At San Francisco State University (SFSU), one of the lingering effects of the 2008 recession was a lack of funds for staff training and development. While some employees in specialized areas had opportunities to attend seminars and workshops, most staff did not have access to training that would help them sharpen the skills they needed to keep moving forward in their careers.
To address that need, SFSU’s administration and finance area launched Employee University (EU) in 2014. The goal was to provide free, on-campus training to every person in the division, from gardeners and grounds-keepers to architects and accountants. Built on a train-the-trainer model, the program keeps costs low by relying on employees to serve as instructors of courses specifically designed for other employees. In fact, the motto of Employee University is “Together, We Make Professional Development Happen.”
Before offering any courses, however, the administration and finance division first asked for assistance in shaping the overall curriculum. Rather than presuming to know what employees wanted to learn about, we asked for course suggestions and for volunteers to serve on an advisory board. Many people applied for the board, which enabled us to select a diverse and representative group of about a dozen managers, supervisors, and workers. In short order, the board generated a list of desired development topics, which included public speaking, team building, and computer skills.
The board, comprising people from all parts of the organization, was instrumental in getting Employee University off to a strong start. EU board members, for example, identified the need to start a Toastmasters chapter on campus and recommended holding the English as a Second Language classes early in the morning so that the janitorial staff could participate before their late-night shifts ended. Although we hired an outside instructor for the ESL course, most instructors came from the university’s ranks—such as the IT person who taught Adobe Photoshop.
Everyone Wants In
As soon as the first round of courses began, the buzz started going around campus: Staff in other divisions wanted to enroll in Employee University as well. So, beginning with the second session of EU courses, we expanded the program. The rollout to the entire campus occurred in stages, over the course of about 15 months. Personnel from administration, academic affairs, and student affairs all now take classes together and, therefore, have gotten to know colleagues they may not have otherwise met on SFSU’s campus.
Because Employee University is free and convenes during the workday, employees are limited to attending one course per session; attendance is required for all meetings of a particular course. Sign-ups are handled on a first-come, first-served basis, with class sizes kept small to enhance learning opportunities and provide maximum engagement. We use campus classrooms and meeting spaces in the library for most of the offerings.
As for the instructors, we have recruited many campus leaders—including cabinet members—to share their expertise in various areas. During one session, for example, the leadership course featured classes taught by the university president (innovative leadership), the provost (women in leadership), the dean of the business school (coaching styles), and the vice president of student affairs (personality styles).
In addition to “core” courses offered every session, such as leadership and team building, each session offers a wide array of topics to boost professional and personal development. The typically diverse mix might include courses related to legal analysis, basic budgeting for universities, disaster recovery, diversity, and facilitating change. Although they don’t have to take any tests, attendees are encouraged to find real-life applications for the knowledge and skills that they gain in the classroom.
A Low-Cost Benefit
SFSU’s Employee University, which is now managed by the human resources office, has an annual budget of about $75,000; of that, $50,000 goes to EU operations and the rest covers a portion of an HR employee’s time to coordinate the program. Administration of the program includes ensuring the rooms are reserved, the instructors and students are notified, the appropriate equipment has been ordered, and so forth. With EU, however, the university is not paying travel costs—and possibly for meals and lodging as well—for employees to attend off-site training.
For other institutions interested in launching a staff development program designed by and for employees, here are several recommendations:
- Remove barriers to participation. We didn’t want to give any manager an excuse to say, “Oh, we can’t afford that,” when an employee expresses interest in attending Employee University. So rather than charging a department $100 or even $50 per course, we make all the courses free to university employees. Many of the classes run for just a few hours, meaning employees can return to work for much of the day.
- Provide support to instructors. The program not only trains employees in desirable workplace skills but also gives instructors the opportunity to improve their presentation skills. For those instructors without a lot of public speaking experience, we provide training on developing a curriculum, designing effective PowerPoint presentations, and teaching different types of learners.
- Hold managers accountable for staff development. Sending an employee to even a half-day of training can sound like a lot to a manager or supervisor. To emphasize the importance of investing in their staff, which makes the entire university better, we made development of employees a part of every manager’s evaluation. While EU has enjoyed very good participation from across campus, we always look through the course records to identify any functions or areas that might be underrepresented by attendees.
- Monitor participation and satisfaction. In addition to tracking participation by area, we often encourage employees to volunteer as an instructor, join the EU board, and complete short surveys on the courses they’ve attended. In 2016, we asked students in SFSU’s MBA program to conduct focus groups and prepare an in-depth evaluation of EU as one of their management projects. Their final report concluded that the content of EU courses was very strong. It also offered several suggestions for improvement that we are pursuing, such as using technology more effectively to facilitate course registration and manage wait lists.
SUBMITTED BY Ann M. Sherman, interim vice president and chief financial officer, San Francisco State University, and Ronald S. Cortez, SFSU’s former vice president and chief financial officer who is now vice chancellor, administrative and business services, University of California, Irvine