Learning for Earning

Tom Longstreth, executive director of ReCycle North, stands atop a pile of materials gleaned from the organization's Deconstruct program.

Educators offer varied programs for employers and their workers

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

ReCycle North

It might seem strange to think of a recycling facility as a school, but ReCycle North in Burlington is much more than a place to dispose of old computers or find funky furniture and dishes. The organization's mission, according to Tom Longstreth, the executive director, comprises reuse, job skill training and poverty relief.

"We have four active focal areas where a real range of individuals we say individuals in transition can gain new skills," says Longstreth. They are: appliance repair, computer repair, office administration and retail management.

Students work on appliances and computers dropped off at ReCycle North. "We're the only appliance training program in the state. Sears has a test, and we try to prepare people for it and also get them certified in refrigeration by the EPA," says Longstreth. Recently, network administration was added to the computer technician training, allowing some of the trainees to become Network Plus certified.

Training runs 30 hours a week for generally six months and is a mix of hands-on learning and classroom time, which includes technical education and personal and professional development.

Students tend to be people who have been homeless and are trying to become independent and employed, or young people who have dropped out of school or need additional skills training. The program also serves people who might have been injured on a prior job and need new training. "We charge a tuition," he says: Most of the folks in the first category are paid for by Employment and Training or SRS, but for many in this last category, the training is paid by workers' compensation insurance carriers.

Longstreth is excited about a new program, YouthBuild. ReCycle North operates it through a subcontract with Youth Building for the Future Inc., which lost its federal funding.

"We have been working with Burlington Housing Authority," says Longstreth. "They will use us as the contractor to, say, build two units of affordable housing. We will do much of the work with our staff and the youth crew; however, there will be components of it we will subcontract out for example, plumbing and electrical to tradespeople interested in young people and willing to work with us.

YouthBuild is a perfect complement to ReCycle North's Deconstruct program, which does demolition and reuses from 50 percent to 80 percent of a structure "from two-by-fours to the kitchen sink" and recycles much of the rest.

"The average age in the construction industry is, I believe, 48 years old," says Longstreth, "so it's an aging, graying industry where there's good money to be made. It's hard work, but it also has a huge number of advantages: It pays well; you can often set your own hours; and you have a lot of flexibility." Students in YouthBuild are generally disadvantaged youths ages 16 to 20 and earn a stipend for the six months to a year the program lasts. Their time is split between classroom education and vocational training, says Longstreth, "so they learn leadership skills and are able to complete their high school education.

Miller Information Commons Champlain College

Champlain College

"For 125 years, Champlain has been helping people prepare for, advance in or change professions," says Lynn Ballard, chairwoman of the business administration division and co-director of the Center for Online and Continuing Education at Champlain. "The strategies and tools might change, but the mission has been incredibly enduring."

Ballard says Champlain serves working people in three ways: "the way we design our classes; the way we deliver our classes; and the customer service we provide."

Business classes are designed around the complexity of the workplace, says Ballard. Students work on "real world" projects either as teams on projects for real businesses or as individuals on their own responsibilities in their own organizations. The college also has partnerships with businesses that look to Champlain to train their employees.

"We know how adults and young adults learn, and we design our classes accordingly. People call it hands-on, very real world, but the loop is: You instruct people, give them a chance to practice it, and give them a chance to reflect and assess and improve."

If you're going to serve working adults, says Ballard, "then you have to deliver it in a way that fits modern life. We rely heavily on online, because it enables students to go to class anytime 24/7. I'm teaching a management class right now, and you would be amazed by how many people are working on their classes after the kids are in bed and the chores are done."

Talking about customer service might seem mundane, says Ballard, "but it's very important to adult learners. You have to reduce the hassle factor, because they have a limited amount of time to commit to their education, and you want it spent in the classroom, not on administrative details."

In the fall, Champlain is launching an accelerated degree program to offer flexibility to part-time students. The college also offers entire degree programs online: "everything from professional certificates and associate's to bachelor's and a master's degree, never having to come to campus," says Ballard.

UVM's Kalkin Hall

University of Vermont's Vermont Business Center

Janice St. Onge is the director of business education for the Vermont Business Center, a joint venture of UVM's school of business administration and the department of continuing education launched in January. VBC offers a series of executive management seminars, training needs assessment services and customized training for individual companies, and is a point of access for area businesses to a variety of UVM resources.

The university perceived a need in the market, says St. Onge. "Obviously, there are a lot of education and training opportunities in a variety of ways," she says. "What we identified a year and a half ago was at this level of executive management, where you're looking at growing the next generation of leaders of helping the existing generation do a good job of growing the company. Nobody was doing that.

"We launched a series of business management courses geared for senior and middle-level management in the Vermont business community to help educate them in key areas of strategic growth," she says.

"We found that short, intensive, driven content worked well for the business community got them out of their companies to be in a learning environment, but not for so long that they felt they couldn't get back in the seat quickly." The first series is completed, and another will begin in the fall.

Woodbury College

"We've always been a training organization; that's how we started out before we became a college," says Larry Mandel, president of Woodbury College. "We did training for organizations and groups of people, initially, at least, in the soft skills that help people succeed in whatever job they're in. That's been at the core of what we've done throughout our life."

Woodbury trains people in verbal and written communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution and critical thinking. Mandel says those are at the heart of any education the college does. "The largest part of our work is with adults who want those skills and other, more specific skills to make new careers for themselves."

