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Train and Degree ThemAnywhere

February 1, 1996
Related Topics: Training Technology, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
Imagine if employees could take your company's training courses from anywhere in the world. Better yet, imagine if they could take the training courses and earn a fully accredited associate's degree. Training would take on a new significance for your employees. Classes would no longer be viewed as something they have to do. Taking classes would move from the "flavor of the month" category, to being a valuable asset in helping employees attain a formal education.

Even better, imagine if the degrees offered were directly related to your business and enhanced your employees' work-related skills and your company's productivity. And imagine that the cost of such a program was competitive with regular training programs. In fact, imagine if the costs were lower than bringing a class onsite. Your corporation wouldn't have to go through the time and expense of developing the training course itself.

It's because of these factors and others that companies such as American Express, America West Airlines and the Caribbean Hotel Management Services Company now offer more than just training programs. They're among the select few who offer their employees associate's degree programs that enhance their business skills.

Turning training into college degrees.
How and why are companies getting into the degree-granting business? And is it worth it? Top officials at companies that are doing it say it is.

The reason is a lack of employees trained with precisely the skills employers need. "We would hire college graduates, but their education was irrelevant to our needs in the Caribbean," says Chris Collie, director of human resources and training for the Caribbean Hotel Management Services (CHMS), a hotel management company based in Antigua that operates four hotels in the Caribbean. "The learning curve from college to what they needed to apply on the job was too great." The learning curve was too high because CHMS runs all-inclusive hotels. In other words, guests pay one price for their entire stay including meals, drinks, room service and hotel room.

The financial skill sets and cost controls for an all-inclusive hotel differ from the skill sets taught in traditional hotel management courses. "In the Caribbean, we have lots of talented people without degrees. But previously, we could only afford to send two or three to the United Kingdom, United States or Europe for [specialized] training. Thus, we sent our best people and lost them for up to two years while they trained," says Collie. Even college degreed workers at CHMS still appreciate the opportunity to get an additional degree in a specific discipline directly related to their profession.

But if the employees are already talented—and degreed—is it worth it to send them away for two years just to earn an AA degree? Collie explains that the company decided to go with a college-degree program, as opposed to just developing training courses, because "the hotel industry now requires a higher level of sophistication and we need someone who's specialized in more than just one area. Thus, a food-and-beverage person must also be able to read a balance sheet and understand rapidly changing technology.

"A college degree means our employees take a wider range of subjects. They're well-trained in many areas, including finance, technology, communications and so forth. They're better prepared to take our organization to the next level," says Collie. CHMS decided to develop a degree program onsite for its employees. This would teach employees the needed skills while keeping them, for the most part, on the hotel site to work.

"We have to keep finding ways to bring the mountain to Mohammed, because it's becoming increasingly difficult to bring Mohammed to the mountain."

To accomplish these objectives, Collie simply picked up the phone and called Hocking College, based in Nelsonville, Ohio. Hocking College was a natural choice, because it has a strong reputation in the hospitality field for training hotel employees and has formed business/education alliances with other partners, including Choice Hotels and UniGlobe Travel. In fact, as part of its hotel, restaurant, culinary, and travel-and-industry program, Hocking College operates a 42-room Quality Inn on campus at which its students train.

John Light, president of Hocking College, points out that community colleges have long worked with local industries to offer specific training classes for employees. Yet they have only recently expanded training classes into college-degree programs. At the same time, they have expanded their definition of "community" to include not only their local community, but the international community as well. Hocking is an ideal example of this expanded "sense of community" because Hocking currently has 20 international educational partnerships with hotel- and travel-industry partners, including the Brazilian National Training Corp.

And the partnerships aren't hard to achieve. "We had very few obstacles to overcome," says Collie. Antigua, where CHMS is based, is only a five-hour plane trip from Hocking. And, with modern communication methods such as modems and faxes, long-distance learning is easy to accomplish. "Our main concerns were that Hocking could integrate our needs into a new curriculum and maintain its academic standards. Plus, we had to find students that met Hocking standards." Hocking standards are the same as many colleges, meaning that students must have a high school diploma and have the basic skills needed to succeed in a college environment.

The college was pleased to work with CHMS and an alliance was struck in 1985. The education/business partnership brings a Hocking professor to the hotel property each quarter to conduct onsite classes and seminars. The professors are different each semester depending on what courses are being taught. The classes are conducted at CHMS' Club Antigua, a 472-room resort in Antigua and CHMS' Half Moon Bay Club, a 100-room property located in St. Lucia in the Caribbean. The topics covered include resort management, ethics, facility management, security, finance, food-and-beverage management, safety and sanitation, and room-division management.

During interim periods, employee students take special independent study assignments and classes. If they have any questions relating to computers, modems or other technology, the questions easily can be answered by Hocking professors, even though they're in Ohio.

