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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue B ::: November 2004

A Conversation with FOB

What Benefits Does Workplace Ed Offer the Provider?

Businesses commonly ask, "What value does workplace education provide us?" Workplace education providers should ask themselves the same question. In Cleveland, Wisconsin, Lakeshore Technical College (LTC) asked that question, and found that their workplace education program has become quite a marketing tool. It also provides a source of professional "replenishment" for staff, and an income stream in the form of workplace education contracts. Their model of service provision helps make this happen. Greg Mittelstadt, Coordinator of Workplace Education at LTC for the past 15 years, talked to Focus on Basics about the LTC model and how it adds value to the college in a variety of ways.

FOB: Tell me about LTC. How did the college get started in workplace education?

Greg: We're a state-run technical college, which is like a community college. The college has 50+ programs. Back in 1989, we got started in workplace education with a state grant. We used the standard model: we hired teachers specifically to teach basic skills and literacy. We worked in one company. By 1992, we had a total of six workplace education programs, funded with a combination of state and federal grants. Over the course of 15 years, we have had 14 government-funded workplace education grants, two or three at a time, to work with 14 different companies. We're starting our 15th grant with a 15th company. The 14 others [companies] are all off of grants now and running on the company dime.

All the grants, as a requirement of funding, had to have education centers on site. Companies had to designate a space. In one company, it was a doublewide trailer, another company gutted a warehouse. They had resource libraries, computers, classrooms, self-paced learning materials, and classes. The education centers were open during all three shifts. We got people to come in [to the education centers] off shift. It wasn't unusual to find people using the software or text books, or working together at 9 at night. We also ran Saturday classes. Grant funding required that we provide services in these physical centers via self-study time, course hours, and lab time (usually on their own time, provided as a benefit to the employees), with staffing for tutoring, counseling, etc. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the companies paid their employees to attend the labs; primarily it was viewed as a benefit. When we provided structured classes, about half the companies paid people to attend, usually when the class was relevant to the worker's job. By and large the workers appreciated it and took part. We also had cross-functional oversight committees to steer the program at each company. The committees had management representatives, worker representatives (union or nonunion), and me or a designee representing the education provider.

FOB: So what happened?

Greg: Government-funded workplace education grants often fund just basic education. But some of our staff could teach technical topics as well as basic skills. As time went on, we uncovered among our workplace students quite a few needs that were sequential. That is, as classes "turned people on" to learning, the students would start to think about how education could enhance their potential in the company. The students could move from basic skills to technical and sometimes into managerial or so-called soft skill courses. We ended up with many — 25 to 30 percent — people who started in our basic education classes but who wanted to continue in more technical courses. So the companies started to hire us outside the grant to provide the additional training. We got started with companies via the basic skills classes, but as the companies became familiar with LTC and its resources, they naturally turned to us for other education and training. All 14 companies that were originally grant funded have remained contract customers: we provide them with specially tailored workplace education courses, many of which are technical courses that wouldn't be allowable under federal or state workplace education grants. A couple [of these companies] are smaller companies that may contract with us for one or two courses a year; others come to us 25 to 30 times a year.

The number of companies coming to us for basic skills for contract work (not on grants) has shrunk over the last few years. It used to make up 15 to 25 percent of our workplace education work. Now it's very rare. I attribute it to the economy. Wisconsin has had lots of layoffs and plant closings. Our technical colleges are bursting at the seams right now because we've got so many dislocated workers; these people are taking basic skills and work skills classes.

FOB: Despite the economy, that's quite a record. LTC started with one company via a Wisconsin grant; 15 years later you're still providing on-site workplace education — sometimes in technical areas, sometimes in basic skills — and you have company members also enrolling in courses on your campus. The workplace education grant concept, by which the government provides the seed money but the company eventually takes over, has certainly worked for you.

Let's talk about how the LTC model evolved. At first you hired basic skills instructors for work place education, which is pretty common. Then what?

