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After the Grant is Over

Do workplaces continue to fund programs that were initiated with public funds?

by Connie Nelson
How can government promote education programs in the workplace? One strategy is to offer so-called "seed" funding grants to partnerships between businesses and literacy providers. The implicit assumption in the seed funding strategy is that, given some support in the form of funds and, often, technical assistance, workplace education programs will be established and prove helpful to businesses, unions, and workers. The explicit expectation is that programs will continue with employer funds after the seed grant period. Does this really happen? Since 1987, Massachusetts has awarded approximately 140 grants to providers with a wide range of employer and union partners. Workplaces ranged in size from 50 to more than 5,000 employees, and represented a variety of industries. To find out whether the seed funding strategy resulted in continuation of the program with employer funding, I followed up on 50 of the grant-funded programs.

Do Programs Continue?
The question "Do programs really continue?" breaks down into many sub-questions. In this article, I report on the number of programs that continued, the characteristics of workplaces that help to explain why the programs did or did not continue, patterns related to continuation, and factors that affected the decision to continue. Several of my interview questions addressed characteristics of the firm and of the program, while others dealt with the decision-making process and what changes occurred since funding stopped. To collect data, I interviewed representatives from 50 workplaces out of 112 that had implemented workplace education programs funded by the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) between 1988 and 2000. I was unable to interview anyone from firms that went out of business, did not finish out the grant, did not have eligible respondents still working at the company, or that declined to participate. The 50 workplaces had characteristics representative of the larger population of workplaces that originally implemented programs with Massachusetts DOE funding. Most of the interviews were conducted between July, 1998, and June, 2000, with a few carried out in 2001.

I was able to interview only one respondent from each workplace. An eligible respondent was a person who had been a business or labor representative to the program’s planning and evaluation team (a required feature of each program) when the decisions about continuation were made, typically during the third year of the grant. Most often this was the human resources manager, but respondents also included owners, operations managers, union representatives, training directors, and supervisors. Interviewing only one person per company was a serious limitation. Questions about which factors were most important in the decision-making process, for example, would likely have elicited a broader range of opinions had more than one person from each company been consulted.

Large Firms Continue
Of the 50 programs, 24, or 48 percent, continued their workplace education programs in some form for at least a year after their public funding ended. Larger firms, those with more than 500 employees, were more likely to continue. Programs that did continue shared several features: an internal champion who had decision-making power or knew how to influence those who did, a well-identified internal issue or problem, and evidence that the program had helped to address that issue.

The quantitative findings confirmed those of other studies that have examined which firms offer workplace education at their own expense (Ahlstrand et al., 2001; Bassi, 1992; Hollenbeck, 1993). Of 15 firms with more than 500 employees, 14 continued. Only eight of 34 of the medium-sized firms (100 to 500 employees) continued, and within that range no size-related patterns emerged. The two smallest firms, with fewer than 100 employees, also continued, using a model of one-to-one tutoring. While the use of this model by these small firms was intriguing, their ability to continue their programs did not affect the overall trend.

The decision to continue the workplace education program with employer funding had no apparent correlation with industry type. Instead, the relationship to size proved true within industries. Larger manufacturers tended to continue; smaller ones did not. Large hospitals continued; small nursing homes did not. Programs in unionized companies had a slightly higher rate of continuation than did programs in nonunionized companies: 11 of 17 (64 percent) unionized workplaces continued, compared to 13 of 33 (39 percent) nonunion workplaces. However, unionized workplaces also tended to be larger, so some of this difference can be attributed to size of the company. When controlling for size, union status did not show a statistically significant relationship to continuation.

Value is the Reason
The great majority of companies that continued their workplace education programs cited value to the business as a reason to continue. Respondents mentioned increased confidence of employees, increased communication skills, decreased errors, improved productivity or service, promotions, and improved retention and recruitment as evidence of the value; I was unable to verify these claims. In a few cases, the program was seen primarily as an employee benefit, although the employer may also have realized and acknowledged it as a benefit to the company. This was often the case when collective bargaining was the strategy for attaining sustainability of the program.