One drawback still exists. Students who wish to complete their associate's degree do have to travel to Ohio for the final three months, because regulations state that they must spend one quarter in residence at Hocking to receive a Hocking degree. Yet, the whole program only takes two years to complete. And as Collie points out, losing students for only three months beats losing them for more than two years, as CHMS did before they started their degree program.

Plus, Collie emphasizes, "We can now educate a much broader range of employees, ranging from frontline workers to management personnel, and we can offer them a real-life situation in the classroom. Our classes include cost controls, accounting and computer training. Although these sound like ordinary classes, they're specific to our needs as an all-inclusive hotel. By forming an alliance with Hocking, we didn't have to hire our own trainers; they had the professors qualified to teach these classes."

E.W. Smith, special assistant to the president for international affairs at Hocking College, expects that more corporations will be joining forces with colleges to offer degree programs. "We find that many places, including developing countries, can't send masses of employees offsite for degrees. We have to keep finding ways to bring the mountain to Mohammed, because it's becoming increasingly difficult to bring Mohammed to the mountain." In fact, Hocking College is finding that a diverse group of clients from around the globe are interested in onsite degree programs. The college's latest client is the Ministry of Health in the British Virgin Islands. In conjunction with the Ministry of Health, Hocking has developed a program to train students to become LPNs and RNs.

"Corporations need to put in quick skill-development programs that lead to degrees. We have enough lawyers, doctors and Indian chiefs. We need to mesh industrial and academic needs smoothly so that people can get the skills the corporation needs and the degrees they need," Smith says.

Interestingly enough, although it costs CHMS about $16,000 to put each employee through the degree program, these costs are not out-of-line with regular training costs per employee. Hocking offers scholarships; and trade-outs with the hotel chain reduce costs even further.

Business/education alliances benefit employees, employers and schools.
HR professionals are finding it's relatively easy to call their local colleges to arrange for special degree programs onsite. That's because colleges, like Los Angeles-based UCLA Extension—which offers onsite courses for college credit—need the new business.

"For colleges, this may be one of the few areas of growth left," says Frank Burris, UCLA's extension director of onsite programs. "And, employees everywhere are working longer and harder. So, increasingly, they just don't have as much time and energy to go offsite for schooling."

Students concur. "I wouldn't have been able to drive all the way to UCLA to take the classes I need," says Shirley Sakaguchi, a management systems administrator with Southern California Edison, based in Rosemead, California (about 25 miles from UCLA's main campus). "It made a big difference having the courses available at my workplace during off hours, starting [right] after work."

Marilyn Altamura, marketing manager, of UCLA's extension onsite programs says tailoring college courses to meet companies' training needs is quickly becoming the norm. "For the Trans-America Life office in Los Angeles, we developed an entirely new class, because the company needed to go into specific areas of client/server applications," says Altamura. "And UCLA extension has just developed a sequence of TQM courses for Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach. We'll augment areas most relevant to real-world work needs."

There still are a few obstacles you may have to overcome.
Although more human resources departments are looking at ways to establish training programs that lead to degrees, they have a right to wonder how many obstacles really have to be overcome.

Surprisingly, there are very few. The first step is a call to a college like Rio Salado, a junior college based in Phoenix, Arizona that offers AA degrees at several major corporations. If the first college you call doesn't have the right program for your corporation, it will probably be able to refer you to another college that does.

"Businesses will hear one of three things from us," says Dr. James Van Dyke, dean at Rio Salado. "They could hear that although the training is valuable to the employee and necessary for the company, we can't make it into a college course. More likely, they might hear [our] course is very good, but there are steps that must be taken to make it eligible [to them] for college credit," adds Van Dyke. Usually, these will be resolving such issues as how performance is evaluated or how skill competency is assessed. "The third thing an employer can hear is that the college can easily tailor a course to fit the business's needs," he adds.

But there's another option. You can also certify your own trainers as college instructors. Van Dyke says it usually isn't difficult. Almost all corporate trainers already have the needed requisites: five years of related work experience or the necessary academic credentials. But, there are some subtle barriers. Both corporations and colleges must be willing to escape their usual paradigms. College courses haven't caught on at many corporate universities, because according to Van Dyke, companies have traditionally been resistant to having outside organizations evaluate their learning objectives, grading systems and documentation of student performance.

Colleges haven't received an A+ on this count either. As Van Dyke points out, "Colleges and businesses speak two very different languages. Colleges need to be much more flexible in building customized education programs for industry."

Yet, when both sides escape their traditional paradigms, they can create successful learning labs. For example, a partnership between American Express Quality University, based in Phoenix, and Rio Salado proves customized education does work.

American Express knew what a powerful benefit training classes for college credit would be. "A recent employee survey contained some hard indications of the disparity in educational levels between our frontline workers and our managers," Deb Robbins, manager of American Express Quality University, says.

