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Building a better employee Featured

10:06am EDT July 22, 2002

When Jerry Wolf, president and CEO of Delaware's Midwest Acoust-A-Fiber Inc., realized some of his employees needed remedial math and reading classes, he could empathize.

In 1963, when he decided to go to college, he learned he had not taken the necessary classes in high school.

"At age 19, I went back to a ninth-grade algebra class where they moved an extra desk in," he says, adding that later he also had to take high school geometry, trigonometry and chemistry. "I realized the embarrassment of that many, many years ago and didn't want that embarrassment for my employees."

That's why Acoust-A-Fiber's employees received training on-site.

The classes were required because Acoust-A-Fiber was seeking QS-9000 and ISO-9001 certification, a requirement for the industry to show that the Delaware-based thermal and acoustical products company met certain quality standards. To qualify for certification, more than 90 percent of Wolf's employees needed to have acceptable reading, comprehension and math skills. One-third of them didn't.

Wolf credits the human resources department, where his wife, Linda, serves as human-resources manager, for identifying the problem and finding a solution.

When Linda Wolf and her staff prepared to train employees on the quality-control processes, they found that many were having difficulty reading and understanding work instructions. In addition, math errors on labor tickets and incorrect measurements in work tasks created problems for the company, which was focused on quality and prompt service.

That was more than five years ago. Today, more than 90 percent of the company's employees have acceptable skills, which means not only has Acoust-A-Fiber earned its quality certification, but also its workers read work orders more readily and measure materials, parts and gauges correctly.

The learning program has also been expanded in the past few years to include personal and professional-development classes, and Wolf says all of the education has led to a general improvement in the employees' self-confidence levels.

"I associate it with planting an acorn and ending up with an oak tree," he says.

Back to basics

Linda Wolf worked with Delaware Joint Vocational Schools to set up a personalized version of the statewide Adult Basic and Literacy Education program, nicknamed ABLE, for Acoust-A-Fiber employees who displayed deficiencies in reading or math.

First, ABLE instructors evaluated employees to determine their skill levels. Then Linda Wolf worked with ABLE representatives to develop a program for Acoust-A-Fiber's specific needs. Even though the General Educational Development, math and reading classes that resulted were voluntary, she was eventually able to encourage enough employees to participate so that the company could meet its ISO certification mandates.

"The school concept scared most of them to death," Linda Wolf says. After some employees accomplished their goals, however, others were more apt to try.

"It was a slow start, but now it's like one huge snowball," she adds. "Everybody wants to be in these classes."

The ABLE program, which receives federal and state funding, is free to adult learners. Acoust-A-Fiber pays $25 per instructional hour plus one hour of preparation time for each class offered on-site. For example, it costs $1,500 for the company to host a two-hour class held twice a week for 10 weeks, including preparation time. Class size is limited to eight.

Acoust-A-Fiber, which is employee-owned, allows workers to attend courses during business hours without losing any pay.

"It can get hairy sometimes," Linda Wolf says of the scheduling arrangements. Although some production was lost at first, the company has adjusted, and supervisors make sure work is covered while employees attend class.

While those classes were a necessity for the company, the personal and professional-development programs-offered by Columbus consultant Lou Cummins, president of The Achievement Group-had a completely different start.

"My CFO dragged me by the hair," Jerry Wolf says of the first time he attended one of the classes about six years ago, "and my comment was 'Why? I don't have time. Why am I doing this?' After one year of Lou's courses, we made it a corporate policy that all management would go through these courses."

Of Acoust-A-Fiber's 165 employees, at least 75 percent have participated in either the remedial classes or the personal-development courses. In any given week, as many as 30 employees may be attending various classes.

Linda Wolf notes that Acoust-A-Fiber's annual training and development budget is about $100,000. About 75 percent of that goes to the classes. Acoust-A-Fiber also pays for 50 percent of the educational fees and materials for outside job-related training and seminars as well as time off for employees to attend such programs.

Applied knowledge

On the production floor of Midwest Acoust-A-Fiber sits a locked box to which only Linda Wolf has the key.

The "communication box" did not exist until Cummins taught company executives how to solicit constructive input from employees.

"It gets everyone thinking of 'we the team,' not the individual," Jerry Wolf says.

The box is just one example of how Acoust-A-Fiber has changed, he says, as a direct result of the company's emphasis on education.

"We all have a paradigm that we're so busy we can't do something new," he says. "Lou Cummins' courses are to enlighten us that we can have a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift has occurred at Acoust-A-Fiber from the top management down to the person that sweeps the floor."

Cummins teaches eight leadership-development programs at the company, with topics including personal productivity, supervisory management and communication.

"I feel the greatest value that comes out of my programs is people discovering something about themselves," says Cummins, who for 30 years has offered the programs through his company as a franchise of Leadership Management Inc. in Waco, Texas.

Wolf learned, for example, that he was not good at delegating work.

"I was always the individual that thought they had to be involved in all decisions. And Lou's courses teach you that you will effectively increase your management ability through others by mastering delegation," he says.

In another of Cummins' classes, a group of employees came up with the idea of using walkie-talkies to communicate throughout the plant, thus reducing time and inefficiencies.

The development programs cost approximately $1,000 per person for two hours a week during an average of 10 weeks. Acoust-A-Fiber picks up the entire cost for these classes.

Cummins' programs work hand in hand with the remedial classes.

"One blends the other," Jerry Wolf says. "You have to get [employees] past the remedial stage of competence in reading, writing and math and then get them in the comprehensive stage of goal setting and creative management."

He says the classes have enabled the company to retain employees and promote from within, too. In the past five years, eight employees have been promoted from the production floor-at least in part due to the courses-into departments overseeing production, purchasing, accounting, engineering and customer service.

In addition, three employees who completed the remedial classes have gone on to complete two-year degrees in engineering technology, gaining technical skills that Acoust-A-Fiber can use.

The program's success hasn't gone unnoticed by outsiders. This past spring, Acoust-A-Fiber earned a Governor's Workforce Excellence Award, honoring the company for equipping employees to handle changing technology and operations on the job.

"There are two sins," Jerry Wolf says. "One is not to train an employee and to keep them. The other one is to train the employee and lose them."