Workers Of The World, Log On

Ford and Delta are the first to offer this benefit: Cheap PCs

Tara Parker can't wait to get her hands on her new PC. The 29-year-old Ford Motor Co. factory worker, who installs door locks in Escort compacts, has taken a computer class at a nearby community college, but couldn't afford her own PC. So she says she felt "truly blessed" when Ford announced on Feb. 3 that it will offer a desktop computer, printer, and Internet access to its 350,000 employees worldwide, for a $5 monthly fee. Says Parker: "I want to see what this Internet world is all about." Ultimately, she hopes to earn a computer science degree and get a better job at Ford, explaining, "I don't want to stay on the assembly line forever."

That's exactly what Ford Chief Executive Jacques A. Nasser had in mind with his PC-in-every-home plan. It's not just another juicy perk. Says Nasser: "This program keeps Ford Motor Co. and our worldwide team at the leading edge of e-business technology and skills."

Many executives are beginning to see it his way. A day after Ford announced its deal, Delta Air Lines Inc. unveiled plans to do much the same for its 72,000 workers. The United Auto Workers, which first raised the idea of computer access to Nasser during last summer's contract negotiations, is pushing DaimlerChrysler to adopt a similar plan. And, BUSINESS WEEK has learned, at least one national health-care company is negotiating a similar deal to put millions of health professionals and medical students online. "We have a significant list of companies that want to work with us," says Nick Grouf, chairman of PeoplePC Inc., the middleman handling the purchase, delivery, and technical support for many of these computer deals.

Indeed, offering inexpensive computers to workers may be on the way to becoming a common employee benefit, much like health-care coverage or tuition assistance. The reason: Not only is it a good deal for workers, it also helps employers develop a workforce better able to meet a company's needs. At a time when employers from every industry are scouring the land for potential employees with computer skills, how could it not? "This is one of those ideas that has a lot of business leaders hitting their heads and saying, `Why didn't I think of this?"' says John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. in Chicago. "In a skills-short environment where it's hard to find people with the right knowhow, it's an amazing competitive edge."

Of course, such traditional management goals as boosting productivity also play a big role. Delta said on Feb. 4 that it will offer its employees computers and Internet access for $12 a month, calling it an investment in "technology infrastructure." Delta hopes it will save money, but also wants to make it easier for pilots and flight attendants to schedule their flights while away from the home office, says Robert P. DeRodes, Delta's chief information officer. "They're on the road constantly," he says, "and we felt this was a way to keep them close to the company."

GRAND PLAN. Ford is making the effort--and spending somewhere between $50 million and $150 million--because getting workers wired to the Net is part of Nasser's grand scheme to turn the auto maker into a consumer-focused powerhouse. Not only will employees be savvier about using computers at work but he figures they'll catch on faster to the new instant-gratification mind-set among e-consumers. For instance, Net-surfing workers might see Web sites grousing about Ford quality, suggests James A. Yost, the company's chief information officer. "We'd like to make sure all of our employees are aware of what our customers think of us, in a very personal and direct manner," he says.

Plugging hourly workers into the Net will also make it easier for Ford to communicate with employees worldwide. Factory workers can get--and reply to--Nasser's weekly "Let's Chat" e-mail that already goes to Ford's 101,000 white-collar employees. And they can check on shift-change notices, benefits, and company financial reports via a Ford portal.

Still, the mass wiring-up won't be a breeze. Ford and Delta still have to iron out details of who qualifies for what computer. And the task of handling the logistics for 400,000-plus computers will be enormous, both for the companies and four-month-old PeoplePC, which is expected to go public soon. No bigger, though, than the market's potential.