By WEN HUANG
New opportunities for state workers
When Chuck Call was working last year in the Illinois Department of Public Aid's (IDPA) food stamp bureau, he saw no chance for dramatic career advancement. As an office clerk, his job was to help individuals who lost their food stamps or who hadn't received the proper allotment. The work was dull. However, a pamphlet he got in the mail in March changed his life. It was the union-issued newsletter on a new career advancement opportunity — the Upward Mobility Program (UMP) for state employees in Illinois.
"I read it and decided to be part of that. I called CMS [the Illinois Department of Central Management Services] and they made arrangements for me to see a career counselor," he recalls. Before Call saw his counselor, he already knew the kind of job he wanted. He wanted to be an accountant. He had two years of college in accounting and some related experiences when he worked for the railroad.
The counselor provided Call with information on the proficiency test for the Accountant I classification. Call hesitated at first: "I thought I had better hit the books." Later he changed his mind: "How can you lose? You go for what you want to do. Even if you don't pass your test, they send you to school so that you can qualify to pass the test." He decided to give it a try in order to learn where he was deficient.
Call was one of the four employees who passed the test, and several weeks later he started to get calls from agencies like the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA), Department of Revenue (DOR) and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). In September of 1990, Call was tapped for an accountant I job at IDPH and says he enjoys the new challenges: "Going from a clerk to an accountant is really a big jump in my career."
For Call, this leap in his career has boosted his confidence and prompted him to aim for another new job, one which will require him to take university courses to qualifty to be a financial institutions examiner. Since he started last spring, Call has taken several classes, including one on computer literacy, that have helped with his current job. "We learned word processing, dBASE and how to use spread sheets, which are extremely important for an accountant."
Chuck Call is one of 117 people who have been promoted since UMP started in 1989. According to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which pushed establishment of the program, more than 8,400 people have registered for the program. To date 1,200 have been certified as eligible for promotions and more than 5,000 are taking classes from community colleges and universities.
Roberta Lynch, AFSCME Council 31 public policy director, says that from the workers' perspective, UMP is off to a good start: "We have tremendous feedback from employees who are participating; they think very highly of the program." Lynch says the focus of the experiment in labor-management relations is to provide state employees with greater opportunities for careen growth and movement and at the same time to provide state government with a better educated work force: "By providing employees with long-term career opportunities in state government, we get employees who are happy with their jobs, and this means we can keep them instead of losing them to private industry."
Previously, workers found it difficult to participate in the state tuition reimbursement program. Lynch says. To get their supervisors' approval, employees had to demonstrate that the education was related to their jobs. Even so, tuition reimbursement was not guaranteed because program policies varied from agency to agency.
Additionally, Lynch says that employees were also frustrated because they could not be promoted into new areas or to certain high-level jobs. "People didn't have the information they needed on how you could gain access to certain jobs," Lynch says.
Under UMP, Lynch says that such barriers have come down. Eligible participants include employees in AFSCME-represented bargaining units and a small number of non-AFSCME-represented employees who currently work in certain targeted titles in the program. At certain times during the year, all the eligible employees receive registration forms in the mail. Those who choose to participate are scheduled for a counseling sessions at their worksite.
Each participant is assigned a career counselor from an outside contracted agency, Operation ABLE (Ability Based on Long Experience), a non-profit organization originally formed to promote and create employment opportunities for senior workers. The counselors assist UMP participants in identifying jobs they want and career paths based upon their individual skills, aptitudes and interests, in developing an appropriate educate plan, and in specifying the courses to be completed and where take these courses.
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The Upward Mobility Program covers two types of job titles:
1. Certificate titles. An enrolled employee must pass a written proficiency exam tailored to the desired job. The test measures the knowledge and skills that the employee is expected to possess in order to do the job properly. Those who pass get a cerificate. Those who fail any section of the exam take related course work at local community colleges or universities or inhouse training.
2. Credential titles. These titles include positions which require a specific license and degree of higher learning.
According to Lynch, in the past some people who had gone through school couldn't find a job that matched what they had studied. The couseling provided by UMP benefits the employees because they decide in advance what kinds of titles they want to move up to and the corresponding education they need to complete for those titles. It also benefits the state by tailoring education specifically to job titles and helps ensure that the state has employees who are really educated to do those jobs.
