Blending employer & worker investments to foster upskilling

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, May 23, 2016

Picture an immigrant woman working as a janitor. Given her busy schedule of work and family responsibilities, she’s not able to attend English classes, so she has been assigned to a night shift, where her lack of fluency isn’t an issue.

Now imagine that the worker belongs to a union – and that her union contract allows for small deductions from her wages to be combined with employer contributions to fund English-language classes that she can attend on the job.

That’s a labor-management partnership, or LMP. In this case, it’s Building Skills Partnership, which trains roughly 5,000 workers a year. Building Skills Partnership works with more than 100 employers and has a half-dozen locations across California, including Los Angeles, Mountain View, Oakland, Orange County, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose.

There are dozens of LMPs across the United States. Many are decades old, and they range in size from the modest to the gigantic. Typically, LMPs are established as an outgrowth of collective-bargaining agreements. Agreements generally stipulate that employers will make ongoing contributions (based on a percentage of their payroll) to support worker training, and that workers will accept an incrementally lower wage in exchange for the ability to access that training.

A Menu of Training Options

BSP offers workers a wealth of different types of training opportunities, including computer literacy, Vocational English for Speakers of Other Languages (known as VESL), financial literacy, health and wellness, and civic engagement and citizenship.

BSP’s pioneering Green Janitor Education Program provides hands-on training in energy management and green cleaning. Janitors certified through this program become equipped to help their buildings to meet LEED sustainability standards for ongoing operations and maintenance.

But perhaps BSP’s hallmark is the ADVANCE program, which blends VESL with job skills in a curriculum that ranges from 50-100 hours depending on the level of intensity required.

Key Elements of Program Design

Building Skills Partnership tailors its training programs to fill gaps in each local area’s array of existing adult education and training options, explains development manager Luis Sandoval. “We serve a real niche for this particular workforce [of janitors and other building service workers]. They’re not able to access traditional educational institutions because often they’re working late at night and throughout the night.”

Between 40 to 50% of BSP’s training programs are provided onsite at the employer, says Sandoval.  “The gold-standard is if the employer provides paid-release time” to encourage employees to participate in classes, he says. “Ideally, it’s an hour of paid time at the beginning of their shift.”  

BSP has found that classes have better attendance and participation, and employers themselves are more invested, if paid release time is provided. In cases where employers do not provide paid time off, classes are typically held during workers’ meal breaks or before the beginning of their shift to maximize participation.

In order for this model to succeed, BSP has to find educators who are willing to teach at unusual hours, including as late as 9 or 10 o’clock in the evening. Often, they do so by recruiting seasoned educators who have expertise in serving working adults. “We have the same qualifications standard for our instructors as the community colleges do,” explains Sandoval. “Many of our instructors are themselves former community-college or adult school instructors.”

Meeting Participants’ Needs

Paying close attention to workers’ specific skill-building and other needs is crucial in designing successful programs, says Sandoval. “After starting with ESL classes [years ago], we’ve continued to add more services. Our goal is to be holistic in serving our members and their families.”

That extends to BSP’s eligibility requirements, which differ depending on which funding stream supports the training program. Training that is funded via employer contributions are open to members of Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) including incumbent workers as well as individuals not currently working.

Approximately 70% of the union’s members are women, and the overwhelming majority are immigrants.

Because BSP itself is a nonprofit organization, it is also able to draw on public and philanthropic resources to provide additional training and services to these workers and their families.

Providing Opportunities for Employers

But training programs aren’t just about the workers who participate in them. Employers can also gain – and not just because of a better-educated workforce. “It’s important to highlight the value that employers see within these programs,” says Sandoval. “Employers realize there’s inherent value in providing training at the workplace and outside the workplace, but they don’t necessarily know how to go about it.”

Having a labor-management partnership such as BSP provides a natural on-ramp for employers who want to invest in workers’ skills. Programs can also create opportunities to foster connections between janitorial workers and others in the company. At some locations, BSP matches training participants with employees from elsewhere in the company, who provide supplementary individual tutoring in English or computer skills.

“We still have professional teachers in the classroom,” explains Sandoval, “but the one-on-one tutoring gives workers a chance to interact with people who have other positions in the corporation, and vice versa. It’s a two-way process of building cultural awareness and making connections.”

Some BSP employer partners have gone even farther, by supporting BSP’s scholarship fund to help workers and their children pursue college education.

Gauging Impact

BSP uses widely respected standardized assessments, such as the CASAS exam, to measure workers’ growing English proficiency. Administering both pre- and post-tests allows the program to assess training participants’ skill acquisition over time.

Other outcomes are more tangible. “At some sites, employers have agreed to provide a wage increase for janitors who go through the program,” explains Sandoval. “Other times, employers have agreed to provide help in paying for citizenship applications [for immigrant employees].” 

Because most workers are under a union contract, their promotions are not directly tied to training. Nevertheless, Sandoval says, BSP training can have a substantial impact on participants’ income and quality of life. “If you think about an immigrant janitor,” he says, “if her English improves, she can be promoted from the night shift to day work. That can have a huge impact: Maybe a $2 or $3-per-hour wage increase, plus the ability to be at home in the evenings to help her children with homework and just enjoy family time.”

Want to know more about labor-management partnerships? Read an interview with National Skills Coalition stakeholder Cheryl Feldman of District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund in Philadelphia. Learn how the White House has spotlighted LMPs, including through visits by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to standout programs.

*Photo courtesy of Building Skills Partnership.