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Laid-off Workers Hone Job Skills

March 1, 1993
Related Topics: Career Development, Downsizing, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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When General Motors Corp. closed its Van Nuys, California, plant on August 27 of last year and moved the production of Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds to a new facility in Canada, Rosa Negron was one of 2,600 workers left unemployed. It was a sad day for Negron who, during 12 years at GM, had been able to purchase a house and live a comfortable life. She knew that finding another job in the declining California job market could prove tough, especially for someone who's 50 years old, speaks broken English and doesn't have a high school education. But today, she has hope for her future.

Negron's hope is fueled by the Skill Center, a school that the automaker opened on-site at the closed plant within a week of ceasing production. Here she takes the courses she needs to qualify for a high-school diploma and to improve her English skills. By August, thanks to GM, she hopes to begin an off-site program to become an X-ray technician.

Before her GM job was eliminated, Negron thought that she was too old to go to school. However, when the company offered to pay 100% of her salary for a full year if she attended classes, she figured she'd give it a try. (See "Employees Have Other Options for Improving Their Skills.") "Now I feel it isn't too late to learn. I learn every day," she says.

The learning that Negron is doing goes beyond the math and English she's studying, although she may not realize it. "The students are learning to think logically and to approach new situations feeling confident and comfortable," says Mellisse Bouziane, a math teacher at the center. "They can go on to any other job from here and approach it in a better way."

Ironically, when the Van Nuys plant first considered the Skill Center in 1990, the purpose of the school was for it to act as a barrier against GM's losing employees, rather than as a tool for employees' transitions out of the firm. The company's intent was to improve the skills of its workers and thus increase its competitiveness.

Although the Van Nuys plant is now closed, GM's intent for its Skill Center still is to improve the skills of the workers who, the company hopes, will transfer to other plants and continue their careers at the company. It's unrealistic, however, to believe that all of the 2,600 workers who lost their jobs because of the closure will find jobs elsewhere in the company. Therefore, the California plant's Skill Center has to serve a broader purpose. Instead of being a school that workers use part-time only to upgrade skills needed on the job, the Van Nuys' school has to:

  • Operate on a full-time basis
  • Provide training for employees leaving General Motors
  • Improve the skills of workers planning to transfer within the company.

The Skill Center operates as a regular school.
As soon as the members of the Van Nuys plant's administrative staff had vacated their offices, GM transformed the building in which they were located into a school, complete with 12 classrooms, a teachers' lounge, a student break area, two computer labs and an audiovisual room filled with equipment gathered from throughout the plant. The school opened its doors on August 31, 1992, just four days after the last car rolled off the production line.

To upset the routine of the employees as little as possible, the school administrators, who are employees of both GM and United Automobile Workers (UAW), set the school's operating hours at 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for classroom instruction. The computer labs stay open until 5:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

The Skill Center is available to all plant employees and their spouses free of charge. Currently, 130 employees attend the school full-time. The school serves an additional 150 to 200 students on a part-time basis.

The core curriculum includes three elements:

  1. Adult Basic Education (ABE). This program is designed to bring adult students' reading, math, writing, problem-solving and communications skills up to the eighth-grade level. These classes also address the needs of second-language learners who have lived in the country long enough to be able to communicate adequately but lack the facility with the language that would enable them to advance.

    Assessment tests given by the teaching staff to the students on their first day determined that there was an unexpected number of workers having skills below the fifth-grade level. To meet the needs of these workers, three classes of 25 students each were formed.

  2. General Educational Development (GED). This is the testing program that allows people to earn either the equivalent of a high school diploma or a large block of credit that can be used toward high school graduation as an adult.

  3. Educational Enrichment Services (EES). These are individualized program offerings selected by participants to sharpen their skills in such areas as math, writing, reading, comprehension, communication, problem solving and science. EES provides participants with technical training and help with college courses or other personal goals. These courses are taken in an individual-instruction lab, which is a high-school lab program under teacher supervision. The students work on individual contracts and at their own pace.

An important component of the Skill Center's program is the chance for the students to learn to use computers—an important skill for workers staying with General Motors as well as for former employees moving on to other careers. "GM and the UAW have maintained that they would install a program that's based on computer technology and computer learning," says Mary Hurst, a Los Angeles Unified School District employee who coordinates the Van Nuys Skill Center. All classroom instruction is tied to computer work. Every teacher takes his or her students to the computer lab at some time during the week to work on assignments. "This means that all students become computer-literate in that they know how to access the programs and operate the mouse on the mouse pad," says Hurst.

The center also teaches introductory classes in microcomputers and DOS, and in using specific software programs, such as Word Perfect™ and Lotus 1-2-3™. "There's a full range of computer skills that students can pick up—even computer languages. It's really comprehensive," says Hurst.

As a transitional tool to help people move into the next phase of their lives, the Skill Center prepares them for many different options. In the computer lab, which is filled with IBM equipment gathered from plant offices, an instructor teaches a software-based course called Small Business Management. The class is designed to help participants become entre preneurs. According to Hurst, this is a very popular class. Forty people signed up for it for the second quarter. Textbooks supplement the computer program.

