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Rutgers University Creates Culture of Lifelong Learning

May 1, 2000
Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, Training Technology, Featured Article
Rutgers University is an institution known for its high academic standards.The New Jersey-based college boasts outstanding research facilities and atechno-savvy population of administration, students, and instructors. Itsfacilities maintenance and operations (FMO) department, by contrast, was wasbehind in its technology studies.

With nearly 800 employees serving three regional campuses, FMO was by far thelargest department at the university, performing essential groundskeeping,maintenance, and repair services. But several members of the FMO workforce weren’tcomputer literate and needed to strengthen basic skills such as mathematics andreading comprehension. Strategic planning within the department in the mid-1990sforecasted that these skills would have to improve in order for the department’scontinued success.

"We were implementing new computerized work-order, time and attendance,and scheduled-maintenance systems," explains Carol Trexler, facilitiespersonnel and training administrator, "so we needed improved skills and jobflexibility, including computer literacy, among our workers at FMO. We know thatif we’re not providing the service the university expects, the school can goto outside sources for their facilities-management needs."

In bringing the FMO department more in line with the expectations of theuniversity, HR needed first to evaluate workers’ existing skills, establishappropriate skill levels for specific tasks, and determine employees’readiness for training. To do this, HR enlisted the help of Work Keys, acomprehensive work assessment created by Iowa City-based nonprofit testdeveloper ACT Inc.

The Work Keys system first profiles specific jobs to determine the skilllevels employees need to do those jobs effectively. It then assesses the skilllevels of current employees, identifies skill gaps that need to be filled withadditional training, and implements customized training programs to helpemployees reach their desired skill levels.

FMO prepares to learn

Before beginning the assessment, HR also had to consider the concerns of theunions, which has the membership of two-thirds of the department’s workforce.Ensuring union support was essential to employee buy-in of assessment andtraining. So HR at Rutgers’ FMO department asked the union president to sit onan advisory committee to determine the best course of action.

"The union was afraid that a skills assessment might violate workers’confidentiality," says Trexler. "But we made it clear that anyassessment scores would be used for training purposes only, and we guaranteedworker confidentiality by arranging to receive only aggregate scores ofassessments."

With that assurance, the New Jersey Department of Labor threw its fullsupport behind the assessment and training effort. "Partnering with theDepartment of Labor was a great idea, because the employees felt their rightswere protected from the start," adds Trexler.

With the union’s assistance, the DOL began testing employees. Personnel andtraining coordinator Jill Rogers says, "Up until then, there hadn’t beena great effort to actually get a handle on the skill levels of the staff -- wedidn’t have a way to do that. But this way we have a knowledge of ouremployees’ skill levels, as well as the data to back up the need fortraining."

In all, 17 positions needing skills upgrades were profiled, with the peoplein the positions answering questions about their work. Says Trexler, "TheWork Keys system has eight core skill areas to assess: applied mathematics,applied technology, listening, locating information, observation, reading forinformation, teamwork, and writing. Obviously it isn’t always appropriate toassess them all, so the employer chooses which are most pertinent. In our case,we assessed teamwork for every position we profiled, because our goal is to haveall our workers functioning effectively as a knowledgeable team."

Once the profiles were finished, Work Keys assigned numbers to the skilllevels needed for each position. For example, entry-level math for agroundskeeper might be assigned level four, while optimal performance for thatposition might be level six. Aggregate scores showed where to target the mosttraining, while protecting the employees’ privacy. Then HR set up trainingsoftware that coordinated with the Work Keys assessments to get workers’skills up to optimal performance levels.

In implementing the training, the FMO department found funding to build a16-station computer lab. The university also provided funding for an instructorto facilitate the self-paced computer-training programs. "We needed aninstructor whose skills were as sharp as knowing her name, because these classesare especially fast-paced for the instructor," says Rogers.

Learn at your own pace

Workplace educator and instructor Elvira Katic explains, "I create ablanket curriculum and usually start with stand-up instruction in generalproblem areas, but since the classes are self-paced and everyone has a differentskill level, I really have to personalize the training to each student."

The fact that the students are adult learners presents a challenge. Thoughskills assessments are mandatory, training is not, so motivation is important."I make sure they know they don’t have to work up to any certainstandard," says Katic. "They work at their own pace, and when they’reready, they go on." Rogers says, "The point of the training is to getthe employees to go at their own pace and improve, so it’s an extremelynon-threatening environment. That’s the main reason we’ve been sosuccessful, because we’ve been able to create that atmosphere."

Both Rogers and Katic credit the department’s support of the program."It was apparent that management supported our efforts overwhelmingly --not only financially, but in terms of time," comments Rogers. Employees aremotivated by the fact that their learning is done on the university’s time,which provides a training opportunity they might not otherwise be able to take."The training is a benefit, but many FMO employees work two jobs,"says Rogers. "So the idea of improving their skills on their own time isjust impossible. But this way, they can attend training as part of the work theydo."

So far, the targeted, self-paced approach to training has vastly improvedworker morale, as well as raising the skill levels of over 300 workers out ofthe 500 qualified for training. "It was a big investment, but well worthit," comments Rogers. "Right now, we have waiting lists for all thetraining courses we offer."

The FMO department plans to set up another computer lab as soon as space andfunds become available. Currently it is putting together supervisory classes, aswell as juggling the demand for more computer-literacy classes. "You neverknow whether training will be a success or a failure," comments Trexler,"but the gratifying thing is that this targeted training has attracted somuch attention from everyone in the department -- mechanics, groundsworkers,even the most computer-phobic [employees] are lining up to be in the trainingclasses."

Most important, a new culture of learning has emerged in the FMO department."I’ve seen a renewed interest in learning," Trexler says. "Youcan offer workshops and mandate attendance, but when you reach the point wheretraining is voluntary and people can pick and choose their own skills to improveand find success, you create a new environment of learning." Adds Katic:"Our students are coming in excited to learn, and they stay in the classesto help themselves."

Workforce, May 2000, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 108-109-- Subscribenow!

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