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HR Magazine, May 2001: PET Projects

By Stephenie Overman  5/1/2001
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HR Magazine, May 2001Vol. 46, No. 5

Companies, community learning institutions and local governments collaborate to provide pre-employment training--before workers are hired.

One day, he saw an ad in the newspaper for a pre-employment training (PET) program in nearby Clarksburg that trained students in the aviation industry. After looking into it, he learned he would be able to develop the necessary skills to enter a new field as well as have the opportunity to meet industry employers that would hire him if he completed the program successfully. And with class fees at $100, it wasn’t much of a financial risk.

Still, it wasn’t easy for Shepherd. While still working 40 to 50 hours a week in the mines, he took classes four times a week. There was no room for slip-ups; the program required perfect attendance.

After 12 weeks, he successfully completed the program, and Pratt & Whitney, one of the partners in the PET program, hired Shepherd in an entry-level position. He has since moved up the ladder to a more skilled job.

Shepherd is a success story. But so is Pratt & Whitney. The company recognized an innovative way to find, train and hire—in that order—workers through a collaborative PET program.

PET programs bring together local training providers and several employers within the same industry to offer training to individuals on specific skills. Although the parameters vary, companies generally pay roughly $500 to participate and hire students. Students pay $100 to $200 to take the classes. Companies also commit current employees to teach the classes and help create the curriculum, and employers pledge to hire students who successfully complete the program. Classes run about four times a week at night, and most PET programs require perfect attendance.

The first PET program began in 1994 in Licking County, Ohio, and has since spread to about 30 communities across the nation. The reason?

“It’s working,” says Kelly Wallace, supervisor of PET programs with the Center for Workforce Development in Licking County, who over the years has spoken to communities in six states about PET programs. Employers get a low-cost program, control over the curriculum and the opportunity for managers to interact with the trainees by teaching the classes. Students get industry-specific training, an opportunity to meet managers and learn about the hiring companies and a pledge to be hired if they successfully complete the training.

Only 3 percent to 4 percent of the students who complete the course fail to receive jobs in the areas in which they received training, according to Wallace. Usually that’s because there wasn’t a fit or because the students took a job in a different area.

People like Shepherd who are looking for a career change especially benefit because the PET programs offer a road map on how to get a job in a different industry.

“A strong work ethic, high standards [and] an employer-driven, relevant curriculum are the hallmarks of this program,” Wallace adds.

Manufacturing Roots

The first Licking County program concentrated on the manufacturing industry, which, like so many other industries, has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, manufacturing companies “expect people who can work in a team environment,” Wallace says. “They expect a higher level of skills in statistical process control and quality standards. They are giving workers a lot more autonomy. They’re lean, which causes every worker to do more problem solving.”

PET programs focus on developing those skills among trainees. Because the program is industry-specific, it is more comprehensive. As the employer needs change, the program changes, Wallace adds, so no one is stuck with out-of-date skills.

The manufacturing program now has more than 1,200 graduates, and its success has spurred interest in other industries.

“Companies came to us and said, ‘You fixed manufacturing’s problem, help us with customer service, help us with health care and now with training truck technicians,’” says Wallace.

Piggy-backing on Success

Neighboring Knox County, Ohio, was one of the first to imitate Licking County, initially with a manufacturing program and then with one for customer service.

“We talked to people in Licking County. It was a tremendous help to see what they had done,” says Kathy Blackburn, vice president of human resources at First-Knox National Bank in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The bank partnered with the Knox County Career Center, the Country Court Nursing Center, Knox Community Hospital, McDonald’s Management Inc. and the Mount Vernon YMCA to develop critical thinking, teamwork, communication and telephone skills among the workforce.

The costs were minimal: Each employer contributed $600 in seed money and received six free placements. Additional placements cost the company $100 per employee. And some companies reimburse new employees for the $100 fee they paid for the classes.

The program has created a bond between employees and employers that boosts retention, says Blackburn. “Employees learn a lot about us and learn about other companies that are part of the program,” he says. “And we learn a lot about them before we make an offer. They know they want to work for us.” He adds that of the four or five workers hired in the past year or so, only one resigned, for personal reasons.

L. Candice Hawkins, assistant supervisor of adult and continuing education at the Knox County Career Center, says she was originally worried about designing the curriculum but it “was easy.” After surveying the needs of the companies involved, she found that many were similar.

“I had some preconceived ideas—I thought blueprint reading and computer skills would be important,” she adds. For the first set of classes, the companies “went with that. Then they came back and said, ‘We don’t want time spent on computer skills at this level. It would be better to have something like another four hours on team building.’” Now, she is preparing to have the teachers critique the curriculum for possible changes and updates.

For their part, students are required to have a high school diploma or GED. “If they don’t have the basic skills, we tell them to get those skills and then come back. Companies are looking for a baseline competency,” Hawkins says.

Classes are held four times a week, usually in the evenings, for about a month at the local career center. “I always come the first night of class,” says Blackburn, with a certain pride of ownership. “I helped design the curriculum and I like to monitor it.”

Customer service classes are participatory, says Hawkins. “There’s some traditional classroom work, but most of the time it’s getting them working in pairs and teams. Employers want them interacting to see how they get along with each other. Problem solving is a big thing.”

Both manufacturing and customer service companies have told Hawkins that the way they do business today is to have a team study a problem, consider possible solutions and then bring the various options back to the larger group.

So, the final exam for the customer service program includes case studies in which students work in teams to identify a problem, look at options and agree on a solution, she says. “Each person on the team has a role. The team presents to the class, and I and one member of management grade them. We give each one an individual grade plus a team grade.”

