Give Hourly Workers a Leg Up

Last Updated Sep 2, 2010 9:03 AM EDT

As I've posted recently, the career lattice -- making lateral career moves instead of climbing a straight ladder -- is an idea that's starting to take root. The highest-profile programs are at professional workplaces like accounting and consulting firms. But this flexible concept is just as relevant for entry-level and hourly workers. Here's how one program enables child-care workers to gain skills, promotions and raises. What works for them also works for food service, housekeeping, call center and other jobs that may seem like dead ends.

For a decade, the Tennessee Early Childhood Training Alliance has been cultivating its career lattice for Early Childhood Professional Development. So far, 20,000 people -- mainly women -- have been involved in some way. Child-care workers are introduced to it as they get licensed; in just the most recent fiscal year, 5,000 women signed up for the program, program director Katari Coleman told me in a recent interview.

The program combines academics -- straight through to the master's level -- with interim certifications that qualify participants for raises and promotions at each step. One discovery, says Coleman, was that many women get to the level of child-care program director but still don't realize that their director credentials qualify them to run a different kind of program, such as at a social service center or school.

She has broadened the classes for directors so they can become content-area experts, which equip them to bridge to related functions. RIght now, for instance, several directors are pulling together the resources to renovate their centers' playgrounds from the familiar plastic-equipment style to natural playscapes, which are landscaped with hills, streams and real grass. Accomplishing this requires recruiting and managing volunteers; fundraising; and working with contractors -- all skills that can help them segue over and up.

A lattice that starts at ground level retains workers in high-turnover jobs because they can see how they can immediately start to move ahead. "Information can inspire," says Coleman. "A little bit of information changes the possibilities for them ... especially when they start to take classes." Here are Coleman's top three tactics for adapting the lattice to hourly workers:

1. Include everyone, not just the apparent go-getters who self-nominate. Employees can't get jazzed about possibilities they don't know about. Include everyone in informational sessions. Make sure they know about tuition subsidies -- a key factor in the Tennessee organization's success. Eliminating big barriers like affordability gives everyone an equal shot.

2. Pace communications -- in content and detail -- as career and educational options branch. Everyone should know how high the lattice reaches, but it's overwhelming to inundate new participants with information about getting a master's.

3. Introduce new possibilities when they are two steps away. A goal that can be achieved by finishing two more steps is ambitious and achievable. When the lattice unfolds a few moves at a time, it also opens more possibilities for staying in one position long enough to gain depth of experience.

Morguefile image by Kakisky.