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1999 Vision Optimas Award Profile Cessna Aircraft Co.

Cessna's 21st Training Program-which targets the unemployable in Wichita-has become a model welfare-to-work initiative.

More than just a welfare-to-work training program, Cessna’s training program provides meaningful opportunities and jobs to local residents who might otherwise not have a chance to realize financial independence.

To paraphrase the first line of Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, the late 1980s were both the best of times and the worst of times for the aviation industry in Wichita, Kansas. It was a time of surging economic recovery after several years of declining sales and financial difficulties. But for many citizens in the northeast corridor of Wichita, it was still the worst of times. Not only was the area experiencing the city’s highest crime and unemployment rates, there were large pockets of disadvantaged citizens who weren’t enjoying the city’s economic recovery.

As a leading designer and manufacturer of light and mid-size business jets and utility turboprops, and a leading manufacturer of single-engine piston aircraft, Cessna was a well-established business in the area. Cessna CEO and Chairman Russ Meyer saw the need for local residents to have access to meaningful employment opportunities, not just the typical minimum wage jobs, or worse, no jobs at all. He raised the idea in 1989 by asking a team of senior Cessna managers to learn everything they could about the strengths and weaknesses of training programs across the country. What they learned led them to start a world-class, welfare-to-work training program in December 1990.

From welfare to meaningful work.
For the past eight-and-a-half years, trainees have been learning new skills through Cessna’s 21st Street Training Program, named for the street where the training activities were originally housed—in a rehabilitated grocery store that was refurbished by the City of Wichita and leased to Cessna. In 1997, Cessna moved the program to a new two-building campus on a 46-acre site that’s part of its corporate campus.

The program is targeted at Wichita residents who are considered unemployable. Most of the people who apply to the program are screened and referred directly through the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services. Organizations such as Diversified Educational Training and Manufacturing Company also participate in that process.

The program is designed to teach customized skills to people who can’t qualify for entry-level production jobs and provides them the opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency. Before people are interviewed for the program they have to show basic math and reading aptitude through testing. “We’ve found over the years that if they don’t have the incoming levels, then there’s a very high probability that they won’t be successful, which hurts both Cessna and them,” says Johnnie Cartledge, manager of the 21st Street campus training and production facilities, who’s been with the program since its inception.

Cessna managers have discovered another important quality to seek out in potential trainees. “We look for motivation and desire,” says Cartledge. “We can give them the skill, but we can’t give them the desire.” He adds that people who have the desire to succeed have tended to do well in the program and later as full-time employees. Once accepted into the program, trainees learn skills in manufacturing, secretarial or administrative disciplines, depending on their qualifications, aptitudes and interests.

The program is successful and distinctive from other welfare-to-work programs in its assumptions about the people it serves and because of six unique features. The program recognizes that:

  • Trainees learn best at their own rate, not in a fixed duration. Trainees have the opportunity to progress based on prior experience and learning aptitude. They can take as much time as they need to learn the skills of their new job.
  • Trainees have personal needs that must also be addressed. A full-time counselor helps prepare trainees for work in a large industrial organization.
  • Trainees need compensation and benefits while they’re learning, so Cessna provides salary and benefits throughout the training program starting their first day.
  • Trainees need access to onsite, subsidized housing.
  • Trainees often need access to onsite, affordable day care.
  • Trainees are most effectively motivated by the guarantee of a job upon successful completion of the program.

The new 21st Street campus houses subassembly in one building and a learning center in another. At the subassembly facility, trainees learn how to assemble parts for all four Cessna model aircraft, and go on to find jobs within Cessna or at other companies after they complete the program.

At the learning center, trainees learn such skills as sheet-metal assembly, blueprint reading, shop math and production. Or they can take clerical classes that teach people computer and academic skills. However, only two sessions of clerical-skills training are offered each year. And in this program, participants don’t have to pay for the training, but they also don’t receive wages. This curriculum was developed with the participation of the Cessna clerical staff and guidance from the Wichita Area Technical College. Those who finish this program can be placed as interns within Cessna, but job placement isn’t guaranteed as it is in the sheet-metal program.

The learning center also houses a child-development center, so trainees can be near their children while they work. Says Tonya Oden, a graduate of the 21st Street program who now works as an inspector for Cessna’s new Subassembly Facility: “I can show my kids what going to work can provide, and teach them about work ethics and responsibility.” Once participants complete the program, which can take approximately six months, most graduates take a full-time job within Cessna. Many later advance into supervisory and technical positions, but the whole process requires time and nurturing.

You have to get personal.
When founding team members talked with representatives from Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Polaroid Corp., which has a welfare-to-work program close in format to Cessna’s, they said they regretted not having a counselor on staff when they started the program. So Cessna made a counselor available to its trainees from day one. Jan Luccarini, the program counselor, helps trainees with personal problems ranging from indebtedness to grooming and hygiene. She also helps them assimilate into Cessna’s workforce after they graduate. “That’s been wise because many of the trainees come in with problems they can’t reason out themselves,” says John E. Moore, senior VP of HR for Cessna, who helped lead the team that put the program into action.