Woodbury's student body has the highest percentage of Vermonters of any college in the state, says Mandel. It runs its programs on weekends as well as weekdays and, increasingly, is offering what Mandel calls "low-residency or blended models of low-residency with some online. I think that's the future of higher education, these blended programs where people show up only as much as they need to to learn skills that require face-to-face meetings." The key to adults' education, he says, is that it has to be convenient.

Woodbury is finding a demand for on-site education at places of business. "We've been doing that primarily in the soft skills, in conflict resolution, helping people have difficult conversations, areas of supervision, some work training people in the law around sexual harassment issues, those kinds of things. "Ben & Jerry's has hired us to work with their employees," he says by way of example, "and then we've done a lot of work with people from state agencies and nonprofit groups."

Norwich University

Kreitzberg Clock on Norwich University campus.

A curriculum aimed at educating working adults is not the first thing that springs to mind when Norwich University in Northfield is mentioned. "Our programs are designed just for that," says John Orlando, administrative director of the master of science in information assurance program at Norwich University in Northfield.

Within the military, Norwich is fairly well known, says Orlando, and the university is working to spread its name to the civilian population.

Norwich has five online master's degrees: in business administration; information assurance (information security); diplomacy; justice administration; and civil engineering. Each one can be completed in a little less than two years, says Orlando.

"The course work is entirely online, so it's designed specifically for working adults who can't leave their jobs and move their families to get a degree." The only requirement is a one-week capstone experience on campus, where students get together with their families and participate in activities such as debates, presentations and activities related to their degrees.

"It also connects them to the campus and the institution," he says. "They're joining a 185-year-old institution; that really distinguishes us from many of the upstart for-profits that are only online."

Norwich also has developed six-month graduate certificate programs such as health care management and emergency management, with more planned down the road.

St. Michael's College

Robert Letovsky is director of St. Michael's master of science in administration program, "a sort of hybrid between an MBA and an MPA [master of public administration] that's been around since 1979," he says. The program has about 200 students, most of them doing the degree on a part-time basis while they're employed. Half of them are in the nonprofit sector, which sets the program apart, Letovsky says "anything from health care to state or local government to the military.

"It takes, on average, about three years to do the degree," he says.

The typical student, Letovsky says, is a person moving up the organization ladder who does not have the undergraduate preparation in basic managerial or leadership skills. "We have a required course in effective writing and presentations. Every student does a two-semester capstone experience when they study their own and other leadership styles, so we're very strong on what some in the MBA business would call the soft or people skills."

That's not to say the college doesn't require accounting and finance, he adds, but "research has shown consistently that what managers need are communication skills, analytic skills and team-building skills and those are the things we work on."

Most participants come from within a 75-mile radius of Burlington, says Letovsky. While St. Michael's offers online learning, it's in conjunction with in-class meetings in what he calls hybrid courses. The college has not offered a pure distance course, although Letovsky thinks that down the road, one might be offered on a selective basis.

Another popular program is the certificate of advanced management studies, or CAMS. It's completely self-designed; the student picks the courses; nothing is required. "It's for somebody who also has a master's in any discipline engineering, nursing and no training in organizational behavior, etc. They want to home in on a particular function of administration.

VSAC

Last year, Vermont Student Assistance Corp. awarded $16.7 million in education grants to 12,200 Vermont students. This year, VSAC will provide about $220 million in new loans to part-time and full-time college students, and another $180 million to $200 million in consolidation loans for people out of school. Such organizations are not unusual in the United States, but VSAC has an advantage.

"Vermont is the only state with a non-degree grant program in the country," says Donald Vickers, president of the public nonprofit agency.

VSAC was designed and funded by the Legislature in 1965 to provide, in times of high unemployment, an opportunity for people to take a course or two to upgrade their skills and become employable. "It could be anything from taking a course to get your commercial driver's license to a course so you could do word processing at home," says Vickers. "It works very well, and the reason is because there's no source of financial aid for these folks. None of the federal programs provide aid unless you're at least half-time in a degree program."

VSAC also offers career counseling through a resource center in Winooski and online. "We did a lot of this, for example, when the machine tool industry in Springfield went out," says Vickers.

Vermont was one of the first five states that allowed people receiving social services benefits to go for a college degree. With welfare reform making things tougher, Vickers says, "we pioneered a program where welfare identified people, mostly single heads of household, and we provide two services: career counseling, which helps them come up with a career and then determine what kind of training is necessary; then we make a recommendation for PATH [the Vermont Department of Prevention, Assistance, Transition, and Health Access, formerly the Department of Social Welfare] and they would approve the person for the program.

"We have a program where they can go 12 months of the year and don't have to stop in the summer," he continues. "That's important, because the faster they can complete the program, the sooner they're off public assistance."

VSAC conducted a study of the first group and found that 91 percent of those who completed the program were employed in jobs of their career choice.

For those wanting to pursue an associate's or bachelor's degree, Vermont is one of only six states that offer help with part-time degree programs, says Vickers. "A hundred percent of the appropriation we receive from the state goes into grants for students to fund, part-time, both degree and non-degree, and for full-time degrees."

Most of the people who went part time in the past tended to be adult students between 23 and 60, maybe with a family, who might have needed to acquire skills while working, says Vickers, but VSAC is seeing more traditional high school students considering this option. "They're saying, 'I can keep my job at Grand Union (or wherever), can still go to school and build up courses, and when the time comes, work into a full-time degree program.'"

Originally published in July 2004 Business People-Vermont