Although some companies wanted their programs to continue but failed to develop and execute a successful strategy to make that possible, others chose not to continue when the grant ended.

Although all respondents rated their programs at least satisfactory, and mostly very good or excellent, some felt their original goals had been met during the grant period and did not see a need to continue. Others had raised standards for new hires, and believed that in doing so they had met their commitment to raising the skills of current workers. A few found that employee interest had waned over the life of the grant, and concluded that filling new classes would be difficult: the workers with the greatest enthusiasm had met their goals and recruiting for the classes took more time and attention from management. Some workplaces likewise believed that they lacked the internal capacity to support the program. They no longer had a staff person who could give the program the necessary attention, act as liaison with the education provider, recruit students, deal with scheduling, and perform other related duties. Some companies faced downsizing, which meant remaining personnel were doing more and something had to go: the workplace education program.

The Champion
The 24 programs that did continue all shared five common elements: a champion, a strategy, a problem, evidence, and access. A champion was someone from within the company who advocated for the program. Each continuing program had at least one champion and he or she had a strategy. The job of the champions varied: human resources manager, owner, union representative. Some programs had multiple champions who each connected with a different constituency. Potential champions became actual champions once they were convinced that the program addressed a real issue at the workplace, usually a problem within their purview. The programs made the champions’ work lives better and the champions wanted to make the programs permanent. Champions could identify the issue addressed by the program and why it mattered. They may have taken on the role because of their own perceived problems, but in many cases they also looked for other conditions in the workplace, important to potential supporters, allies, and decision-makers, that the program could attach itself to as a solution, or part of a solution. In this way they built support for the program among multiple constituencies.

The champion had evidence that the program addressed that issue, although the evidence was not necessarily quantifiable. In fact, several champions shied away from traditional return on investment formulas or cost-benefit analyses, believing that these indicators would not necessarily capture the worth of the program to the business. What mattered was that the evidence was convincing to key supporters and decision-makers. Champions also saw to it that the evidence was effectively and regularly presented.

Champions considered whether the program model had to change to fit into the workplace culture. Some programs remained essentially the same, with the same provider, while others underwent considerable changes in format, intensity, or content. Finally, the champion had access to the financial decision-makers. The champion knew what budgets or cost centers were likely funders of the program, and who made decisions about them. In a few cases, no obvious funding was available, but champions and their allies created them.

In the simplest case, that of a factory, all of these elements coalesced around just one person: the operations manager. He was also the financial decision-maker for his facility ("Corporate lets me do what I want as long as I make a profit.") The problem he perceived was that morale was low and communication poor in the workplace. He saw that participants in the program were more communicative with supervisors and with him ("They used to run when they saw me coming.") and became convinced that it was helping the company’s communication and morale. So he wrote the program into the budget, as it was, with no changes.

Most cases were far more complex. The champion needed strategies to bring the program and its benefits to the attention of potential allies and funders. In one workplace, the champion, a human resources manager, knew that managers and supervisors supported the program. But training budgets were devoted to technical training done on an as-needed basis. The company did offer tuition reimbursement benefits to managers, but not to hourly workers. The champion argued that if hourly workers were provided those benefits, and if the benefits of 15 workers per year were pooled, that amount would pay for the program. With the help of department managers who lobbied their superiors, the proposal was adopted and the program continued to operate. In fact, it expanded, both in the number of classes and in the content.

In another case, a union steward became the champion when the workers in the class complained to her that the class would be ending. Since their contract was up for renewal, she encouraged them to bring up the issue in precontract meetings and surveys that the union local conducted to identify bargaining issues. They also enlisted the support of friends and co-workers in other departments, and saving the class became an issue at the bargaining table. It was successfully bargained into the union’s next contract.

Losing a Champion
Workplaces that did not continue their programs may have had some of the elements of success, but not all of them. Loss of a champion often meant loss of the program. For example, one champion was fired for reasons having nothing to do with the program, but the program was identified with him and discontinued, along with some other training initiatives he had favored. In other cases, the champion left the company and when no one else took on the champion role, the program ended. Continuing programs lost champions as well, but they were able to replace the champion. For example, one program had a strong champion in the human resources manager. When she was laid off, the union president, who had been a moderately involved member of the oversight committee, become the champion. In another workplace, the general manager and chief union steward had acted as co-champions from the beginning. When the steward left, the general manager continued as sole champion, knowing the ground work for union cooperation had been effectively laid.