Adjusting to the on-the-job etiquette that most people take for granted—such as arriving promptly, taking direction from superiors and getting along with co-workers—dooms many people who try to leave welfare rolls. “Welfare recipients need both life learning and lifelong learning,” says Caela Farren, CEO of Annandale, Virginia-based MasteryWorks, and an expert in organizational management who works with companies in creating and implementing training programs that ease welfare recipients into the workplace and keep them there.

Onsite child care and housing are two other features of Cessna’s program that help trainees be successful in the program from a personal standpoint. Trainees who are in need of transitional housing can stay in one of the six apartments on the campus. The reasons for trainees needing housing vary from domestic violence situations to being evicted from previous lodging. “Some trainees find themselves in abusive or degrading circumstances, and no matter how hard they work, when they return to that environment every night, they’re just dragging an anchor that’s probably going to result in their failure in the program,” says Moore.

Help others first, gain rewards later.
What’s most unique about Cessna’s 21st Street training program is that Cessna leaders didn’t selfishly start the program to address their organization’s staffing deficiencies or to enhance their training of existing personnel. “We opened the 21st Street Training Program because we were concerned about a growing economic gap between those who had jobs and those who didn’t,” says Moore. When the program started, Raytheon, Learjet and Boeing all had people on layoff in the area. “We had a deep, experienced labor pool and we didn’t need the 21st Street graduates to solve a staffing problem,” says Moore. The program was aimed primarily at helping area residents and providing good job opportunities where few existed.

It wasn’t until much later that the program had the advantageous side benefit of being a continuous pipeline of qualified workers. “As the labor market has become tighter, 21st Street has become an important source of qualified employees for us,” says Moore. Since the program began, more than 250 people have graduated, and most stay on as employees. Today, 75 percent of the graduates stay affiliated with Cessna after they graduate.

In a statement shortly after the opening of Cessna’s newly expanded 21st Street facility, Eli J. Segal, president of The Welfare to Work Partnership, based in Washington, D.C., said: “Cessna’s experience shows that welfare to work is a smart solution for business. Cessna has proven that welfare recipients can be valuable employees that can help companies meet their hiring needs. The commitment of Cessna to the welfare-to-work movement is almost unmatched in the American business community.” The Welfare to Work Partnership is a new national effort of the American business community to help employers hire and retain former welfare recipients without displacing existing workers. After visiting Cessna’s 21st Street campus in 1997, President Bill Clinton called it “the best welfare-to-work program I have ever seen in America.”

HR at Cessna is involved in other community development efforts, as well. “Helping people in our community is a part of us,” says Moore. “We’ve been here 72 years. It’s been our home and it’s been good to us. We’ve seen it change. We’ve seen it need things today that it didn’t need 20 years ago. So we just try to maintain a dynamic contact with the community, understand its issues and help where it’s possible for us to do so.” Cessna hasn’t done it alone, however.

Partnering with government entities makes the vision possible.
Moore maintains that garnering the support of local, state and federal entities has been crucial to getting the 21st Street program going, and keeping it going. He counters the notion that securing government support is difficult. “That’s absolutely not our experience,” says Moore. “We’ve dealt with the city of Wichita, the county, state government and HUD. We find those partners to be flexible, problem-solving people, and we don’t have any trouble.” For example, Moore says when Cessna applied for a section 108 HUD loan for the construction of its newly expanded facilities, the loan was approved in four days by then Secretary Cisneros in Washington, D.C. “Our experience has been that if you’re a company that people trust and believe in and if you don’t do this to take advantage of anyone, you can sit down and everybody will come to the table,” says Moore.

He notes that any barriers a company might experience when it first opens such a program tend to go away if the company defines its vision carefully. It must be consistent with what the company leadership and the leadership in the private sector feel is important. “And while this program has a cost, it’s affordable for major companies,” he adds.

Moore advises that anybody thinking about this should have a long-term vision. “If you don’t, then don’t do it,” he warns. “If you’re going to do it as a staffing solution, identify it as just that—a staffing solution or an expanded training program for the short-term.” But if you’re going to do it as a community revitalization program, have a long-term vision and don’t quit at the first sign of hardship. “If it’s there to make a statement, to give something back to your community, to invest in people who otherwise might not have a chance, it better be for the long-run. The best investment you could ever make is in the people in your company and in your community,” says Moore.

To look at the city of Wichita, Kansas today, you’d see economic nirvana. The unemployment rate is below the national average. It’s a thriving community with Cessna’s help. Since Cessna opened its original facility, more than $40 million of private and public investments have been made in Wichita’s 21st Street corridor.

“We’re proud of our progress with the 21st Street program and we’re especially proud of the graduates who are now making their careers at Cessna,” says Chairman/CEO Meyer.

Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 76-81.