Program Finds Education Can Fuel Inspiration

By Mark Jr.

Feb. 3, 2006

When Rebecca Miller returned to college, she took computer and statistics courses that helped her cope with the transformation of her manufacturing job. But a women’s studies class also gave her a new perspective to take to work.

    “I didn’t know that much about my history as a woman in America,” says Miller, a circuit-board inspector at ITT Industries’ aerospace/communications division in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Textbooks tend to focus on the achievements of men. It empowered me as a woman. It built my confidence.”

    Miller is using a lifelong learning account to finish an associate degree in general studies at a regional campus of Indiana and Purdue universities. Her monthly $50 contribution to the account is matched by her employer and by foundations that are supporting a demonstration project in the Fort Wayne area.

    The Northeast Indiana program focuses on manufacturers and government, while initiatives in Chicago and San Francisco target the food service and health care industries, respectively. A total of 350 workers are participating. The accounts were developed by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a Chicago-based organization that promotes education for working adults.

    Country House Restaurants, a Chicago-area chain, has found that employees are inspired by going back to school, even though the skills they’re acquiring often don’t directly relate to their jobs.

“I never thought I would go back to college because I couldn’t afford it.”
 –Rebecca Miller

    “They’re excited. It gives them something to talk about,” says Dean Timson, general manager of Country House Res­taurants. “People feel better when they’re accomplishing things.”

    For Miller’s employer, the most tangible benefit of her schooling is that she was able to make a smooth transition when her job became automated. “I knew exactly how to use the mouse, how to use the Web pages,” she says. “I helped train the others in my department.”

    A 17-year veteran of ITT, Miller was hesitant to become a student again. “I never thought I would go back to college because I couldn’t afford it,” she says.

    Learning accounts are designed for employees like Miller. Tuition reimbursement, on the other hand, works for those already motivated to continue their education.

    LiLAs, as the accounts are called, break down barriers for people who have “sweaty palms” about school because they previously quit or can’t afford it, says Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard. In the program, an employee develops a learning plan with a coach who encourages follow-through.

    “The object here is, don’t count on someone else to do this for you,” Richard says. “You need to get into the habit of saving money that you can invest in your own skill set.” Fort Wayne has spent $163,000 in matching funds and administrative costs for 50 city employees involved in the project.

    In addition to LiLAs, Richard has developed a large catalog of courses and development programs for municipal workers.

“You have to think of yourself as a lean, lifelong learning machine.”
-Graham Richard, Fort Wayne mayor

    “What we’ve created is our own internal learning factory,” he says.

    For a city whose private sector is dominated by manufacturing, training and education are central to increasing wages. “The LiLAs help us keep hammering to everybody: learning and earning,” Richard says. “They’re linked like they’ve never been linked before. You have to think of yourself as a lean, lifelong learning machine. You can’t stop.”

    Program growth likely will have to come from the local level rather than through state or federal tax incentives. The problem is finances, not politics. “This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue,” Richard says. “The budget crunch at the state and federal level is so significant that you don’t find very many legislators willing to propose tax credits.”

    For now, the initiative is targeting one worker at a time. Miller feels better prepared for a downturn like the one in 2000. She lost her job, and worked a variety of factory jobs before returning to ITT. “In case anything happens, I have an education I hadn’t finished before,” she says.

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