What is more important is that UMP makes it easy for motivated individuals to get access to a tuition payment program. For most employees tuition can be expensive. UMP participants receive 100 percent prepayment of tuition and mandatory fees at any public institution in Illinois. The employee is responsible for textbooks, lab fees and travel but may petition the advisory committee for additional financial assistance if payment of such costs would cause a serious financial hardship. Moreover, paid time off can be arranged to attend classes.
UMP expands the employees' promotional rights by giving them priority for bidding for vacancies in the chosen titles. As employees obtain their certificates and promotional grades, their names will be placed on a CMS list provided to agencies seeking to hire workers. An UMP participant also has expanded rights for jobs in other state agencies or geographical localities. With certificate titles, employees can bid on titles outside their current bargaining units and on nonbargaining titles which are included in the program. Employees bidding for another credential title outside their bargaining unit must be considered before a non-state employee can be hired.
Once the employee has been promoted to one of the ceritficate or credential titles in the new bargaining unit, he or she will have new advancement opportunities when the probationary period is over and is entitled to promotion rights for other jobs.
According to Lynch, the union not only designed and initiated the program but also was very involved in each stage. Funding the program is negotiated as part of the collective bargaining between AFSCME and the state of Illinois. In fiscal year 1991 the state appropriated $4 million, and in fiscal year 1992 it has appropriated $3.8 million.
In addition, UMP is overseen by a joint labor-management committee that meets monthly to determine policies, target certain job titles for inclusion in the program, decide what skills and abilities are needed to successfully advance to those positions and to handle appeals from UMP participants.
Despite these advantages, some state employees are still skeptical. "Even if I pass the test, patronage and other politics stuff will prevent me from getting the job." says one employee at IDPA. To another of her colleagues, seniority is more important:
"Passing the test does not necessarily mean he or she can do the job. Some people who have been working long enough to know how to do the job might fail the test and lose the opportunity for promotion. This is unfair."
Other duties at home or at work prevent some who have registered from completing the program. Some simply show no interest in the available titles covered by the program. As a result, "once people are in the program and have seen the counselors, they will not take the tests. Or after they have taken the test, some never go to school."
According to AFSCME, in March and April about 10 percent of the participants decided not to continue the program. This, Lynch says, is not necessarily a bad thing: "The program enables people to explore the possibilities, and if they don't follow up, that is all right. They can think about it and might come back again."
Lynch says the advisory committee is now working to include more job titles in UMP and to encourage people to register as active participants. Counselors help those with small children to schedule their time; videos and brochures are provided to assure those who are nervous about going back to school.
Despite some skepticism people have about UMP, one thing all UMP participants agree — the program helps workers to better themselves. AFCSME local member Anna Dickerson, a caseworker with IDPA in Chicago, had two years of college before she worked for the state. With a desire to finish school, Dickerson wanted to participate in the tuition reimbursement program but with two children at home lacked the money to return to college.
UMP came to her help: "I got a letter from UMP in the mail. Originally all I wanted to do was to complete my B.A. in social work, and they put me in the master's program, which will take another three years. I called the University of Illinois and started school in August." She got As.
Because Dickerson met the hardship criteria, the appeal committee has reimbursed all her expenses for books. Dickerson attributed her good work at school to the desire to be better and to the determination of setting a good example for her children: "If mama can get an A, they can also work harder to get an A."
It has been two years since the program started. In another three years. Lynch says UMP will be renegotiated by a committee of 200 members who are elected by each of their local unions, representing all of Illinois state employees. To make sure that the program is utilized, the members will examine the extent of participation, the number of people who have been certified and promoted and then vote. This information will constitute a strong barometer for CMS to decide whether to continue funding UMP or not.
At this point, says John Hartnett, an employee and labor relations manager at CMS, the program has had more participation than anticipated. He says that 5,000 employees, many with families, going back to school constitutes strong employee commitment. Hartnett believes that kind of commitment guarantees a successful program.
Wen Huang is a native of China who graduated from Sangamon State University's Public Affairs Reporting program in July.
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