LONDON – New on the McDonald's menu: a takeaway diploma.
The government is giving the U.S. burger chain — along with a rail company and an airline — the right to award credits toward a high school diploma to employees who complete on-the-job training programs.
The plan, announced Monday, is part of a push to improve skills among young people and offer even workers who dropped out of school years ago a chance to gain official qualifications.
It's the first time commercial companies have been allowed to award nationally recognized academic credits for their own workplace training plans. Experts and business leaders had a mixed reaction to the plan, already being dubbed "McQualifications."
McDonald's employees will initially be offered a "basic shift manager" course to train staff in everything they need to know to run a McDonald's outlet — from hygiene to customer service.
Railroad operator Network Rail and low-cost airline Flybe plan to offer even more advanced courses that could count toward vocational diplomas, or even university degrees. Network Rail is testing a course in track engineering, while Flybe is planning an "airline trainer program," which will cover everything from engineering to cabin crew training.
Depending on the course, successful completion would be the equivalent of passing the GCSE, the standard exam taken at the age of 16 in England and Wales, or the Advanced Level, the higher exam taken at 18. In Flybe's case, passing the training could result in a university level degree.
John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the plan is "a significant milestone" in reforming official qualifications to better reflect the skills that employers seek.
However, the University and College Union said it was concerned the qualifications are too narrow.
"Just last week, a report revealed that some universities have concerns," said Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary. "We are unsure whether those institutions would be clamoring to accept people with McQualifications."
Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended the plan, saying that credits earned at each company would be transferable.
"It is going to be a tough course, but once you have got a qualification in management you can probably go anywhere," Brown told GMTV.
Dean Burn, a 20-year-old McDonald's employee who will begin a university degree in nursing later this year, agreed with Brown.
Burn said his on-the-job experience and in-house training at the fast food chain helped him get offers to study at two universities, even though he had fewer high school credits than typically need to enter a British university.
"I could give you 20 examples of how working at McDonald's has prepared me," he said. "There's the shift work, time management and people skills — within nine months I was promoted to management level."
Burn said colleagues who had been forced to drop out of school early for personal reasons and who believed that college had passed them by would particularly benefit from the plan.
"I think it's opening doors for people who can't afford to go through formal education," he said, adding that he would continue working part-time at McDonald's while pursuing his three-year college degree.
McDonald's plans to offer its British course to 7,000 restaurant managers across the country, regardless of their age.
David Fairhurst, a McDonald's senior vice president in Britain, called the program "an important and exciting step."
"We want to ensure that our approach to recruitment, training, and development continues to create real opportunities for social mobility," he said.
Steve DeWitt, senior director of public policy at the Virginia-based nonprofit Association for Career and Technical Education, said that "on the surface," the British plan "sounds like a good thing."
"In terms of technical skills and workplace readiness, the employer is really the best person to gauge what the student will need," he said. "But one concern would be, would it be a valid measurement of the academics? The business is probably not the best judge of that."
DeWitt said that vocational and technical education programs in the United States are taught by academically trained professionals for that reason, adding that none similar to the one in Britain had yet been implemented because of such concerns.
Britain's skills minister, John Denham, said the government was recognizing companies that had shown a commitment to training and developing their staff.
"This is an important step toward ending the old divisions between company training schemes and national qualifications, something that will benefit employees, employers and the country as a whole," he said.
All three companies plan to extend their programs to offer more courses if trials are successful.
Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the regulator that approved the three companies, said that applications from other employers would also be considered.