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Terry Gallivan with his daughters Lindsey Gallivan, centre, and Krysta Spencer, right. (Sandor Fizli for The Globe and Mail/Sandor Fizli for The Globe and Mail)
Terry Gallivan with his daughters Lindsey Gallivan, centre, and Krysta Spencer, right. (Sandor Fizli for The Globe and Mail/Sandor Fizli for The Globe and Mail)

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Want committed employees? Then offer to pay for their family's tuition Add to ...

Parents with grown kids often marvel at how fast the child-rearing years go by: One minute you’re watching your toddlers run around the playground, the next you’re sending them off to college – and writing hefty cheques for tuition.

For Dalhousie University’s associate director of international admissions, Terry Gallivan, taking the sting out of that latter proposition was a unique employee perk: a tuition waiver for his children.

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Mr. Gallivan, who has worked at Dalhousie since 1980, has two daughters who are both graduates of the university. One is a pharmacist; the other is a chartered accountant. When it came time to pay for classes, Mr. Gallivan made use of Dalhousie’s offer to waive half the tuition fees for spouses or dependents of regular employees.

“When you’re a parent, you’re always thinking about making sure your children are going to get the education they need to be successful,” Mr. Gallivan says. “Anything that can help you along the way with that is a huge benefit.”

To be considered a family-friendly employer , initiatives such as flexible schedules and parental leave are almost a given – but funding education for employees and their family members is one innovative way for companies to recruit and retain talent in today’s market.

Bernadette Smith, a senior office clerk at Dalhousie, also made use of this benefit. “We’re a two-income family, so our kids weren’t able to get student loans,” she explains.

Two of her children completed a bachelor of science (one went on to study medicine; the other did a master’s in genetic counselling) and another did her first year in arts before moving to another institution to study public relations, which isn’t offered at Dalhousie.

“It was a great opportunity that really made a big difference financially,” Ms. Smith adds. “Dalhousie is very family-oriented.”

Janice MacInnis, co-ordinator of organizational health for Dalhousie’s human resources department, says during this academic year alone, 281 students have benefitted from the tuition-waiver program. “This is another way to support employees and their families – because that’s what matters to people.”

It’s not just Dalhousie that offers such a benefit. Johnson Inc., a home and auto insurance company based in St. John’s, Nfld., employs more than 1,500 people across Canada. Part of the global RSA Group, Johnson offers 10 scholarships worth $1,500 each year for employees’ dependents who are graduating from high school and entering their first year of post-secondary studies.

The company also runs the Johnson Scholarship Fund, through which 100 scholarships of $1,500 are offered annually to students nationwide.

“As part of our corporate social responsibility [initiative] we believe in giving back to the communities across the country in which our people live and work, and we believe higher education is key to the development of our young people and future leaders,” says Alex Griffiths, Johnson’s vice president of human resources. The employee scholarship program “provides Johnson with a way to be innovative, productive, and competitive, and also builds engagement and assists with the retention of our clients and our employees.”

Toronto’s Sandra Boyd, principal at Knightsbridge, a human capital company, says that financial support for employees’ family members is an especially effective strategy when it comes to recruiting younger employees.

“If you look at Gen X, they’re the ones with small children right now,” Ms. Boyd says. “Family is No. 1 to them; it’s crucial. They’re known as the ‘helicopter parents.’ They’re the ones who fought for year-long maternity leave, who fought for fathers going on parental leave.

“They put everything into their kids: They will work late in the evening but they want flexibility to leave so that they can spend time with their children – going for play dates and hockey games – so naturally they’re going to be looking at the next step as their kids get older. Their kids are fairly young now, but these are the types of things that are going to intrigue and entice and engage them. And it’s a way for the company to say they care.

“With Gen Y, if you dangle something like a pension in front of them, their eyelashes aren’t even going to bat. But to get an education, they get the importance of it; they value it.

“If you’re going to be a company in this day and age, you better have a few things going for you: you better be environmentally friendly, you better have social networking, and you better be family-friendly,” Ms. Boyd adds. “Most companies have to do more with less, and you can’t afford to let talent walk out the door. You need to understand what [employees]value, not just in the workplace, but also outside of it. You have to understand all aspects of who they are.”

Frank McLean, president of Northern Lights Management Consulting Limited in Wellington, N.S., notes that there’s a business case to be made for offering benefits such as educational funding for employees’ families.

“Companies need to ask, ‘What is it the employee wants? What is it they need to feel good about the company they work for? How can we get more commitment?’ This sort of benefit makes a huge difference, and employees will give a lot more too. You’ll see productivity gains as a result,” Mr. McLean says.

“The projection is that down the road there will be significant shortages in the work force, so you want to have reputation as employer that supports your staff, and if you support their family as well – that’s a real advantage. This has the impact of enhancing the brand of the organization as an employer of choice.”

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