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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue B ::: November 2004

Around to Stay

The Workplace Education Program and the Workers Who Participate

by Shirley Penn & Mary Zorn
Centered on northeastern Colorado's High Plains, Excel Corporation is the area's largest company. A beef processing plant and a subsidiary of Cargill Corporation, it is a community within a community that offers a wide range of opportunities for its employees, including food service, health services, warehouse sales, and a workplace education program. The program began as and continues to be a partnership with Morgan Community College (MCC). On site in the plant since 1993, MCC/Excel Workplace Education offers employees English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), adult basic education (ABE), computer skills, preparation for the tests of general educational development (GED), college placement assessment, and academic and financial aid advising.

A majority of Excel Corporation's more than 2,000 employees are immigrants to the United States. Excel's immigrant employees often have language and literacy barriers that hamper their acclimating to a new work place as well as to the United States. Workplace education has been an asset for Excel's employees. It has also benefited the company. Plant manager Mike Chabot has emphatically stated, "The impact on our company is huge. Our people who are part of workplace education are here to stay."

Retention as a Goal
The beef processing industry, like many others of its magnitude, finds it more beneficial and economical to build the skills of existing workers than to recruit and train new ones. Further, as the industry increasingly adopts computerized equipment to track product and control quality, current employees who have learned computer skills can be trained to handle new ways to do their job. Workplace education trains employees for the next level of skill and responsibility in their jobs while teaching essential skills in reading, writing, math, and problem solving. The workplace education program has helped Excel raise its employee retention rates and meet its commitment to promote from within, particularly for management positions.

Morgan Community College proved to be the perfect partner for Excel because of MCC's commitment to meeting the needs of community businesses and its experience running a successful ABE program. The relationship between the plant and the college began in the mid-1980s. Denna Weber, MCC Director of ABE, began working with several Excel employees who came to the MCC ABE Center seeking help with reading their safety manuals. From there she initiated conversations with plant man agers about what the employees needed and what her center could provide.

In 1993, when a National Workplace Literacy grant became a possibility, Weber spoke more frequently with Russ Weimer, then Excel Human Resource Director. Once she started to write the grant proposal, the two of them could often be found working together while on the sidelines of their children's ball games, brainstorming ideas for the proposed program. After the grant was awarded, MCC conducted a three-month analysis of the beef plant and customized the workplace program using those data. The programcreation and implementation were unique to Excel: it was not an existing ABE program dropped into an industry setting. For example, classes were taught on site.

Growing Pains
A workplace advisory board with representation from management and labor at Excel, the union, the local school district, and the college was established to create and guide the program, which initially provided classes for 40 students. Right away the fledgling program encountered some problems. One involved lack of space: classes were held in the Excel training department classrooms and often had to be canceled so those rooms could be used for plant meetings and industry training sessions. Another stemmed from a lack of communication: the company selected employees to participate in the program in light of their potential for promotion, without explaining this to them. As a result, some students were unsure why they were attending classes while other employees who wanted to participate wondered why they had not been selected.

Using suggestions from the advisory board, changes were made. Permanent classrooms were designated by the plant and equipped by the college, and the workplace program was opened to all employees at the plant who wished to participate. As a genuine show of support for the program, Excel paid the students one-half of their regular hourly wage for time spent in class. The first computers and software for the program were purchased and the college accepted the responsibility for upgrading and maintaining the system. The computer lab continues to be an important part of students' success.

By the end of the first 18 month grant, 120 students were attending the MCC/Excel Workplace Education Program at the plant, and in March, 1994, the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System (CCCOES) presented Excel and the workplace partners the first Excellence in Workplace Learning Award for their innovative and successful implementation of the program.

Onward and Upward
A second National Workplace Literacy grant enabled the program to expand. More levels of ABE and GED preparation were added. Additional class times made learning opportunities accessible to more employees. One of the requirements of the three-year grant was to determine ways to sustain the program after the National Workplace Literacy grants ended. It was time to measure the impact of the program on Excel, their employees, and the college, and to explore its long-term viability.

Program data collected by the program partners from the students, management, and educators were used to compare company-wide employee retention to the retention of students participating in workplace education. The results of the data were positive. New hires who participated in workplace education were two-and-a-half times more likely to stay in their jobs and approximately 10 percent of the workplace students earned a promotion within a year after completing classes.