Successful completion of the PET program has become a credential and recognized throughout the state, Hawkins adds. And as the employment scene changes, she believes the program will be even more valuable. If the economy weakens further, the need for the program strengthens because employers “need to be more selective,” she explains.

Blackburn sees the Knox County program working much better now than it did at the outset with five companies. “It would have been better to get more companies involved, which we’ve done now,” she says. “We were draining our own people to be teachers; now we have back-ups.”

Demand dictates the number of training programs, which also helps to protect resources. “We do not have a program unless one or two companies are hiring,” says Hawkins. “We tend to recruit [students] all year long and put individuals on a waiting list” for the program. “Now we’re gearing up a new manufacturing program because [company participant] TRW sees hiring needs.”

In addition to reaping the benefits of a better-trained workforce, First-Knox won an HR Magazine Innovative Practice Award last year for its Customer Training Employment Certification Program. (For more information on the First-Knox program, see Winning Ways from the July 2000 issue of HR Magazine.)

When News Spreads

When Mary Cole-Laub, manager of community development at Alliant Energy in Madison, Wis., heard Wallace speak a few years ago, she and her colleagues in the utilities industry wanted a similar program in Wisconsin.

Although Alliant Energy, a utility company that operates in four states, is not a part of the PET program, Cole-Laub says that as manager of community development at Alliant, “I want to make sure the community stays strong. We partner with communities and pull people together.”

Wisconsin economic and community development leaders decided to focus on training in the state’s key manufacturing industry, and today, three manufacturing coalitions are now up and running in various areas.

The economic development community also was the impetus for a PET program in West Virginia, where industry-specific coalitions have been developed.

In the Parkersburg area, along the Ohio River, so many companies are involved in polymer-affiliated industries that the Polymer Alliance Zone (PAZ) was established to address issues such as safety and the environment. The alliance later added pre-employment training—known at PAZ-PET—to its agenda. Kim Winer, human resource director at SDR Plastics in Ravenswood, W.Va., was quick to come on board PAZ-PET because the company “wanted work-ready, entry-level employees.”

Dave Lieving, manager of workforce development for the West Virginia Development Office in Charleston, says other employers originally were reluctant. “They felt they would be competing for the same workers. But when they make a financial commitment, they put their energy and time into it because they want it to succeed.”

The various companies involved find they have different hiring needs at different times and share information, he says. “Trust is vital to success.”

“From an economic development perspective, the employers are really driving the bus,” according to Lieving. “The normal method is for educators to ask: ‘What do you need?’ And then they create it and eventually it gets stale. But with this, businesses are so intimately involved. They know what’s on the horizon, and they see the need for changes earlier than educators and can make revisions.”

The most effective programs concentrate on a particular industry because it is easier to put the curriculum together, Winer believes. “The companies donate time and the instructors are paid through the program,” she says. “The companies set up curriculum and allow folks to come on site.”

Students also learn about diversity, ethics, sexual harassment, communication and teamwork, in addition to safety, quality, basic math and more industry-specific skills.

“The requirements are stringent,” says Winer. “The folks who complete the course have to pass a work assessment, a drug screening and an interview. They have to pay $120 for the course; that shows a commitment on their part. They’re only allowed one approved miss—or they are dismissed from class.”

Winer sees many advantages for the companies and their HR departments. “I teach two of the courses and there are other folks in our organization who teach, so it’s an ongoing interview process. We have a good idea before the class ends” which students are best suited for which job openings.

SDR Plastics has hired eight people. “When we hire someone we pay a fee of $500. It’s well worth it; it cuts down on the selection process.”

Training for the Aviation Industry

In central West Virginia, companies in aviation-related industries meet as members of the Mid Atlantic Aerospace Complex (MAAC). So, it was natural that when they began developing their program in early 1999, they did so through MAAC. The program is known as MAAC ACT (Aviation Career Training).

“The West Virginia Development Office planted the seed” for the training program, says Carol DuBray, human resource manager at Bridgeport, W.Va.-based Pratt & Whitney Engine Services, a division of Pratt & Whitney Canada.

“We got involved early on. Our employees helped develop the program so we know it’s industry specific,” she says. “We’re getting the opportunity to view the students during the training course, which is helpful when making hiring decisions. You see people utilizing the program who just haven’t had career options.”

DuBray helped design the curriculum and now teaches eight hours of communication skills. Level-one classes mostly concentrate on general training, while the second level focuses more specifically on the aviation industry. DuBray also sees the program as a low-cost approach to training. “The only thing we’re paying is a $500 hiring fee. We’re reducing our training costs, but we haven’t quantified that.”

Companies don’t worry that they are competing with each other for potential employees, she says. “We’ve worked cooperatively to put the curriculum together, and we make sure we don’t step on anyone’s toes. We have an agreement that we won’t touch each other’s employees for a year. It’s only fair.”

So far, Pratt & Whitney has hired six people, including Shepherd. “They’re doing extremely well,” DuBray says, adding that the companies are finding that graduates like Shepherd tend to be promoted more quickly “because they bring a level of maturity” gained through the program.

Lieving says the program has attracted many hard-working people from all walks of life who simply lacked direction. “They didn’t know what they needed to do to get into [a particular] field. This is a roadmap for people” who want to move into careers and are the kind of hard-working individuals companies want most.

“This truly becomes a workforce development model,” Lieving adds. “We can’t afford to throw people away; we need to develop talent.”

Stephenie Overman is a Chatham, N.J.-based freelance writer specializing in employee relations and health care issues.

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