There's a paradox in the training and development world: often it is the immeasurable human dimension that most influences measurable outcomes. Bill Browning believes this, because he sees it every day.
Four years after graduating from Browning's workforce development program, one of the trainees called it "a great shade tree that spreads its protective arms above the students while leading them to success, one at a time."
That program, Training Futures, knew that its trainees were graduating, getting good jobs, and increasing their income - typical measures of short-term success. But when a graduate student undertook to analyze the long-term outcomes for graduates of the program, even its most ardent supporters were stunned, "blown away," in fact, says Browning, by the return on investment (ROI) of public funds. "Within two years, public investment in Training Futures generates an 18% return, a rate of return higher than most individual investors earn on their stock market mutual funds," the study concluded.
About Training Futures
Training Futures, a program of Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), prepares low-income, unemployed or underpaid individuals to move into professional office careers. The 22-week training program, launched in 1996, has graduated over 600 people, with more than 90% of them finding new full-time jobs. This success record puts Training Futures in the top performing echelon of national workforce development programs.
The curriculum teaches computer skills, business English, business math, keyboarding, bookkeeping, filing, basic accounting, and business communication skills. But there is much more than skill-building going on at Training Futures. To learn about this program, which has forged a partnership with the staff at ASTD headquarters, ASTD Links interviewed Bill Browning, Manager of NVFS Training Programs.
The Educational Model: Beyond Skills
Skills are just the veneer applied from the outside - life changes occur from the inside out. That's the foundation for the philosophy and educational model that shape the Training Futures program. Browning explains that this philosophy of "imaginal learning" holds that internal changes to self-image come first, and make it possible to change behavior.
The skills curriculum at Training Futures is what's tangible and measurable. "Then there's a hidden curriculum that is actually the foundation," Browning continues. The trainees arrive with "serious life issues," from childhood abuse to homelessness to heads full of negative self-talk and negative self-images, emotional issues that could sidetrack them.
To counteract those, the program deploys an array of strategies. Every day, in each of four classroom modules, trainees are greeted with an inspirational quote, followed by a five-minute discussion of what it means, where they've seen it, how people live it. One recent graduate shared this story that illustrates how these quotes work:
"I noticed slow but significant changes. First, I stopped crying. Then, I started to really open up to the daily inspirational quotes. One powerful example of a quote that really motivated me is this one: 'The load we carry is never quite so heavy as the chain from which we are freed.' Although this quote sounds simple, it goes very deep, thanks to the way the skilled and dedicated trainers lead a discussion on the daily quote. This quote and others literally cleansed my soul."
Training Futures also fosters an "intentional support community," where students learn it's safe to be real with each other. A social worker is available once a week to provide counseling if needed.
"Peer to peer support is extraordinary," Browning notes, as he recalls a North African woman " homeless, with a child, thrown out by her husband, prohibited from returning for her belongings, who told her story to the group in a Toastmasters speech. The others took up a collection for her, rustling up $200 from their own not-very-full pockets. Now she has a job, her own apartment, and employer-paid child care benefits.
For many people who turn to Training Futures, the business world is mystifying, and the program needs to bridge a large cultural gap. Browning calls their technique the "business immersion philosophy." The training program operates like a business, with a dress code, time sheets, discipline policy on attendance, and performance reviews. It's a simulated office environment, where Browning wears a tie because he has to model office attire appropriate for the most conservative type of business.
Twenty volunteers run a clothing closet, stocked with donations of professional clothing. In the program's second week, volunteers open the closet doors to trainees, treating them like Nordstrom shoppers, and they "come back glowing," says Browning. "Now that they look the part of professionals, they can feel it more."
Volunteers come from local businesses as well, and ASTD has been one of Training Futures' business partners for two years. Students have come for two-week internships in the ASTD offices, and a number of staff members have agreed to be individual mentors for trainees. Plus, staff members of the HR department at ASTD have worked with trainees on practice job interviews.
"They really blew us away!" says HR Director Julie Nielsen. She also has high praise for the program's focus on core skills, including the soft skills, especially the "positive attitude" ingredient, that other groups miss.
The "Trickle Up" Analysis
To measure its accomplishments, Training Futures uses typical measures of outcomes: trainees who complete the program (over 90%), trainees who obtain jobs as a result (85-90%), those who raise their families' annual income by over $5,000. In the spring of 2003, a graduate student surveyed graduates to learn about the longer-term benefits, such as increased earnings, career advancement, and home ownership.
Impressed with the results, staff went back and spent many days reading the case files of nearly 600 trainees to get complete data on at least one measure: savings to the public treasury from graduates who also "graduated" from public assistance. Here are a few of the statistics published in the final report, called Trickle Up: A Case Study on Community Benefits of Workforce Development:
Higher wages. In 2002-2003, 109 graduates increased their annual earnings by $6,000 (37%) with their first new office job. The average salary of those who graduated two years earlier doubled to $33,000.
Children's health. Children covered by employer-sponsored health insurance tripled to 73%.
Reduced public assistance. Over seven years, public agencies reduced public assistance payments by a cumulative total of $663,000 as a result of graduates getting and keeping good jobs.
Contributions to the economy. Training Futures' nearly 400 successful graduates through 2002 were estimated to contribute over $1.6 million back to the community in 2003 in the form of increased taxes on additional earnings and consumption that trickles back into public coffers as graduates buy vehicles, computers, and homes.
Return on Investment. Training Future produces a public sector first-year return equal to 75% of the original investment. In the second year, the return swings to a surplus of $86,000, in other words, an 18% "profit" over two years. Plus the added social benefit of increasing private sector earnings by over $1 million for more than 100 low-income families.
Corporate vs. Nonprofit Training
Browning has lived in two training worlds: big corporate and small nonprofit. Each has something of value for the other, he believes.
Because the training fundamentals are the same, corporations and organizations like ASTD can teach nonprofits a lot about those fundamentals. Frequently, nonprofits face situations where people are stepping into training roles for the first time, social workers asked to do training, for example, or other professionals making a mid-career change.
"What nonprofits can teach the for-profit world is a lot more about change management at the personal level," observes Browning, noting that "what's different in nonprofits is that the clients you work with bring a ton of personal issues to the table."
"The personal change dimension" is often missing on the corporate side, he says. Many corporate culture change efforts call for personal qualities, such as entrepreneurial spirit. "But that's a not a skill you can just impart; it requires somebody to change in fundamental ways. What I think nonprofits can teach the for-profit world is how people really change, and how to facilitate that process."
"Our trainees come from broken lives, and they're able to make extraordinary changes in who they are, and that transforms their lives."