This page is located at:

Building Participation in Workplace Learning Programs

Building Participation in Workplace Learning Programs

by Debby D'Amico, Diane Lentz, Robert L. Smith and Marcia L. Taylor
The small staff at the Bernard Kleiman JobLink Learning Center, East Chicago, Indiana, serves a population of 5,700 unionized steel mill workers, 20 to 25 percent of whom take classes each year. This percentage roughly matches that of most workforce education programs, including those which, unlike JobLink, pay workers who attend (Kim & Creighton, 1999). JobLink knew it could be serving more and sought to increase participation among those who had never taken a JobLink class, and those with basic skills needs. Our team decided to undertake some action research to find out how to increase participation.

JobLink, like other Institute for Career Development (ICD) affiliates, is based on a collaboration between labor (United Steelworkers of America, Local 1010) and management (ISPAT Inland Inc., in this case). ICD programs like JobLink present opportunities to workers by using collectively bargained funds to create on-site classes that respond to steelworkers' interests, schedules, and needs to build portable skills.

Prior to conducting the research project, JobLink employed a range of recruitment strategies to draw workers to the program: informational presentations at meetings, marketing give-aways, open houses, flyers posted and mailed home, newsletter and registration booklets sent to homes, articles in local newspapers, and community projects. In addition, JobLink recruits and trains learning advocates, called Friends of JobLink, from among participating workers. These advocates then encourage their peers in the plant to participate in programs. Other recruitment strategies include offering "Bridge" classes (high-interest courses), and classes to spouses of workers who have taken one class in the past year. JobLink also has a Web site and is featured at the orientation for new employees.

The Action Research Process 

Action research in adult literacy places value upon people's knowledge, assuming that participants in research can analyze their own situations and design their own solutions (Cornwall & Jewkes, 1995). Rather than claiming a dispassionate stance toward research findings, action research is by definition, practical; the findings of the research will be put into use. Methodologies vary. In this project, three research methodologies were used: focus groups, telephone surveys, and plant-wide surveys. 

A workplace learning center, JobLink has a well-defined population and the means to contact potential participants. We consciously influenced the study population by selecting departments with high numbers of workers in low skill jobs, such as Janitorial, Labor, and Sequence Support. By cross-checking enrollment data with lists of employed workers in these departments, JobLink instructor Taylor and coordinator Lentz were able to identify those workers who had never taken a JobLink class. By subtracting new hires, they generated a list of 158 workers. While it is an over-generalization to assume that all of these workers needed basic skills instruction, narrowing the target group seemed a reasonable way to identify perceived barriers experienced by non-participants and to gain the information necessary to strengthen marketing strategies for that population.

We formulated this set of questions to guide our action research:

Contacting about 150 steelworkers from the sample, Lentz and Taylor used a telephone script that was non-threatening, upbeat, and positive. For example, they began by asking, "Have you ever taken a class at JobLink?" When the respondent said no, they said, "You are exactly the kind of person we need to talk with. We'd like you to help us learn how to bring in more members to JobLink." We wanted people, rather than feeling defensive about non-participation, to know that their opinions were valuable.

The research team learned that it takes many calls to convene a successful focus group, especially when no incentives are available. For example, a random sample of names from our pool of 150 was used to make 22 telephone contacts. Of these, only nine workers expressed willingness to participate in a group. Only five actually participated.

Once convened, focus group members were asked these questions:

  1. How did you feel about our phone call?

  2. How and when did you first hear about JobLink?

  3. Have you ever read any of our fliers? Where did you see them?

  4. Tell us a couple of good things and a couple of bad things you've heard about JobLink.

  5. Were you ever interested in a particular class?

  6. What has kept you from taking classes?

  7. What would it take for you to take a class with us?

  8. Are you making plans for your retirement? What kinds of classes could help you prepare for it?

  9. What advice do you have for us regarding how to market our classes?

  10. Is there anything we didn't touch on that you'd like to add?

The focus group provided informative group interactions and good information. Many of the people contacted by phone were not going to participate in focus groups, however, so the team decided that the phone calls themselves should also be used for data gathering. Lentz and Taylor used a flow chart approach. They asked respondents in phone interviews questions two, three, four, and six from the focus group protocol (the numbered list above). Those who indicated they would not attend a focus group were then asked questions five and seven through 10. Lentz and Taylor were always open to exploring valuable new topics or directions introduced by workers. Altogether, three focus groups with a combined total of 10 participants and 28 additional phone interviews were conducted from March to August 2001, for a total of 38 steelworkers contacted. Although the information gleaned was rich, we decided to conduct a survey that broadened the scope to all departments. 