For students who are nearing retirement, the center offers a class called Creative Living in Later Years. A class titled Math in the Plant helps prepare employees who are hoping to gain employment at another GM plant. At the center, these employees also can learn to take the pre-employment tests given at other plants and update the skills and technologies that the other plants may need.

All of the classes are taught by teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District. The automobile manufacturer and its union have formed a partnership with the school district. The educational agency has the responsibility to hire the instructional staff, design the curriculum according to the needs of GM's employees and help select educational materials.

The school district interviewed approximately 50 certified teachers for the eight instructional positions available at the Van Nuys Skill Center. Because the agency had such a large number of applicants from which to choose, Hurst says the teachers who were hired are the "cream of the crop."

The teachers technically are employed by the school district, although it bills General Motors for their salaries. GM and the UAW have agreed to pay the teachers' salaries from August 1, 1992, through August 31, 1993. If the students show an interest in continuing their education at the Skill Center after their salaried period runs out, however, according to Blanca Arnold, UAW education and training coordinator at the Van Nuys plant, the company and the union may agree to fund the center and pay for the teachers for another six months to one year.

Arnold says that she believes that this is likely. "I expect the center to be here past September 1993," she says, explaining that she's basing her opinion on the enthusiasm she has seen in the students. She also cites the results of her experiences as one reason she believes that there's a real interest in the education the plant is providing. "We had had a couple of pilot programs here already, for which we brought in teachers. We took people off the line to upgrade their skills. The employees loved it. They felt better about themselves and better about the company," Arnold says.

She and Al Carnahan, a GM employee and supervisor of education and training at the Van Nuys plant, also had conducted some surveys of the work force in 1991. At the time, the Skill Center was still in the initial planning phases. These surveys gave them an idea of the scope of the employees' interest in an educational program. They mailed out six-page surveys to the entire work force that asked the employees for information about their educational backgrounds and their desires to continue their education. They received back about 50% to 60% of the surveys. The surveys indicated that many employees wanted to continue their education, but felt that they would never get the opportunity to do so.

The plant marketed the Skill Center.
Because the plant was closing in only one year, employees who were interested in continuing their education would have the opportunity to do so. The members of the training-and-development staff used all available media to communicate this opportunity to employees. They held meetings, submitted write-ups to local newspapers, produced special bulletins and even brought in mobile exhibits of Skill Centers for the employees to walk through. At the exhibits they distributed hats, pins and brochures.

"The Los Angeles school district screened 50 teachers for eight jobs at the skill center, so those who were hired are the cream of the crop."

Because the Skill Center was just one option employees could choose when the plant closed, however, GM and the UAW also offered them career planning for nearly a year beforehand. "We wanted to let employees know what was out there and what the growing fields were," says Arnold. The company purchased a computer program that helps people identify the career fields that best suit their likes and talents. The program breaks down each field into different areas to pursue. It explains the education requirements for each area and how much the jobs pay.

The partnership between GM and the UAW also brought in an educational development counselor to help workers who want to further their education determine whether the Skill Center (or another educational facility) suited their needs best. Yvette Cruzalegui, an em ployee of the Los Angeles Community College District, came to the Van Nuys plant on July 7, a little more than one month before the plant closed. She'll remain at the plant for the duration of the Skill Center's existence.

The center's staff says that all of the communication has paid off. The 130 students enrolled in the school are the employees who are best-suited to its training. They are there to enhance their basic skills and improve their worth in the marketplace.

Hurst admits, however, that many employees originally had enrolled in the Skill Center solely to receive the 100% of their salaries that the company had promised them if they attended school. "Many students had been very angry because the bottom had dropped out of their world," says Hurst. "They had said that they would come in and just go to sleep to earn their salary." By the end of the first day, however, most of them were admitting to teachers and GM staff that they had learned something, Hurst says.

Ulysses Clayton was one of these people. Having been an assembler at GM for 23 years, Clayton found it hard to accept the plant closure. He admits that he was angry and that he had come to the center just to collect his 100%. After attending classes for more than three months, Clayton now praises the school. "It's a good program," he says. "I already have improved my basic skills."

Hurst credits this change in attitude to a superior teaching staff that uses techniques that require lots of interaction and participation from the students.

Math teacher Bouziane adds that the students' enthusiasm comes from the discovery of their own abilities. "Seeing that they can do something is like a spark to their motivation," she says.

The employees are motivated because they know that the school will help them make the transition into their new phase of life. "All the students have goals," says Hurst. "They know that they need to get back out there and do something with their lives," whether that means relocating for General Motors, retiring or moving on to a new career.

John Hancox is one employee who decided to make a career change. After 22 years on the line for GM, and after experiencing two plant closures, Hancox refuses to go elsewhere for the company. Instead, he has set a goal for himself of becoming a probation officer—a job that requires a two-year-college degree. He currently attends the Skill Center to prepare himself for college.

Sitting next to Negron during a lunch break, Hancox nods his head in agreement as Negron comments, "We come to school for something for the future."

These former employees who have spent many years with General Motors find that it's tough to leave the past behind. They hope, however, that the transition to the future will be a little easier with the help of the Skill Center.

Personnel Journal, March 1993, Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 41-46.

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