Service Centers Teach Softer Skills

July 29, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — In fields ranging from cosmetology to computer engineering, educators understand that technical proficiency and textbook knowledge alone is not enough for success in a service-based economy. In any service enterprise, there is no substitute for a real-world working environment, where employees often find that softer skills such as customer relations, interpersonal communication and office management are every bit as important as their occupational skills.

"These are skill sets that employees need," said George Waite, director of the Tassel M-TEC at Grand Rapids Community College, naming the school's automotive repair program as an example. "It's not just working under a hood. Besides the technical skills, you need the technicians to be able to speak to a customer — to listen to them and understand their problem. They need to be able to write work orders and invoices and order parts, all of these softer skills."

This year, the Grand Rapids Community College will service more than 200 vehicles with basic to advanced repair, one of a long list of service and retail enterprises housed within local educational institutions. Some, such as the area's three Chic University of Cosmetology campuses and The Paragon School of Pet Grooming in Jenison, build their educational programs around substantial discount-priced service enterprises with customer volume comparable to any of their industry's local operators.

The dozen or so lab courses at GRCC offering services to the public operate on a more measured scale, but are no less a cornerstone of its skilled labor and workplace development programs. Waite estimates the automotive program turns down over 1,000 requests for service each year. In that program, repair needs are generally required to match the course of education at a given point in the semester, except during two six-week intensive sessions in early summer, when the M-TEC operates a nearly full-service garage repairing 20 to 30 vehicles each day.

"Students simulate a real work environment during that time," Waite said. "The faculty creates the scenarios for students to work within and then step back. They instruct and supervise, giving the students the opportunity to interact and learn a more complete skill set."

As the school charges only for parts used, it expects that repair clients understand the limitations of the program. Prior to service, customers are required to sign waivers relieving the school of most liability for the repairs.

"They're allowing us to use their vehicle for our training purposes," Waite said. "They're not able to hold us as much a hostage as they would if they went to a dealer or a garage."

For Bob Schultz, the GRCC chef instructor in charge of front of house operations in the culinary school's Heritage Restaurant, it is a constant challenge to remind patrons that the celebrated restaurant in the school's Applied Technology Center downtown is a working classroom.

"When guests come into the restaurant, they don't really look at it as a classroom," explained Schultz, a 15-year-veteran of the school's culinary arts program. "They know students are preparing it and things like that, but their expectations are still high."

One of three food service operations housed within the culinary arts program, the Heritage Restaurant has all the same day-to-day operating issues as other downtown restaurants, but with the added difficulty of 100-percent turnover. As the students are on a brisk job rotation through the seven-week program, nearly every lunch or dinner service brings with it a new dining room manager, station chefs, hostess, table staff and so on. After seven weeks, an entirely new crop of students rotates into the restaurant.

"In a restaurant, there is always turnover and the hiring and training of new employees," said Schultz. "But this is like getting an entirely new staff every seven weeks. Even if you were here three weeks before, it might be an entirely new group of students. And with the rotation, as soon as they get proficient on one job, we move them to another — it's a challenge."

For some students, Schultz explained, the rotation can be a harrowing experience, especially when moved to the front of the house. Table service is a required course for culinary arts students, so even those students with no aspirations to ever leave the kitchen must take their turns waiting tables.

"Some are absolutely terrified of approaching a table and talking to a guest," Schultz said. "Servers at a restaurant apply for the job; they volunteer for it. They have a personality that allows them to be comfortable with it, and not everyone has that. For the handful that are truly terrified, it's fun to see their comfort level improve throughout the course."

The school regulates the traffic into the restaurant by requiring reservations for most days of the week. Lunch, operated by first-year students, is served from 11:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Tuesday to Friday when school is in session. Dinner, operated by second-year students, is 5:30 to 7:15 p.m. It opens for the fall season Sept. 11. One thing making Schultz's role easier, he explained, was the large number of regulars among the on-average 50 lunch-goers and 25 dinner reservations each day.

Another program attracting a dedicated following at GRCC is the Dental Hygiene Clinic, which offers low-cost cleaning and X-rays to over 3,000 patients each year. While several of the school's work-force development programs are called to fill community needs — the automotive program has served as a first-responder on behalf of Heart of West Michigan United Way to offer repairs to the poor, and the residential construction program provides at-cost home repairs to the poor — the dental program faces perhaps the most pressure to meet such demands. At $25 per visit for adults, $20 for children and $12 for GRCC students, the program is one of the few sources of affordable dental care for the region's uninsured.

"We're certainly there to fill the needs of patients, but we're an educational institution first," said Fiona Hert, associate dean of the School of Workforce Development, which overseas the dental hygiene program. "Our goal is to provide students the skills they need to become licensed dental hygienists and assistants. The clinic is their opportunity to witness firsthand and experience through instructors how to build a personal rapport with clients."

The clinic does not offer a full-range of dental services. It refers clients with advanced needs to private dentists.

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