This disparity is common in many corporations, with frontline workers having only high school [diplomas], while managers may have graduate degrees. "We believe that by providing training that's eligible for college credit, we could [narrow] this gap and hopefully promote more frontline workers who had real customer-contact into management positions."

Robbins represents the voice of experience because American Express, in partnership with Rio Salado Community College, offers its employees an associate's of applied science in quality customer service or an AA degree in quality process leadership. The two degree programs were developed because American Express believes delivering exceptional customer service includes a distinct set of skills in using the phone, handling customer interactions (both oral and written), and in engaging problem-solving skills. Plus the customer-service representative must understand American Express' quality vision and must apply this vision to his or her job.

A partnership with Rio Salado, through which employees learned these important skills while earning college credits, was the right solution. It provided workers with an opportunity to earn college degrees without leaving their work site, and gave American Express the opportunity to tailor the degree to meet its requirements for frontline workers. "We actively sought an educational partner who understood our mission, was flexible in wanting to work with our industry and also had the desire to create a professional program in customer service," Robbins says.

New technology makes onsite education accessible.
While many employees can complete the courses onsite at the company's Phoenix location, others cannot. American Express employs workers all over the globe. How can they take advantage of these degree programs?

Van Dyke explains that the solution lies in technology. "With new technology, students can take classes from wherever they are—via computer, video, satellite or combination of all three." If your employees have a computer at home or at work, a modem and online access to the Internet, they're already equipped to take training courses for college credit.

For example, America West Airlines, based in Phoenix, offers an AA degree in airline management. Like American Express, America West employees are literally scattered across the nation. Yet, hundreds of employees have completed courses via print, audio or videocassette, audio teleconference or computer-based training. Finally, employees have embraced the training-for-credit programs as an educational way to advance their careers and a great real-world solution to training needs.

This even applies to employees who already have college degrees. "We find that many people have college degrees, but they are 'general' degrees. For instance, a human resources manager might have a college degree in psychology, but would like to receive an additional degree and specific skill sets relating directly to human resources. This is where the specialized degree programs (such as America West's offered by Rio Salado) are so helpful to every employee—even those with degrees," says Van Dyke.

Although institutions such as Hocking and Rio Salado only offer AA degrees, they do have matriculation agreements with universities, such as the University of Phoenix. The University of Phoenix, based in Phoenix with campuses worldwide, offers students additional credit for life and work experiences and customizes programs to help employees reach their advanced degrees sooner.

On the other hand, employees who don't want to earn a degree do have the option of just attending classes and not receiving credit—but this option rarely is used. "If they're taking the class, they might as well take it for credit. It just makes sense," says Van Dyke.

The cost to employees for programs like those offered by Hocking and Rio Salado often is underwritten by employers who pay tuition costs. And often for employers, because they provide the training sites and instructors, the cost of a specialized-degree program onsite is a minimal investment. The space and training instructors often are available onsite, so no additional investments must be made.

"Perhaps the major expense for offering specialized degrees is taking the company's training courses and transforming them into college courses that qualify for credit. This curriculum conversion is the major expense a company will encounter," says Van Dyke. The conversion cost varies greatly from company to company depending on such factors as what shape the current training program is in and how much the college needs to do to make it credit worthy. Conversion could cost from $1,000 or less to $10,000 or more.

One thing does seem certain. Employees do like the learning environment of college courses onsite. Marilyn Low, a management consultant with TransAmerica Life Companies who is enrolled in a UCLA extension program at her office in downtown Los Angeles, points out, "It's nice to be with co-workers so that we can talk about some of our real-life issues in class. The instructor allows us to discuss business examples so we can often apply the information we've learned to our jobs immediately."

Technology is helping merge the growing need for onsite education and employees' desire for degrees. In the future, innovative for-degree programs, such as those Rio Salado and Hocking offer, won't be the exception, they'll be the norm. As employers seek ways to retain employees, while adding value to their training programs, they may be the best solution to killing two birds with one stone.

And with the increasing number of community colleges and universities seeking new markets for their educational products, human resources professionals may find more willing partners than ever. Odds are that institutions of higher learning will be cooperative in helping design a specialized AA program for your workers or will be equally eager to certify your training classes so employees can earn college credits.

When all is said and done, building customized college curriculums in alliance with a college may lead to higher wages and higher skilled jobs for employees. Plus, it may improve your company's productivity.

Van Dyke of Rio Salado points out that "it's just common sense that when you have a specialized degree program, which focuses on improving those specific skills that people use at work, you're going to end up with higher-skilled workers who are well-trained to do that particular job much more efficiently and to the best of their ability."

That enhances the training program in your—and your employees'—eyes. And many human resources professionals are finding that for these benefits, it's well worth starting negotiations with a college to build a strong business-education alliance. Increasingly, smarter employees are making businesses smarter overall. They might as well get credit for it.

Personnel Journal, February 1996, Vol. 75, No. 2, pp. 28-37.

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