The state system of community colleges recognized the workplace education program's success and began investigating ways to sustain the programs with existing funding streams. The work place directors interviewed college administrators about the customized instruction policies and staffing rules for their campuses. College administrative staff also supplied information about grants that could be used for workplace education. At the conclusion of the second grant in 1998, Excel and MCC reached financial and administrative agreements that allowed the workplace program to continue. Several workplace certificate programs were created that aligned the workplace programs with MCC's for-credit program and allowed the workplace program to receive related funding.

MCC/Excel Workplace Education now enrolls more than 200 students each year - more than 10 percent of the Excel workforce - in regular classes. Employees also attend workplace-scheduled workshops and make use of workplace tutoring, while others learn to use the computer or receive college placement advising and assessments. Employees receive assistance with in-plant resumés and interviews, preparation for the US naturalized citizenship exam, one-on-one tutoring, and skills instruction specific to their job.

The program currently supports a full-time director, four half-time instructors, one half-time administrative assistant, and two MCC work-study students. Three levels of ESOL, essential skills classes, and GED classes are offered three times a day, four days a week. Classes are held before and after each work shift. The company employees are still paid one-half their hourly wage for attending MCC/Excel Workplace Education classes. Plant manager Chabot speaks for Excel when he says that employee retention is a tremendous benefit for the company.

Since the culmination of the second federal Workplace Lit eracy grant in 1998, MCC/Excel Workplace Education has been supported by three partners, whose contributions have been supplemented by other short-term grants for special projects. Those partners and their percentage of funding are Excel (44 percent), MCC (20 percent), and the Colorado Department of Education (36 percent), which is the administering agency for federal Workforce Investment Act grant funds. Short-term money from the Colorado Department of Migrant Education made hiring another instructor possible and a Southland Corporation (parent company of 7-11 Stores) grant established a library in the plant.

Workplace Education Works
The students from all levels of the company are the real success stories of the 12-year-old program at Excel. Abel Carrera is now a fabrication superintendent who encourages supervisors in his division to attend workplace education classes, while taking advantage of the program to improve his own skills. He religiously attends one-on-one tutoring sessions in reading, math, and computer skills three hours per week. Rather than practicing his reading on unrelated materials, Carrera is reading Reframing Organizations by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal in order to understand better how organizations embrace change. Carrera's willingness to speak to groups in the plant about his own workplace education experiences exemplifies his enthusiasm for learning. According to other workers, he has been an inspiration for them to become involved.

Jorge Guerrero completed his GED and gained his US citizenship while in the workplace program. Originally a production line worker who was afraid to touch a computer, Guerrero is now Excel's lead education trainer and only needs occasional help with his PowerPoint presentations. Having received persistent encouragement from the workplace director, Guerrero is more than half way through earning his Associates of Arts degree at MCC. In the community, he served on the school district accountability committee and volunteers for United Way.

Maria Torres, a young mother of three, came to the workplace program while working full-time on the production line at Excel. Coming to class was not always easy. More than once the demands of her extended family made it difficult for her to attend class and she dropped out of the program. Before long, encouraged by others and by her personal motivation, she came back. She earned her GED in the workplace program and then completed training for her certification as a licensed practical nurse at MCC. Currently, she is gaining valuable experience in the nursing department at Excel while furthering her training as a registered nurse degree at MCC.

Workplace education has been a family affair for Berna Galindo. She, her husband, and her son simultaneously earned their GEDs during regularly scheduled workplace classes when education opportunities were extended to adult family members. Because workplace classes are taught on site, her participation was possible even though she lives 53 miles away. Her 18-year tenure at the plant and educational accomplishments earned Galindo a new position at Excel as export coordinator for the plant. She was the first woman in the industry to hold that position.

Tough Times
These students, and others like them, inspire the workplace program partners when external circumstances change. For instance, according to MCC President Dr. Michele Haney, "Community colleges in Colorado have seen a 26 percent decline in state support in the last two years while growth in student population has increased 17 percent. MCC is continually faced with the tough decisions about what to cut and what to keep." But even in tough financial times, MCC has remained committed to the workplace program. Budget cuts for workplace education have been made, but the rates of these reductions have been consistent with those made throughout the college, rather than more severe. Haney explains, "Community development is part of MCC's mission and is not considered auxiliary. It is part of our primary focus at the college. You don't cut a program that contributes to the well-being of the community."