Failure to Continue
Some programs had all the elements for success, but still failed to continue. Usually this was because of competing claims or a change in situation. For example, in a nursing home, the human resources manager had presented her evidence to the owner and convinced him to continue. Then a competing claim intervened: a law was passed requiring nursing homes to have a type of equipment this home did not have. The owner used the funds that had been earmarked for the program to comply with the new law.

In another case, a change in ownership meant a loss of access to financial decision-makers, which proved fatal to the program. A foreign multinational bought the local company and denied their request to continue the program.

Size is the strongest predictor of program continuation, but it is also a major predictor of which firms are likely to provide workplace education without grants. This finding highlights a policy dilemma. Targeting larger employers for public-funded workplace education programs because they are more likely to continue these programs after the end of the grant may inadvertently create a disincentive for larger workplaces to provide workplace education on their own. Public funds might, for three years of start up, replace what was previously provided by employers. One of the reasons for workplace education is access: enabling adults who need adult basic education but cannot get to traditional programs because of scheduling problems. Most Massachusetts workers are employed by small- and medium-sized firms (State Workforce Investment Board, 2004). Targeting large firms does little to further the goal of increased access to education for workers in small- and medium-sized firms.

Policymakers may need to acknowledge that small- and medium-sized workplaces face greater challenges in continuation and address them. The government seed grant allows workplace education partnerships the time to develop the elements and processes that have been proved necessary for workplace education programs to continue. Larger employers seem to be able to do it in three years. Smaller employers may take longer or need more help. In some cases, continuation may not be appropriate for smaller companies.

Aside from company size, the pivotal role of the champion suggests that policymakers should incorporate policies to encourage the identification and development of a champion or champions. Funders could require sustainability plans during the second and third years of funding, and offer technical assistance in successful strategies from other workplaces such as those mentioned in this article.

This exploratory study shows that in about half the cases programs were able both to leverage private investment beyond the term of the grant and leverage matching funds during the grant period. Another more rigorous study could measure how long and to what extent the investment continued, but we do know that some of the programs continued for more than 10 years at similar levels of investment.

Seed grants are a useful tool in introducing educational programs into workplaces. The multiyear time frame allows a program to develop educational quality and become incorporated into the culture of a given workplace. It also provides the evidence of success that workplaces may need in making budget decisions. Program continuation, however, is not necessarily a goal in all cases. It may be that most of the originally defined needs are met within the time frame of the public funding, and the program rightfully ends when the grant does.

In the majority of cases, however, the workplace and its various stakeholders would be well-served by a continuing educational program. This study shows that this goal has been inconsistently achieved. It does not happen automatically or simply because a program has gone well during the grant period. A strategy and a champion are required to execute that strategy. Elements can be identified, steps can be taken, and plans can be made to improve the chances of continuation. Like the programs themselves, the plans for continuation must be carefully developed and thoroughly integrated with the particular characteristics, needs, and culture of the host workplace.

Ahlstrand, A., Armbruster, M., Bassi, L., McMurrer, D. &Van Buren, M. (2001). "Workplace education investments and strategies for lower wage workers: Patterns and practices in employer-provided education." In R. Kazis & M. S. Miller (eds.), Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.

Bassi, L. (1992). "Workplace education pro grams for hourly workers." Journal of Public Analysis and Management, 13(1), 55-74.

Hollenbeck, K. (1993). Classrooms in the Workplace. Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

State Workforce Investment Board (2004) Regional Labor Market Information, MA.

About the Author
Connie Nelson is the Director of the Massachusetts Worker Education Roundtable, a network of union and labor-management education and training programs, which is involved in teacher training, technical assistance, and policy development. This job makes use of Connie's experience on the shop floor, in an academic ivory tower, and in the workplace classroom.