Papa John’s International Inc. is offering its employees full tuition to Purdue University online classes—part of the beleaguered chain’s efforts to shift the narrative away from the missteps of its founder.
The benefit, which will be offered to both Papa John’s corporate employees and restaurant workers, will apply to classes at Purdue University Global, part of the higher education system operated by the college in West Lafayette. The company estimates the benefit will cost $5,250 per person per year, and it plans to add other university partners in the future.
“This is a great message to candidates that, not only can they have a place to be employed at, but a place to continue to develop,” Chief People Officer Marvin Boakye said in an interview. The new program will “drive our employer brand and quite frankly build retention,” he said.
That issue—attracting and retaining workers—is rapidly becoming of central importance to fast-food chains as restaurants resort to creative measures to find staff amid a very tight labor market. At the same time, the move acknowledges that rising tuition costs have made higher education unattainable for a growing portion of the population.
Papa John’s is also looking to move past 2018—which was a year to forget as the company’s stock plummeted following reports that founder John Schnatter used a racial slur on a conference call.
Purdue and other universities cut ties with Schnatter after the controversy even though he had donated millions of dollars to the schools.
Since then, the company has been charting a comeback, and earlier this month landed a $200 million cash infusion from activist hedge fund Starboard Value LP. Newly appointed Chairman Jeff Smith, also the CEO of Starboard, says the chain is getting back to basics and will be focused on selling good pizzas.
The chain joins Starbucks Corp. and Walmart Inc. in improving its education programs as a way to stand out from the crowd. About 20,000 Papa John’s corporate and company-owned restaurant workers will be eligible for the new benefit. Tuition will be paid for by Papa John’s up front, along with books and other university fees, for employees who work at least 20 hours a week.
Franchisees can participate as well, under different terms. Their employees will receive a 20 percent tuition reduction for associate’s and bachelor’s programs, and 14 percent for master’s degrees.
The company said it chose to partner with Purdue first because the university provides “the most comprehensive benefit for our team members out of the gate.”
“The war for talent has become greater than ever,” Boakye said. “People have a lot of different options where to go.”