November 23, 2009

Student-led workshop benefits plant employees

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- You can role-play in school, but nothing prepares you for the real world like the real world.

“In class, you’re not dealing with a ‘real’ audience -- you’re dealing with a group of your peers who have to be there and, in many cases, have to participate for part of their grade,” said Jeffery W. Reece, a doctoral student in workforce education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“In a real-world situation, there isn’t anyone forcing people to listen, participate or even show an interest in what you are saying. I feel I learned how to achieve that effectively throughout this process.”

As part of a “special investigations” graduate-level course taught by C. Keith Waugh, Reece recently led a team-building workshop for employees at the Pinckneyville plant of Cooper B-Line, an international manufacturing company. The company had purchased the city’s former GS Metals and was looking to smooth the transition.

“Our goal was to take the pulse of the organization to determine what needs existed that are not currently being met in the area of leadership and then develop a training curriculum to fill the identified gaps,” said Michele Rheinecker, human resources business partner for Cooper B-Line.

“Many SIU graduates are currently employed by Cooper B-Line, particularly at the Pinckneyville location, so we knew that the service provided would be of the highest quality.”

After meeting with company managers to get a feel for what they wanted, Waugh turned his students loose.

“He led us when we needed to be led, but for the most part, he gave us the autonomy to do this our way, as a team, using the skills we have learned in our programs,” Reece said.

The workshop team chose to have employees take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which categorizes people into 16 personality types based on a combination of their interests, values and ways of looking at and approaching others. The students used the results in grouping workshop members for discussion and activities.

“People of different types bring something unique to the discussion,” Waugh said. “If all members are the same type, they can reach a decision quickly because they’re all thinking from the same point of reference, but they will miss out on solutions that involve different perspectives.”

Rheinecker said the participants have become “a more collaborative group” since taking part in the workshop.

“They have learned to appreciate and embrace personality differences and as a result are able to discuss and resolve issues more creatively and with full participation,” she said.

The 25 participants, all of whom rated the workshop extremely or very useful, came away not only with a better grasp of the plant’s diversity but in many cases with some personal insights.

“I have a good understanding of why I make the decisions that I do,” wrote one worker on an evaluation form. “Now we understand why they do the things they do and act a certain way, we know how to take them.”

Another wrote, “I have learned why some people react so differently than me in the same situations. I think that even if people don’t take anything else away, it will help that we went through it together.”

A third vowed, “I personally need to work on patience. I will work harder to include and relate to everyone so we are successful.”

The workshop leaders learned something, too.

“I would do my presentation differently -- I was a little nervous, and it showed,” said doctoral student Angela C. Titi Amayah. “Next time I’ll make myself more at ease, and I will interact more with the audience.

“I also learned how one might go about designing a workshop from scratch -- where to look for resources, what should be considered in designing it. If I am someday in the workforce tasked with designing and delivering a workshop, the process will not be scary, and I believe I can do it better.”

Xin Chen, a Chinese doctoral student, found the project more time-consuming than she had expected but welcomed the opportunity to learn more about data measurement and other assessment tools.

“It helped build my confidence for future job-hunting,” she said.

Doctoral student Li Hu, a former training consultant in China, completed a master’s degree in the department in 2007 and so felt confident about her analytical skills. This assignment let her apply those skills while drawing some real-life comparisons between Chinese and American clients.

“After I go back to China, I will have some experience to deal with a multinational company located in China,” she said.

Giving students the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned benefits everyone, Waugh believes.

“We’re preparing people to go out into industry and do this kind of work,” he said.

“To strengthen relationships with business in our area provides opportunities for internships and jobs. It’s win-win all around.”