A uniquely Southwest welcome awaits Employees when they arrive for their first day at SWA U.


Higher Education: SWA University

Imagine starting your new job like a Hollywood star arriving at a film premiere. You are greeted by a crowd cheering your entrance as you sweep in on a red carpet to your Employee orientation. Far-fetched? Nope, it’s a standard opening day at Southwest Airlines University (SWA U).

With 60,000 Southwest Employees enrolled, SWA U has a student body size similar to Big Ten universities. Vice President Southwest Airlines University Elizabeth Bryant explains that SWA U has a mission to provide the tools, skills, and resources Employees need to excel and reach their full potential.

And that starts on Day One, when historically New Hires received that red carpet greeting on their way to Now Onboarding, Southwest’s orientation class at SWA U. Revamped in April 2019, the onboarding class brought New Hires across all Southwest work groups—up to 500 a week—to Dallas for a one-day orientation into all things Southwest, including the Company’s iconic culture they are joining.

“We actually roll out a red carpet,” says Elizabeth. “We stand along that red carpet, and we cheer on the [new] Employees as they are coming into the building for the first time.”

“It is probably the most unique Day One that I could imagine for an Employee,” she says. The dramatic welcome sets up conversations in class that help the new Employees “understand that they are somewhere different.”

It was never hard to recruit tenured Employees for the cheering section. In fact, many volunteered for the duty. “That’s how they kick off their week is to welcome our newest family members.” The more tenured Employees might have gotten an even greater charge out of the Red Carpet Welcome than the New Hires do. “Because we can all remember that first day we walked into the doors of Southwest,” says Elizabeth. “We were new, and we didn’t understand what was happening, and we were excited to learn, but perhaps a little bit nervous. To be greeted with such care and warmth is just a wonderful experience.”

cheer on the [new] Employees as they are coming into the building for the first time.”

Employees with pom-poms in Southwest colors cheer on the newest class at SWA U.

SWA U isn’t simply fun and games, of course. Many courses stretch each student’s ability to lead and communicate. Even the orientation course involved classroom talks and breakout sessions where students learn about different parts of the Company and its various benefits and offerings.

SWA U creates and delivers learning for all SWA Employees, from the technical requirements of a position—such as for Flight Attendants or Ramp Agents—to professional development courses for new Leaders, rotational Leadership programs, and executive development. While before the COVID-19 pandemic all Employees came to Dallas for their Now Onboarding Orientation class, classrooms (including virtual classrooms) across the Southwest system support learning. The University boasts a diverse catalogue of learning that Employees can access in person or online.

SWA U improves and fine-tunes course offerings based on three levels of feedback. Level One provides feedback on the course, the content, and the instructor. Level Two feedback involves the proficiency gained, and how students demonstrate what they’ve learned through observation or testing. Level Three gauges their ability to transfer those skills back into the workplace.

Faculty often get email messages that say, in effect, “What I learned in class is applicable to my personal life and my professional life. It’s helped my family.”

“The most meaningful feedback comes from the relationship between the student and the instructor because that’s where that trust is built,” says Elizabeth. “And those relationships live on.”

SWA U recognizes that learning is not a one-time event but a series of formal and informal learning steps that make up an Employee’s journey. Southwest’s learning culture encourages Employees to learn and grow throughout their careers, says Elizabeth.

An important aspect of SWA U is that its teachings are applicable to every Employee, regardless of work location.

The University is always innovating new course offerings. The Next-Level Leadership course, resembling a graduate seminar, was added in 2015, marking new territory for SWA U. Elizabeth says they plan to continue to grow the model and provide more Leadership classes within SWA U, with “Employee development classes delivered by Leaders who are living that every day.”

The COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020 has changed the opening day ritual and much more for the SWA U Team. The Team had to adapt to rapid changes and still meet the needs of the business. Employees still needed to complete necessary training without the traditional instructor-led experience. So the Team introduced new technology solutions that allowed remote learning. These tools have brought Southwest Employees access to a wider range of resources for improving themselves and their performance. A new online learning portal gave all of them access to content on a variety of topics, such as Problem Solving; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Communication, and more.

Amid the technological innovation required to meet the moment, the curriculum remains true to conveying Southwest’s core Mission and Values. Innovation remains the standard.

“I’m super proud of what the team’s accomplished,” Elizabeth says. “You’ve got to take advantage of a difficult situation.”