Bill Ainsworth started a recycling company in 1981 in Albertville that is now known as Progress Rail with 7,000 employees worldwide.  Today they are a division of Caterpillar and are one of the largest diversified suppliers of railroad products and services in the world.

I often say that “Education Is Everyone’s Business” and Progress Rail is a great example of what I mean.

I was at this company recently when they had a luncheon to recognize employees who were mentors to students at Asbury elementary the last year.  The students were also there.

This effort started when Ainsworth asked the district attorney what was the biggest problem facing Marshall County.  He was told it was high school dropouts and that 70 percent of the people processed by the DA’s office were dropouts.

That was the beginning of Project Literacy, a partnership between the Marshall County school system, Progress Rail and Asbury elementary.

Each mentor has two students they work with once a week  The company pays them while they are mentoring just like they were at work.

They began this program two years ago and got more volunteers than needed within one hour of sending an email request.

Ed O’Neal is vice president for leadership development at Progress Rail. He told me why the company wholeheartedly supports the mentoring effort.  “We believe that the best leaders are servants first.”

O’Neal then went into depth about the company and the program. “We have a leadership philosophy centered around servant leadership. One of the tenets is that community service builds positive traits that we want in our employees.  If they serve our communities well, they also learn behaviors and build character traits that are valuable to any organization. Those behaviors and traits are directly transferable to the job.

For leaders in particular, it means learning to serve those they lead.  They “upend the pyramid” by focusing on serving first, rather than expecting others to serve them.  .

I also think that employees who are passionate about opportunities to serve build their personal engagement.  That leads to increased discretionary effort.  If we’re highly engaged, we do things not because we HAVE to, but because we WANT to.  We’re more creative, more focused, more productive.

Personally, I look forward to reading with my kids as much as any thing I do.  Many of us feel that way.  I think we’re grateful for a company that not only values service but gives us the time and resources to do it in areas that matter to us.

This program also helps us in the long run by investing in an educational system that will ultimately make available employees who have the skills we need.  That may be kids equipped for college but who are also better prepared for education in skilled trades, if that’s the route they choose.  That, in turn, makes our company stronger and more able to offer more good jobs.

We want students to know about all of the job opportunities in our towns, with or without a college education.  However we also want them to know that the price of entry is SUCCESS in high school.  Note, that I didn’t say merely a high school diploma.  I mean that we want kids to be successful learners who graduate with real skills.

A primary determinant of success in high school is reading skills acquired in elementary school.  We don’t need a bunch of new studies to tell us that.  Another thing is that we’re investing in the towns where our employees live and the schools their kids attend. That’s not just a “feel good” but a real benefit.

For me, something that’s less tangible, but very important, is that I love the kids I read with. This gives me an opportunity to invest in their lives, but I’m convinced I get at least as much out of it as they do.  My reading time is usually on Monday mornings. That always starts my week right!

I could go on, but I think my point is that there is only an upside to something like this.  So, yes, there’s something in it for us.  A lot.”

For another look at the mentoring program, watch this video.