Along with funding cuts for higher education in Colorado, the beef packing industry had its own problems. The latest mad-cow disease scare prompted an embargo on US-produced beef, which had a major impact on business at Excel. Such incidents, along with other complications that often arise in the world of labor and industry, never allow room for complacency.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Fundamental to the MCC/Excel Workplace Education program is communication. MCC staff never assume they know what their partners are thinking. For example, at a meeting held at MCC, Mary Gershwin, state director of the Workplace Education project, challenged the MCC/Excel Workplace Education Advisory Board to identify ways that workplace education could make a difference for Excel. The educators were sure the answers would involve safety issues, problem solving, and communication skills. The advisory board began brainstorming. Soon the white boards around the meeting room were filled with ideas, which were then prioritized.

What a surprise! This group of competitive, no-nonsense Excel personnel chose increased self-esteem as the number one area in which they would like to see improvement in their workplace education employees. The educators challenged their thinking: how could self-esteem be more important than safety, communication, literacy skills, or even speaking English? The group defended its position: "When a person has positive self-esteem and self-confidence, all the other areas will improve."

After that experience, self-esteem became an important piece of the program evaluation process created by the advisory board. Supervisors began providing additional comments on their evaluation sheets about observed changed behavior in employees, such as: "Employee is more willing to help others; employee asks questions on how he can improve; and employee is excited about learning and states he enjoys school."

Soon after creating the program evaluation process, the advisory board developed a model for evaluating employee performance that involved asking workplace education employees questions about their training needs and their satisfaction. Supervisors were asked, "Have you observed any changes in the employee over the last year?" When the data came back, it showed that the program was making a difference in how employees and supervisors communicated with each other and in how they viewed or respected each other. Some of the supervisors who initially seemed the most negative about the program provided some of the most positive responses.

Not on Auto-Pilot
The MCC Workplace Education program at Excel has had the good fortune of consistent leadership. Plant manager Chabot was instrumental in initiating the program and remains fully supportive of the program. Weimer, who helped plan the program at his son's baseball game, still oversees the project for Excel, and Shirley Penn has also been with the program since the beginning. The stability of the instructional staff is also notable: the first instructor hired for the program retired in August of 2004.

Nonetheless, personnel and leadership changes do occur, and when such changes take place among any of the workplace education partners, the program parameters have to be revisited. The same questions that were asked in the beginning must be readdressed: "What is workplace education and how is it different from company training or ABE?"

"What is the nature of the relationship among the partners and how do we work for the benefit of all involved?"

"How is the success of the program going to be measured by the partners?"

A recurring stumbling block for workplace education is satisfying federal mandates for curriculum and assessment. These often shift and are irrelevant to specific workplace programs or geographic area. Instructors find required standardized tests confusing to students. Sometimes the students lack the specific vocabulary to test successfully even though they have knowledge about the concept or skill in question. Consequently, instructors have to analyze the tests so they can teach to the vocabulary of the test. The accountability requirements and procedures for fulfilling them are extremely time-consuming. Moreover, they distract from the true task at hand: educating students. A large gap in content remains between the immediate needs of a business and its workplace students and the performance standards approved by the government funding agency.

A workplace education program cannot be put on auto-pilot and remain successful. It must respond to changes in the workplace and the needs of the students it serves. It must also be attentive to the partners' expectations. When collaboration is taken for granted, the program suffers. Partners and staff should strive to avoid the slide into complacency and focus on regular communication, which lies at the heart of maintaining a successful program. As illustrated by MCC's experience, other important elements of longevity include consistency in staffing and leadership, the willingness and flexibility to respond to the needs of all the stakeholders, and a proactive posture towards securing funding from a diverse range of sources.

Several years ago, when Morgan Community College adopted a mascot, the school chose the roadrunner because of its ability to survive and prosper in a challenging environment. A successful workplace education program must also adopt a roadrunner attitude to survive in today's competitive and ever-changing economic environment. Only by doing so will a program preserve its ability to be a value to students and businesses alike.

About the Authors
Mary Zorn, Director of Marketing and Communications at Morgan Community College, taught secondary and preschool education for 25 years before joining the staff at MCC.

Shirley Penn has directed the Excel Workplace Education Program since its inception in 1993. She has presented at numerous national conference on Workplace Education.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL