Diane Stoneman is Winning Workplaces’ Director of Consulting and Training. She has over 20 years of experience in the fields of workforce and organizational development. During her career, she has worked as a workforce learning consultant at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a program director at the Chicago Manufacturing Institute, and a director of a major urban community development organization. In this interview, she discusses her prior work and the keys to a promoting an engaged, satisfied workforce.

You joined Winning Workplaces after spending several years at CAEL. Could you say a few words about your prior organization and the work that you did there?
CAEL is a national nonprofit that’s been around for about 30 years. The whole purpose of CAEL is to create ongoing opportunities for adults, primarily working adults, to continue learning, growing, developing, and continuing their education.

While there, I oversaw a number of private-sector workforce development projects. Two long-term projects entailed developing and managing small business, peer-learning networks. We focused on small businesses because they are often the ones with the greatest workforce development needs but the least resources. One network was made up of a group of Inland Steel suppliers. Another network was comprised of 15 small manufacturers on the west side of Chicago. I developed these networks to help owners and managers share ideas on how to attract, develop and retain top talent. I brokered education and training services for their employees and conducted front-end workplace assessments in order to help management determine their training priorities.

Much of your work has dealt with learning and development issues. How important is educating and developing workers to a small businesses’ continued financial health?
I think most small and midsize businesses understand that it is critical to have a skilled workforce, especially because job requirements have increased dramatically in recent years. Employees need to know more about their company’s business processes, finances and customers. Employees are also expected to be much more computer savvy.

The high road firms understand this and invest in formal education, helping employees acquire relevant degrees, certifications, etc. They also understand that some of the most powerful learning occurs inside the workplace through mentoring, constructive feedback, teamwork and job shadowing. Many smaller employers are becoming more intentional in how they provide these kinds of informal learning opportunities.

What would you say are some of the societal benefits of supporting continuing education?
Before I worked at CAEL, I worked at the Chicago Manufacturing Institute. There we trained dislocated workers and low-income individuals in various machine trades. Many of the dislocated workers had spent years working for their companies before they closed. I can remember working with former Zenith employees, some of whom had over 15 years on the job. They were hard-working, dedicated individuals, but they had low literacy levels. Some read and did math at a fifth-grade level.

This has serious implications for workers, businesses and society as a whole. Lower skilled workers need to upgrade their skills and knowledge in order to obtain a job that pays a living wage. Business must have well-prepared employees who are flexible and learn quickly in order to compete. And a society with an uneducated populace suffers more unemployment, more poverty and less citizen engagement.

How do issues of satisfaction impact an organization’s ability to train and develop their employees?
I’ve been in many firms where employers have offered onsite classes or tuition reimbursement, but the employees didn’t take advantage of it. In fact, I think the average company sees a 10-15 percent utilization rate. There could be a number of different things going on: The employees don’t understand how learning impacts their jobs; or they see it as a burden because they are asked to take classes after hours and, between work and family, their schedules are already full.

The most successful firms build a work culture where employees understand that they are expected to learn, grow and take on more responsibility. They work with employees to provide them with the flexibility necessary to pursue learning opportunities. In these environments, employees tend to take more responsibility for their ongoing development.

In your experience, what factors have the biggest impact on employee satisfaction and engagement?
There’s a lot of research on what most impacts job satisfaction. Extrinsic factors such as wages, work hours and working conditions affect employees’ attitudes towards their jobs; however, intrinsic factors, having to do with the actual work itself, are really critical. Job satisfaction often has to do with the degree to which employees feel challenged, the degree to which they believe in their work, the degree to which they feel recognized, and the amount of responsibility that they’re given. Continuing to invest in employees’ development and having high expectations for their ongoing growth results in a more satisfied, engaged workforce, greater retention and higher productivity.

What can a small organization with limited resources do to address issues of satisfaction and engagement?
The leadership can foster a supportive culture where people communicate honestly and effectively and work well together. They can make sure employees’ jobs are meaningful and challenging. They can encourage innovation and risk taking by treating mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

In some ways, it is much easier to effect change in a smaller organization than in a large corporation. Managers tend to know who their employees are and the jobs tend to be more varied and less compartmentalized. That’s why I came to Winning Workplaces. Most of our nation’s workforce is employed in small and midsize firms and this is an opportunity to do work with a high impact on business and society as a whole.