in-demand skills. The program covers all costs up front, including tuition books and fees, and provides participants with individual coaching and support from application through graduation to ensure they stick with their program.
And there are plenty of programs available beyond hospitality. All the programs connect to career opportunities at the company, like business, finance, technology, media and HR, Trout says. Once they graduate, employees are not obligated to stay with Disney, but those who do stay with the company are put on hiring managers’ radars for promotion opportunities.
Although no-one is guaranteed a job, the impact has been profound. Roughly 700 participants who completed a degree program through Disney Aspire have received at least one promotion. “We hear stories all the time about how Aspire has been life changing,” Trout says. He recalls one employee who dropped out of school in ninth grade and used Aspire to get her high school diploma and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree. “Hearing these stories gives you goosebumps.”
Many others are using it to build a future for themselves at Disney. For example, Patrickson Lume used Disney Aspire to study electrical and computer engineering at Valencia College. The degree, which he completed in August 2021, helped him transition from an hourly attraction operator to an associate electrical engineer in Facility Operations & Services. The entry-level job is part of Disney’s early career rotational program.
“The Disney Aspire program gave me the opportunity to continue my education and put myself in a better place in society today,” Lume says.
And Daniela Del Carpio used the program to earn a B.S. in integrated business specializing in human resources from the University of Central Florida. The training helped her transition from a merchandise hostess at Disney Springs to a Global HR operations associate with the corporate team.
“Allowing front-line workers like myself to grow professionally and academically was something that I could not pass up,” she says. “I will forever be thankful to Disney for helping to turn my dreams into a reality.”
Good for business
Disney Aspire may help employees achieve big personal goals, but the program isn’t altruistic, says Jonathan Marek, general manager of employee partnerships for Guild, the career opportunity company helping Disney build and run the program. “Disney has a lot of great talent in its hourly workforce,” he says. “If they can tap that base of talent for salaried employees, that is a huge win.”
The idea is to offer a wide range of programs that support the future of work, then let employees choose their own path, Marek says. And while there is no requirement to stay at Disney after using Disney Aspire, the program gives hourly employees a path to a more permanent career with the company. If a front-line worker learns tech skills, for example, or gets a degree in HR or business, it can open doors to salaried roles they may not otherwise have qualified for.
And for those who don’t stay, Disney is helping to build a solid workforce for the communities where they operate. “Disney is an important part of central Florida and Orange County,” Marek says. “Supporting the local workforce aligns with their culture and vision of the future of work.”
So far, Disney Aspire has been a wild success. More than 13,000 are currently enrolled, and more than 2,600 have now graduated with degrees in everything from hospitality and communications to IT and computer engineering. More than half of the participants are people of color, and 60 percent are female. “That representation is building a powerful pipeline of talent,” Trout says.
Although just having access to a free degree program doesn’t guarantee success. Del Carpio admits that completing the program wasn’t easy. “It required a lot of time, dedication and support,” she says.
She credits the help she received from Guild, and the mentorship of a Disney leader, in helping her navigate that journey.
“She taught me that we all have bad days but the key lies in choosing with what lens we will see our failures,” Del Carpio says. “She always reminded me of my value and encouraged me to never give up, no matter how hard the road might get.”
Del Carpio now plans to complete an HR master’s degree at Bellevue University through Disney Aspire.
That ongoing support is a critical element of the Disney Aspire program’s success. Along with encouraging managers to support and nurture Disney Aspire participants, Guild provides coaching to students to help them choose the right path and balance work and studies. Coaches can help participants choose a degree program and set up a study plan that fits their schedule. And when they finish training, Guild helps them create resumes and practice their interview skills.
“It’s one more way to help them step into the opportunity to build their social capital,” Marek says.
The program has also proven to be a boon for recruiting. Nearly a quarter of applicants to hourly roles at Disney cite it as a reason to apply, Trout reports. “People want to work for a company that will invest in their skills and mobility.”
It’s one more reason offering a fully paid college education is a smart business decision.
“Companies can do good and do well,” Trout concludes. “If you are in it for the long term, the ROI will grow larger every year.”
This article was originally published on Talent Management’s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.