BOWLING GREEN -- After a 20-year career in health care, Thomas Bratcher went back to school at Western Kentucky University to find a way to become a physician without mountains of student loan debt.
Bratcher found that opportunity in WKU's Learn and Earn program, which allowed him to work part-time at a Glasgow conveyor belt factory and earn a 50 percent tuition reimbursement.
"Working in this setting gave me a different perspective on how to interact with people," Bratcher said, referring to his job in shipping and receiving at SpanTech LLC.
After applying and clearing an online interview, students are trained in soft skills desired by employers and placed in an employment pool so they can be matched to positions when they become available. If the student is hired, they work out an hourly wage with their employer and are monitored and coached by program staff. Should they complete all the requirements, students can earn a tuition reimbursement from their employer between 25 and 50 percent, according to Learn and Earn Project Manager Leslie Witty. Wages range from $8 to $13.25 an hour, she added.
"This may be their first experience in a real job," Witty said.
After its first year, Witty said the program is looking to expand and continue developing.
"I would say some of the biggest successes would be bringing in new partners, the placement of students in different types of business and industry and in seeing their success and growth," she said.
As it stands, Witty said the program is partnering with 10 different companies in the area. They range from a Glasgow-based call center, the Kentucky Grand Hotel and Spa in Bowling Green and brake manufacturer Akebono.
This year, Witty said the program is aiming to cement more partnerships with area businesses, expand into Elizabethtown and raise more awareness.
"We've got tons of strong, ready to work students," Witty said, estimating the program had a couple thousand inquiries last year. She said somewhere around 50 students were employed through the program last semester.
The program, Witty said, helps strengthen ties between WKU and any area businesses seeking "good, dependable entry-level workers."
Applicants aren't limited by their majors and can be employed in any kind of setting, which Bratcher found refreshing.
"Even though the work experience may not be related to your major, it gives you an opportunity to interact with people," he said.
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