Greg: Over the course of 15 years, we kept the best of the externally hired staff, the best with skills in basic education, but we eventually replaced most of them with our full-time staff. We looked for instructors with the right people techniques. As time went on, we moved to about a 75 to 25 percent mix of tech staff to basic skills adjuncts, which is what we have now. It's a constant juggling act to keep all these programs staffed.

FOB: How do you recruit the tech staff?

Greg: I do a lot of internal marketing. When we started in these grants in 1989, I already had a 17-year history with the college, so I could easily get permission to present at staff meetings [to recruit for staff]. I stressed that teaching in a workplace program would get instructors out into the workplace where they could see what kinds of equipment are used, what the daily jobs are. This turned out to be a real carrot. Financially, I offer additional wages, which is an added impetus.

Now, our model considers all LTC teachers as potential workplace instructors. It's an ongoing process; deans introduce me to new staff and I introduce them to the idea of working for workplace education. We might use 10 to 15 out of 100 instructors in any two-year grant period. I occasionally draw from the other technical colleges in the Wisconsin system as well.

FOB: What about orientation to workplace education for people used to teaching at a college? Do you provide that?

Greg: I team tech teachers with experienced workplace teachers and have the former shadow their more experienced counterparts. I want to make sure those new to workplace education know the special population they will be working with. Being an ex-workplace teacher myself, I coteach, maybe once a semester, with people who request it. Before they go into the classroom [if they're on a grant-funded project], I give them an opportunity to sit on the cross-functional workplace education oversight committee to get a feel for the company as well as for faces and names.

FOB: What are the challenges inherent in using college technical instructors as the workplace education staff?

Greg: We haven't had many problems. That may be because I was a trusted entity beforehand. That said, one challenge is the need to be careful, at the dean level, to make sure that they [deans] don't view me as usurping or draining the energies of their staff. I communicate with all seven of our deans, asking, for example, if I can have Jane or Joe to work at night. The deans may worry that teachers who also teach in workplace education won't be prepared for their work the next day... so we make sure we don't overbook people.

I also have to choose the right people. You can be blown away by a person who is great in the tech college lab, but discover he can't relate to adults in a specific company culture. I look for an empathetic personality, someone who's a good listener, with an easy style, like a broad-brush generalist. [They need] good group dynamics skills and relationship-building skills.

Companies have personalities, and some instructors won't fit in well with some but will be great in others. One company might have a no-nonsense, top-down management style. Workers in that company expect traditional approaches. A company that is team-driven needs a different kind of instructor.

FOB: So now you have all these LTC technical instructors working part-time in businesses in geographic proximity to the college. What is the impact?

Greg: The greatest impact has been positive marketing for the college. Instructors get to know people on a first-name basis, and market the college without intending to do so. For example, if Alfredo is a mechanics instructor, teaching math and blueprint, his students will ask about getting credits at the college. They think "This was good, I did it for my job, but what if I want to do it for me?" We help people reach beyond their previously imagined dreams. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of our workplace education students end up taking other courses from us at the college, or taking credit classes at the workplace site.

I have become an informal LTC representative: it's not unusual for someone from one of the companies with which we work to call and ask about some aspect of the college, such as admissions. The instructors get all kinds of calls, too. We have first-name basis relationships with training, management, and foremen at all these companies. They call me repeatedly. Once I write contracts with those companies, they become a revenue stream that we at the college can use to enhance our programs and allow us to stay current.

FOB: So workplace education teachers get professional development via their exposure to industry. At the same time, the teachers act as a conduit, introducing students who never would have thought of college, to the idea that they could succeed at LTC. Workplace education seems to be having quite an impact on the college. What's the administration's perspective?

Greg: To them, it [workplace education] started as a blip, but as time went on they heard people from companies talk about the effectiveness of the workplace education centers. So it started rising as a priority. The other thing that promoted and made workplace education more visible to LTC upper management was the staff, who reported that the classes were providing real value to the college. People in the original 14 companies became members of our advisory groups. LTC's marketing department even started coming to us for photos and quotes.