A Plant-wide Survey

JobLink staff has administered plant-wide surveys every two years since 1990, usually mailing them to all potential participants. Average response rate tends to be about 15 percent with or without incentives. The 2001 survey was tailored for non-participants as informed by other research methods described above. We asked the same questions as those posed in the focus groups and via the telephone. In addition, non-participants were given a list of courses and asked to identify ones they might be interested in taking. To ensure a better response rate, the Friends of JobLink distributed and conducted the survey. We trained the advocates in how to approach non-participants. It was critical that non-participants did not sense that advocates would lecture them for not attending; instead, we presented an opportunity to improve the program with their suggestions. Our response rate was 57 percent (of 170 surveys given to the advocates, 97 were returned). 

Overall Findings

The research process itself constituted a form of recruitment. As a result of the calls, workers had more information about the program, and were reminded of its value. Five of the 10 individuals who participated in focus groups and four of the 28 interviewed by phone registered for their first classes after contact. This represents nearly one-quarter of those contacted. JobLink has decided to incorporate calls as a regular part of outreach.

While few respondents had heard negative feedback about JobLink classes, fears about learning still held these workers back from classes. We used the framework proposed by adult education theorist Patricia Cross (1981) to look analytically at the issues raised in both focus groups and telephone conversations with workers. Cross's model (See Figure 1) was designed to show the interactions among the forces leading adult learners towards and away from participation in adult education. The research team mapped the responses of workers in focus groups and phone interviews along the model's dimensions, separating out the responses of participants in JobLink programs from those of non-participants. 

Figure 1: Chain of Response Model
K. Patricia Cross (1981). Adults as Learners, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (p.124).

Self-Evaluation and Attitudes About Education

Responses about self-evaluation and attitudes toward education fall under points A and B of Cross's model. These responses included the following:

Sometimes negative feelings about oneself, and perceptions of school-like environments as threatening, occur even within a context of steady unionized work with good pay. Steel mills now require a high school education, a policy that undoubtedly increases the reluctance of workers who did not complete high school to come forward, especially in times when jobs are threatened due to recession and industry downsizing. This is a good example of how a motivating factor, such as the need to acquire new skills before one is laid off, can collide with the stigma of having low skills to prevent workers from taking advantage of these opportunities. At the same time, for steelworkers, having a good job removes what is a critical incentive for many adults who seek education. 

Goals and Expectations

In Cross's model, strong goals and the expectation that education will help learners meet these goals (point C) can push adults to participate in education. For steelworkers, doing something interesting and taking control of their own careers are strong motivating goals. Classes that show them how to "do more with less," by shoring up family finances or doing their own repair work, accomplish other kinds of goals. Uneasy economics affect steelworker expectations that the industry can and will continue to provide secure employment, and thus increase the motivation for taking classes. Finally, steelworkers cite making a community contribution as an important goal. This is accomplished through JobLink classes that participate in Habitat for Humanity or assist other community organizations.

The focus group and phone research also provided information about what kinds of classes might attract previously unreached workers into JobLink. The largest set of responses (36 percent) suggested career- or skill-specific classes, such as commercial drivers license preparation. Computer courses were second, accounting for 27 percent of responses. The next most popular response was for pre-technical courses, such as auto mechanics or electricity. Personal development topics, such as stained glass making and financial planning, drew interest from 18 percent, and the smallest group, 12 percent, indicated interest in basic skills, such as writing and algebra. In general, those wanting classes that supported alternative careers were split evenly between newcomers (those in the mill less than five years) and old timers.

The survey results echoed these responses: 68 percent showed interest in home improvement classes, 65 percent in computer courses, and 63 percent were interested in courses for certification such as heating and air conditioning or small engine repair. In contrast, only 33 percent expressed interest in basic skills courses.

The focus group and phone research generated a sense among the interviewers that courses leading to certification and more career-specific approaches might respond more closely to the goals and expectations of both participating and non-participating workers. This would include building sequences or a continuum of courses in particular areas of interest, such as computers. The research indicates that courses perceived as taking people somewhere, because they offer a credential or a tangible career outcome, might create a stronger pull in the area of goals and expectations. JobLink has modified its offerings with this finding in mind.

Life Transitions

Life transitions, D in Cross's model, did not emerge as significant in the focus groups, phone interviews and, surveys.

Opportunities and Barriers

Opportunities and barriers (point E) refer to institutional factors that influence participation in adult education, such as creating programs that serve working adults at convenient times, thereby overcoming barriers of scheduling that conventional hours might present.

In the 2001 survey of JobLink participants, 97.3 percent rated the classes good to excellent. The workers have often favorably noted and now come to expect the convenient location, scheduling that accommodates shift work, and the hands-on approach to learning that JobLink provides. Still, barriers are commonly cited among those who have yet to participate. Focus group participants and phone interviewees complained of too little free time, often due to overtime hours worked; family obligations; health reasons; and fear or procrastination. Ten percent said they had no excuse for not participating, while another seven percent said the classes they wanted were full. No reason was cited by 12 percent, while others said they were too old, lazy, or worried about language issues or skills. Despite flexible scheduling around shifts, 10 percent gave shift work as a reason for not taking classes. Also identified as barriers are poor hearing (a common result of working around heavy machinery), and the length of time it takes to reach goals such as acquiring a GED or college education while working full-time.

