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Some Kansas Workers Are Going To Class Without Having To Punch Out Of Work

Chris Neal
For the Kansas News Service

Adult education programs offered by Kansas’ colleges and school districts are increasingly bringing classes to workers where they already are: at work.

Washburn University will soon offer conflict resolution to staffers at the Ramada Hotel in Topeka. Dodge City Community College will provide customer service lessons at Boot Hill Casino. And several schools are providing English classes, one of the most sought-after skills.

“There’s a major shift taking place in education,” said Karen Ulanski, the director for Paola USD 368’s adult education center.

The increasingly snug relationship between Kansas’ higher education and business sector is most typically seen at the schools, such as the aviation industry presence on Wichita State’s innovation campus. But classes cropping up at the workplace is a natural extension of the partnership that the state’s education policymakers look to grow further.

They also argue it’s a win for everyone involved. Schools can go directly to students instead of waiting for them to enroll. Businesses can retain and create skilled workers in a tight labor market. And workers get free classes, without having to go to a campus or sit in front of a computer at home.

There’s a catch: Not all workers get the same benefits. While some businesses offer the classes during paid work hours, others take place before or after work with little incentive to participate. And most employees won’t be earning credentials, such as certificates or degrees, to help them advance elsewhere in the industry.

Bringing the chalkboard to work

Adult education classes became popular in the 1990s, mostly in the manufacturing industry. They were mostly limited to basic skill sets like literacy and arithmetic and meant to help workers eventually earn a GED.

That began to change with the passage of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014. The law encouraged education programs to better align with private-sector needs. Educators began providing more specialized training for specific industries, such as financial literacy skills tailored for retail sales, leading more industries to welcome in those classes.

“There’s broader interest from employers in a range of industries then there used to be,” said Neil Ridley, the state initiative director at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

The adult education centers offering the programs are usually run by community colleges and school districts. Their main goal is to provide classes for adult students looking to advance their skills outside more traditional degree programs, like computer classes at night or lessons to help students earn a GED.

Walmart recently announced a $460,000 grant for four Kansas adult education centers to offer more classes at retail and service sector workplaces. Six employers are part of the grant, working with centers that serve about a half-dozen employees, though more are expected to be added.

But even before the latest grant, adult education centers across the state were offering similar programs: Paola USD 368 has upped its offerings over the course of a decade and now offers programs across three counties.

And Tyson Foods, which has several meat processing plants in Kansas, has paired with adult education centers to bring in classes since 2016. Tyson expanded that project to Hutchinson with the help of the local community college last month and plans on adding classes to Olathe, Emporia and Kansas City, Kansas, locations later this year. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But for several adult education centers, the Walmart grant is leading them to offer classes at work for the first time this fall.

Class offerings

The non-credit classes are usually based on what the employer wants; for example, courses at an arena can be based around customer relations. Even more generalized courses — such as teaching english to non-native speakers — can emphasize vocabulary specific to the job.

“We anticipate that these programs will become much more common because it meets the needs of the worker and it meets the needs of the business,” said JuliAnn Mazachek, vice president of academic affairs at Washburn University.

The big selling point for bringing classes to the workplace is that it supposedly removes the main barriers keeping workers from taking extra classes. They don’t have to drive or find a ride to a far-off college. Classes are free. And some programs take place during work so it counts as paid work hours so it doesn’t cut into employees valuable — and limited — free time.

“During the day is really the only time they have to improve,” said Brandie Ferguson, the director of the adult learning center at Dodge City Community College. “These employers are giving them the chance to better their skills that will help them to move forward.”

Employers are attracted to the programs partly because of low unemployment rates. If you can retain employees with classes, you can also help recruit skilled workers by having the classes as a benefit.

“I'm kind of having to get creative in my hiring because everyone else has a position,” said Thea Parks, human research director for the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka. The hotel’s staff will get training from Washburn Institute of Technology, and it’ll be paid for by the Walmart grant.

One drawback to the classes is that workers aren’t earning any credits for a college degree or credential. Industry-recognized credentials, like Microsoft’s digital literacy certificates, give workers some guarantee that the skills they’re learning are useful across the field and will be valued by other companies.

The Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the new Walmart-funded grant program, does require the classes give employees skills applicable beyond their current job — no courses on intricacies of the office kitchenette allowed. But the lack of credentials does make it harder for workers looking to boost their chances of getting hired by another company.

“These programs really should result in industry-recognized credentials that don’t just help them in their current role,” said Lul Tesfai, a senior policy analyst with New America, a left-leaning think tank that studies education.

While much of what’s motivated employer interest is the tight labor market, educators predict that classes will continue to be a growing part of adult education’s future even if unemployment were to rise.

“We may lose some,” said Scott Smathers, the head of workforce development for the Regents. “But ... I think this program continues whether unemployment is high or unemployment is low.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Copyright 2019 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.