FORTUNE — Sometimes big companies do good things for their employees during bad times. And keep on doing it, quietly, without making a fuss. That’s the thought that crossed my mind when I heard that United Technologies Corp., a hard-nosed industrial conglomerate that makes things like aircraft engines and elevators and helicopters and is No. 48 on our new Fortune 500 list, had hit an unusual milestone: spending $1 billion on a program to send its employees to college.
The most interesting part? UTC (UTX) is preparing its employees not just for their UTC future, but for the next job they may take with another employer, or even for their post-employment lives. What’s this program all about? More in a bit, but first a little background.
I discovered UTC’s Employee Scholar Program 16 years ago while doing research on a Newsweek cover story called “Corporate Killers,” about the nasty way companies were firing employees en masse during hard times as Wall Street stood on the sidelines cheering. (Sound familiar?) Yes, I knew (and wrote) that firings are a fact of economic life; sometimes you have to sacrifice a part to save the whole. But I was looking for a big company that was a little different, that recognized that its employees were human beings, something more than just bodies that could be sacrificed to Mammon, the god of Wall Street, to gain a higher stock price.
So I was thrilled to discover that United Technologies, which had cut 33,000 jobs in the previous five years, had just started an ultra-generous Employee Scholar Program. The company would pay for any college or graduate school degree any employee wanted to pursue, regardless of whether it had any connection to a UTC job. The company not only paid for tuition, books, and fees but would also give employees $5,000 worth of stock when they got a degree.
George David, then the company’s chief executive, explained that the point was for employees to be able to upgrade their skills either to advance within UTC or to be able to find another job if UTC had to fire them to cut costs. “We’re not softhearted,” said David, whose face turned red when I suggested he sympathized with downsized workers. “It’s in our interest to have an educated workforce.”
I wrote the story, including one paragraph about the program that got David lauded as a statesman. I never had occasion to talk to him again. Years went by. Memory faded, except for the framed copy of the cover, featuring four mug shot– like photos of job-cutting CEOs, which hangs on my office wall. Then my Fortune editor — who was my Newsweek editor and my partner in conceiving “Corporate Killers” — came back recently from a lunch with UTC people who told him about the $1 billion milestone.
We realized we had something very rare: a chance for me, a congenital corporate critic, to praise a Fortune 500 company for acting well during hard times. (Alas, I couldn’t get David, who left United Technologies in 2008, to talk to me. Try to be nice — see what happens?)
I’m frankly amazed that this program, which has helped UTC employees get 32,000 degrees (some 75% of them in the U.S.) and currently has 10,000 people enrolled, still exists. “This program is a big differentiator for us,” says Tom Bowler Jr., head of UTC’s human resources department.
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities gave the company its advocacy award earlier this year, the first time the award has gone to a company rather than a person. “It’s the open-ended nature of the program that’s so unusual,” said association president David Warren.
Alas, even this benefit isn’t what it once was. The company trimmed it as of 2010 to get the cost down to $50 million a year from $60 million-plus. It eliminated the stock bonus for degree completion, capped the benefit at $40,000 ($60,000 for a graduate degree), and required employees to have a year of service before joining. But it’s still a great program. So take a bow, UTC. You’ve earned it.
This story is from the May 21, 2012 issue of Fortune.