Our survey data mirrored the verbal reports' emphasis on lack of time. As Cross points out, the major issue that adults cite, time or lack thereof, really represents a sense that participation in educational activities is not as high a priority as other things. Steelworkers who do participate, for example, see lack of time as a less potent barrier than it was in the past, when people had fewer opportunities for leisure learning. They see working a lot of overtime as "greedy," and say that for them, taking classes is more important than big paychecks (Smith et al., 2001). 


As Cross (1981) notes, access to information is a critical component (F). The 2001 non-participant survey indicates a fairly high level of common knowledge about JobLink, as do the focus group and interview data. Survey results show that 79 percent of workers know where JobLink is, while 53 percent understand that classes do not have to be job related. Almost half knew that identical classes are offered twice each day to accommodate shift workers, and 42 percent realized they did not need to take a test to take a class. However, only 25 percent knew about their annual $1,800 tuition assistance benefit and 13 percent about online classes.

Despite an admirable range of past outreach efforts, research among workers added some important nuances to existing recruitment efforts. Out of the first focus group, researchers learned that JobLink fliers were perceived as informational, but needed to include motivational messages as well. Focus group participants expressed fears of "keeping up" in the class, indicating that workers may need more explicit information about what is required in a class. Those who wanted to upgrade their skills, for example, had considerable trepidation about enrolling. Focus group participants also suggested finding prominent places in the plant for JobLink fliers. Responses showed that course content was very important to workers' decisions to participate.


The focus groups, telephone interviews, and surveys generated two kinds of new knowledge regarding participation in JobLink classes by steelworkers who had previously not taken classes. The first of these was procedural: the process of research itself resulted in higher enrollments among this group. Information delivered through this personal contact appeared to reframe the self-evaluation of individuals regarding their participation in education, such that nearly a quarter (nine of the 38 individuals) of those contacted signed up for classes. The contact seems to provide a context for reconsidering one's relationship to educational opportunity. Hand delivering the survey resulted in an unprecedented return rate, another example of procedural realization from the study.

The second kind of knowledge resulting from the research is greater understanding of our constituents, particularly those steelworkers who have not participated in past offerings. Together, workers and researchers created new understanding about factors that encourage and discourage participation. This will be used to generate changes in course offerings and marketing.

Taken together, these two kinds of knowledge allow us to affect the interconnected factors influencing non-participating workers at several points of Cross's model. The procedural knowledge has an impact on points A (self-evaluation) and B (attitudes toward education). The research strongly suggests that this kind of intervention, in the form of personal phone calls and focus groups, can affect participation.

The knowledge of workers and their goals emerging from the findings is prompting ICD and JobLink staff to re-think the content, sequencing, and outcomes of courses, affecting the model at C (goals and expectations). In addition, work on assessment can strengthen the link between goals and expectations by better structuring a conversation between worker and staff person that helps each design a better fit between programs and needs. The development of new tools, such as on-line courses, can also ensure a better match between worker goals and participation. Finally, suggestions from workers about what to communicate about programs (point F on the model) have been incorporated.

Where personal contact with non-participants is possible, our work suggests that it is worth the time and effort to make phone calls and set up focus groups. Talking with those whom the program hopes to serve is a good way to convince them that their fears about participating may be unfounded, to learn from them about the particular barriers they experience, and to create programs that speak clearly to their interests and needs.


JobLink would like to thank ALMA for supporting this action research.


Cornwall, A., & Jewkes, R. (1995). "What is participatory research?" Social Science Medicine, 41, 12.

Cross, K.P. (1981). Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Smith, R.L., Chiesi, L., Harris, A., Kekelik, B. S., Santino, J., & Zaragosa, J. (2001). Keep Your Grades Up or You'll End Up in the Mill! Reflections on Steelworkers' Participation in Optional Learning Programs. Merrillville, IN: Institute for Career Development.

About the Authors

Debby D'Amico was research associate and liaison for career development at the Adult Literacy Media Alliance (ALMA) during the time the research was conducted. ALMA is the creator of TV411.

Diane Lentz has been the coordinator of the Bernard Kleiman JobLink Learning Center since its inception in 1990, serving as part of the original team that designed the career development program at ISPAT, Inland, Inc. Before that, she was an instructor and program coordinator at the Hammond Adult Education Program, working with GED and ESOL students.

Robert L. Smith is senior program specialist for the Institute for Career Development in Merrillville, IN. ICD is the national office established to assist all of the steel industry's Career Development Programs.

Marcia L. Taylor has been teaching adult basic education and English for speakers of other languages and assisting with program development and research at JobLink since 1990. Her students now range from literacy level to college prep and beyond. Her particular interest is in developing creative writing skills.