Ben & Jerry's Core Academy Churns Up Skills Development

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 1, 2017
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This is the fifth in a five-part series of articles on different training and development strategies. This article examines a voluntary online academy for Ben & Jerry's entry-level employees, many of whom are in their first jobs.

Employees at Ben & Jerry's ice cream shops—80 percent of whom are in their first job—are getting the scoop on staying positive when work gets stressful, understanding body language to improve customer service and working more effectively with teammates.

They are learning these, and other, lifelong skills through the online Core Academy that the South Burlington, Vt.-based company launched in 2016 in partnership with the local Champlain College Robert P. Stiller School of Business and the Berkeley, Calif.-based Story of Stuff Project.

"We started thinking about what are our responsibilities to this entry-level workforce," 75 percent of whom are ages 18-24, "and we decided we had plenty of programs about how to run an ice cream store," said Collette Hittinger, the ice cream company's global operations and training manager.

However, Ben & Jerry's realized it was not offering programs that develop such characteristics as emotional intelligence and communication skills that would position these young workers to become leaders in their local communities. The company also was looking to instill its mission and values and help employees learn about themselves and how they can contribute to the organization.

The ice cream retailer's four-week courses are Beyond the Job parts one and two and the Activism Academy. A fourth course, Social Equity & Inclusion, rolls out in the fall.

Participation in the academy is voluntary, and graduates receive a signed certificate from Ben & Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim and the college's program project manager.

"The word of mouth is very positive and [has motivated others to] want to participate," Hittinger said. She noted that scoop shops with employees who have graduated from the academy have higher sales trends and better customer service ratings.

"Can we say it's all because of Core Academy? No, of course not, but the trend is definitely very positive."

Doug Barrese, a Ben & Jerry's franchisee in Charlottesville, Va., has had five employees graduate from the academy. Four took the class at the same time in spring 2016—a 24-year-old community college student in his first job; a 28-year-old retired from the U.S. Air Force and attending college part time; a 25-year-old (and 10-year employee) who runs the shop's catering business; and Liam Missing, an 18-year-old high school senior at the time.

"Our store was going through some big changes at the time. We were getting new staff. We were trying to make the store better than it already was," said Missing, who has worked at Ben & Jerry's for nearly four years. "[And] I figured it was a good opportunity," added the college student, who is studying to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist. "[It] looks good to say you've had some kind of further training" and tried to improve one's self.

As a scoop shop shift manager, he said he has shared what he's learned—such as the importance of customer service—with less-experienced employees. 

Barrese had high praise for the academy, which he said helps provide resume-building skills and training to employees at Ben & Jerry's, who typically are paid minimum wage. The co-workers who went through the program have bonded as a team, he said, even though they don't typically work the same shift.

"They were taking an extra step [during shift changes] to make sure their teammates … started out on the right foot," he said. One employee, for example, stopped at the store on the way home from the movies with his girlfriend to help his co-worker with closing duties.

"As owner and supervisor, to see them develop this sense of mutual respect—which is entirely uncommon [in this age group]—and to think how their actions affect each other as a team … was very cool and rewarding to watch."

What he observed, Barrese said, motivated him in July 2016 to send his entire staff to the local community college for leadership classes.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

Academy Design

A key component of the academy is the "appreciative inquiry" approach to learning, according to Don Haggerty, Champlain professor and business development director for the Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry.

The courses are designed much like the college's graduate master's of business administration programs and integrate project-based learning into courses that involve reflection, Haggerty said in a news release.

"It's this kind of deep learning that has been found to be successful," he noted.

Appreciative inquiry starts from a positive foundation, Hittinger explained.

"A lot of times in business and life, people look at something and say 'What's wrong with this?' With appreciative inquiry, you look at what's going well and [ask] 'How can we do it better?' "

Participants are learning skills "that can translate to any job, and that's really what we wanted," said Hittinger, who serves as project manager for the Core Academy and a teacher for some courses. "We want them to get something more [out of their job] than just selling ice cream for us."

One academy assignment involves creating a two-minute video about something students are passionate about. A young employee in Puerto Rico, for example, created a video based on what she observed from the front door of the shop where she worked—garbage littering the sidewalk, street and nearby waterway, a lack of garbage cans and no signage signifying the area as litter-free.

Through her video, she worked with her local community to solve those problems by adding trash containers and petitioning local government to make boaters aware of fines for littering the water. 

Such assignments resonate with younger generations and can serve as a retention tool, Barrese noted. Their interest in activism and sharing their efforts on social media is how they interact with the world, he said.

At Ben & Jerry's, "every day they scoop ice cream and clean the store, but … for young people, leaving their mark on the world and having an employer in alignment with those values creates a strong sense of loyalty."

Hittinger advised other organizations looking to do something like the Core Academy to create a learning environment where participants will feel "involved and part of a bigger picture, instead of just checking a box that they took the class."

Before courses start, the academy sends a welcome video message to students that includes images of the teachers. Additionally, teachers use social media and other communication tools to keep in touch with students throughout the courses.

"I text with a lot of students," Hittinger said. Messages might involve something as simple as helping someone with a quick technical question about accessing a link.

"This is not a 'Ben & Jerry's thing,' " she said of the academy. "Any company can look at their workforce and their key members and say 'How can I contribute to them growing as people [who are] going to come back to you at a company level and at a personal level?' "

Read the firstsecond, third and fourth installments of this series.

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