(CNN) — Chipotle will pay for its employees to get business or technology degrees at certain colleges, the company said Tuesday. The new program, which kicks off on November 15, is the restaurant chain’s latest effort to attract and retain talent in a highly competitive labor market.
Employees who have been at the company for at least 120 days and work a minimum of 15 hours per week can choose from 75 different degree programs at five schools: the University of Arizona, Bellevue University, Brandman University, Wilmington University and Southern New Hampshire University.
Chipotle will cover tuition only if employees remain at the company, and ask that they stay for at least six months after they earn their degrees. The new benefit is an expansion of Chipotle’s existing programs. The chain already offers up to $5,250 a year in tuition reimbursement as well as other education assistance programs.
Unemployment is at 3.5%, a historically low level. Competition for workers is fierce, and companies are fighting for them in a variety of ways. Starbucks is improving its mental health benefits. McDonald’s has partnered with AARP in a bid to hire older employees. And Taco Bell threw “hiring parties” to attract new talent.
With so many good options, companies have to make a good case for their employees to join their companies and stay.
The debt-free degree program is a way for Chipotle to show current employees that they are committed to helping with their personal and professional development, said Marissa Andrada, chief people officer for Chipotle. It’s also a way to attract new employees who are concerned about college debt.
“For young people to have the ability to afford an education — what a great way to attract new talent,” she said. Andrada explained that when Chipotle polled its general managers through an engagement survey, many said that educational benefits were important.
They also reported interest in the company’s business and tech developments, Andrada said, which is why Chipotle selected those two degree options.
Chipotle has made reducing turnover a priority to improve customer service and efficiency in stores.
“We are focused on team stability and development,” CEO Brian Niccol said while discussing the company’s first quarter earnings in April.
He stressed the importance of holding on to restaurant managers “through better leadership training, providing a clear direction on career progression to ensure long-term success and great benefits.”