It’s rare that getting an education is free, but Bloomington-based Cook Group says its new employee training program aims to be so exceptional that workers can’t help but take advantage.  At no cost to them, Cook employees can earn their High School Equivalency (HSE) or an associate degree. With more than half of its global work force in the Bloomington area, the medical device manufacturer says growing its own talent is “absolutely critical.”

“In our community alone, 30,000 people have not yet achieved their high school diploma, and that’s a group of people that we’d really like to work with and help them have the opportunity to come to Cook,” says Cook Medical and Cook Group President Pete Yonkman. “Our industry is changing every day; the requirements are becoming more, not less.”

Cook is launching two free education tracks to employees. The first helps get workers in the door who previously weren’t eligible for employment. Cook hires people who haven’t earned a high school diploma or HSE to work part-time, while they also attend classes at Broadview Learning Center to earn their HSE. After earning their HSE, the employee is eligible for a full-time job at Cook. The manufacturer says more than 30 people have applied for the program.

“If you look forward the next five to 10 years, we know we’re going to have to attract and retain thousands of employees,” says Yonkman. “It’s going to be absolutely critical that those folks have strong academic backgrounds, really great training and the opportunity to go back and update their education and expand their skills.”

The second option encourages current workers to earn certificates or their associate degree through a partnership with Ivy Tech Bloomington’s Achieve Your Degree program. Employees can choose from seven tracks that relate to Cook’s operations. More than 100 workers are taking advantage of the training, and the vast majority of them are within Cook’s manufacturing operations.

A third program provides tuition assistance of $5,250 per year for employees enrolled in bachelor or master degree programs. Cook Incorporated Human Resources Director Katie Smith says about 30 workers have applied for this option.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Smith. “Especially with the HSE option, it’s humbling and rewarding to know this program will change their lives in so many ways.”

“We spent a lot of time talking to our team, and time and time again we heard that people wanted to go back and further their education and expand their careers. Or, we heard from people who couldn’t get to Cook, because many of the jobs required a high school diploma,” says Yonkman. “I think we all have an obligation to help people who want to go back on that pathway to further their skills and education.”

While Cook is yet to calculate a dollar amount that the new training programs will cost the company, Yonkman says “it’s going to be well worth it,” considering the return on investment for having a skilled work force.

While advancing the skills of its workers is good for business, Yonkman also believes the new programs honor the legacy of Bill Cook, the company’s founder and philanthropist, who died in 2011.

“He always said the best thing you can do for somebody is give them an opportunity for a job. We’re trying to build that,” says Yonkman. “The first day we launched this, I got an email from somebody outside Cook who said, ‘I don’t have a high school diploma, I don’t feel like I can support my family the way I want to, and I’d appreciate the opportunity to apply for a job at Cook and go back to get my HSE.’  That’s what we hope for—it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

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Yonkman says Cook is trying to “think differently” about education, aiming to make it more of a partnership.

Yonkman says Bloomington has all of the elements in place already for a successful training program.