Higher On The Job Education

July 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Admittedly not one for ceremonies, Cascade Engineering CEO Fred Keller wasn’t prepared for what happened in June.

It was a luncheon ceremony in which two Cascade employees received dual certificates in Leadership Effectiveness and Human Resources Management from Davenport University.

“I expected to go in there and pretty much thank Davenport and congratulate the students and that would be the end of it,” Keller said.

“What really surprised me was when (Davenport University president) Randolph Flechsig stood up, turned to them and said, ‘This is an achievement that you have demonstrated something you have been able to do with your life.’”

After Flechsig’s comments, the two students, Dee Carson and Becki Barrett, both first-shift team leaders and core operators, took turns sharing their experiences.

“One said that she was so proud that she was able to do this,” Keller recalled. “Her parents were there wiping away tears off their faces … and she said, ‘I am the oldest sibling and now my younger brothers and sisters know that they can achieve things if they put their minds to it, and I now have children that can be proud of their mother.’

“I was unprepared for the ripple effect of this,” Keller said. “That it was not just one person that was able to enhance their career at Cascade, which is highly congratulatory, but there was a ripple effect of pride throughout that entire family, from her parents to her children.”

They earned the certificates without ever setting foot on the Davenport campus.

Through an articulation agreement with the college, Cascade employees are able to receive college credit for taking classes at work. Certificates are available in leadership effectiveness and human resources management, and credits can later be applied to a two-year or four-year degree.

“The Cascade partnership blossomed because Fred Keller has an abiding interest in offering his employees opportunities for development and training,” Flechsig said.

“What we were able to accomplish was create training for what Fred was looking for, but also give those individuals the opportunity to use that training as a way to stair-step into credits at a university level.”

Cascade and Davenport originally formed a partnership over 13 years ago, with the school providing leadership training onsite to Cascade’s employees.

Education, training and personal development have long been core values within the Cascade ethos. In 1995 it began the Pay for Contribution program, a four-tiered system designed to pay employees according to their value to the company, as determined by new skill sets acquired and demonstrated by the employees.

Davenport has held onsite classes at the firm for as few as five and as many as 20 people. During a given year, about 550 Cascade workers — nearly three-fourths of the firm’s work force — are in one or more of an average of 60 classes that meet at Cascade.

As part of the partnership, Davenport looked at the class work that Cascade was already providing, and by adding some additional assignments optional to the employee was able to facilitate a credit program through which employees could work toward certificates and degrees.

With the addition of two more classes that are not part of the regular Cascade development program — also taught onsite — employees are able to attain a professional certificate through the workplace.

In June, Cascade almost graduated six employees, but only two were able to accomplish the necessary class work that semester. This fall, 14 employees are slated to graduate.

“We believe the better educated the work force, the better performers they are going to be,” said Dave Barrett, senior organizational consultant for leadership and development, whose daughter was one of the June graduates.

“So we started thinking of ways to entice them into college … and group education is just not their thing. I’ve talked to many employees who, after they took the first couple of college classes, said that they didn’t think they could ever take a college class.

“We’re trying to create the idea that you can; that just because you didn’t do well in high school doesn’t mean you can’t do well at the college level.”

Barrett’s cites one employee as a perfect example, a woman who came out of generational poverty and to Cascade through a welfare-to-career program and who will graduate this fall.

The onsite classes remove many barriers that often deter employees from attending college. Some workers may not feel comfortable in a traditional college setting, either because of age or background. But taking classes with co-workers and peers at work eliminates much of that discomfort.

Many employees, too, have been discouraged about college because they must rely on public transportation or because they don’t want to make an extra trip after work. Attending Davenport classes at Cascade, however, simply involves crossing the company parking lot to a different part of the Cascade facility.

Barrett said the removal of these barriers is intended not only to provide educational opportunities but also a stepping stone for employees to pursue further opportunities on their own.

“The goal is to get the employees to continue on with their education after they earn the certificate,” Barrett said.

Both of Cascade’s initial graduates intend to pursue four-year degrees.

Besides retention and morale benefits, Barrett says Cascade’s educational and development programs also have demonstrated their value on the production floor, providing workers with more flexible skill sets, which makes for more efficiency.

Curriculum for a third certificate program is currently being developed. Quality assurance was originally offered but dropped due to a lack of interest. In its place will be a course in sustainable business management, which Keller teaches at Cornell University.

By the third and fourth phases of the Pay for Contribution program, an employee will have invested 300-plus classroom hours of training, not all provided through Davenport.

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