FOB: What have you learned in terms of contracting with companies?

Greg: In the beginning, I was a typical sales guy, going after the numbers. Eventually, I started asking each company what they were interested in, in terms of end result. If they said 25 hours of hydraulics, welding, or soft skills, I'd ask, "Why are you spending money on this? What does your company hope to get out of the investment?" Some people would say "I have a training budget I want to spent or I'll lose it;" while others might say "I have people not getting along." I'd reply "What is the real value of LTC providing this service?" I'd ask: "Is it reduced scrap, increased productivity, or enhanced office environment?"

Asking potential clients what the end result should be doesn't kill the sale, it enhances it because it gives you real credibility. And it unearths needs that clients don't really know they have. Many issues may be driving the need for training that clients aren't even aware of. The whole secret to contract training is credibility and relationship-building and having the company's best interest at heart.

Typically in contract training, the provider deals with an individual, but, when possible, I try to get all the players together. I think of it as an ethical obligation, in my professional capacity as a service provider, to ask how the client legitimizes spending this money. In retrospect, I can't say I've lost many sales because of this approach.
We don't invoice until after the training is over. Every two or three years, a company says the training didn't meet their needs. In those cases, we don't bill them.

FOB: What do you do when you find that the two constituencies — management and labor, or those who are arranging for the workplace education and those who are taking it — have different goals?

Greg: Well, you're an outsider and you have to tread lightly, but you are a quasimember of the company. I believe in consensus. In our original grants, we had to have cross-functional oversight committees. They bring constituencies together. You really get to respect every one's viewpoints.

We work with more than 100 companies a year now in contract (nongrant) training, and the contracts don't provide the opportunity to have cross-functional oversight committees. I, as a salesperson, keep asking my questions: Do the line workers support this training? Have you communicated to them you're not trying to threaten and expose them? It's my job to keep those issues alive. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Also, I try to involve management groups that need to be brought into the loop, not only to promote but also to understand the business reasons for offering employee development opportunities.

Having a good understanding of who asked for this program is important. If it's obvious that a company is working top-down to put basic skills in without the consensus of the workers, I try to get workers and management together. I start with management and volunteer my time to be part of the process. I always say that if you don't make this a collaborative effort, chances are it won't be very successful. We have turned down contracts that we felt were set ups for failure, or where the motivation for training was inappropriate. It's rare, but it has happened.

FOB: How do you do quality control? What kinds of feedback do you get, and from whom?

Greg: Steering committees are great sources of feedback. I've tried to formalize, with varying degrees of success, a process to get feedback from line people. I ask the teachers to go out and randomly ask people what they're learning, how they're using it, what we can do to improve the course they're in. In a workplace setting, people are pretty honest in giving feedback.

In addition, every instructor I pay is required to have an anonymous evaluation completed by students. The evaluation asks: Was the content appropriate? Was the instructor effective in the delivery? I also ask the [company] supervisor to talk to three or four people out of any class of 15. If a class is really job-specific, sometimes a company will request an in-class test to show what the learners have learned. That gives us good feedback.

We do try to find measurable objectives, such as amount of scrap per week —when the scrap is attributable to workers making math errors — and see if that changes. When we can find quantifiable data that can be captured by some type of written test, we try to do that kind of testing. But that takes time and effort, which means money, from the company.

FOB: Is it fair to say that basic skills got the college into workplace education, but your focus is now on what you call "contract training"? That seems to be such a large percentage of the workplace-related business.

Greg: The college was in workplace education as far back as the late 1980s, but most of it was quality improvement training. Technical and basic skills weren't as big for us. As they became popular we saw this type of instruction as a useful way for us to go into the workplace. Providing these services is a good way to go in and see quick and measurable impact. This has let us show companies that we can do other things. It also gave us a way to show potential students that they could access education. It is a marvelous way to help people understand that they have a lot more potential than they might have previously thought.

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