Essential WorkSkills Class Brings $600 and Much More

July 16, 2008 – A growing number of University of Virginia employees now have something in common with employees at more than 400 Fortune 500 companies: they have completed the Essential WorkSkills employee development program. As of June, 80 U.Va. staffers had completed the 10-week program, earning a one-time salary increase of $600.

Co-developed by University Human Resources and AchieveGlobal, a worldwide workforce training company, the program — designed primarily for entry-level and front-line workers – uses small-group exercises, games and real-life examples from home and work to help participants learn and apply practical skills, such as speaking with confidence and defusing emotionally charged situations.

"I absolutely loved everything about this program," said Marilyn Anderson, an administrative assistant in the provost's office who graduated from the first offering of the program in the spring of 2007. "I wish everyone at U.Va. could have the opportunity to go over the information we discussed. It teaches you a lot of things that will make your workplace run more smoothly."

Anderson learned that she doesn't need to rely on her supervisors to resolve problems with co-workers. "We have it in our power to make those changes ourselves," she said. "We can take the time to analyze the situation and see what changes we may need to make to make the situation better."

Another component of the program that Anderson enjoyed was called "mind mapping."

"We practiced writing down what issues may come up in our lives that would affect our getting to work — lack of babysitters, car breakdowns, no power at home, etc. — and what solutions we could think of to put in place before those things would come up," said Anderson. "I am constantly using that tool."

Anderson said the class made her more willing to reach out and accept new challenges.

Anderson also learned not to be afraid to jump in and help others who may be overwhelmed with work. Conversely, she added, "If we ourselves need a helping hand, we should not be too proud to ask for help." 

Each session brings together 15 to 20 employees from across Grounds. Michael Leff, a landscaper in Facilities Management who maintains the historic pavilion gardens, valued the group discussions that took place. "It was an opportunity for employees to cross barriers and share in general discussions," he said.

Anderson expressed similar sentiments. "We really became a very close-knit group. It was amazing how much we all had in common. We still talk about the time we spent together those many weeks, when we bump into each other on Grounds."

"The instructors," Leff said, "made participants feel valued, that they were being listened to, and gave them the opportunity to feel more connected."

Spring 2007 program graduate Cindy Hall, who began her career at U.Va. as a housekeeper and now works as a postal assistant in Housing, has recommended it to her co-workers in both positions. The classes "help me look at things from other people's point of view," said Hall. "I really think it helps people – especially the 'Positive Responses to Change' session."

Hall also had high praise for her Essential WorkSkills program manager, Peggy Reitz. "Everyone should get to meet Peggy, because she is wonderful!"

"We need to retain good people," said Reitz, who also noted that leading the class is the most fun part of her job. "Programs like this allow the University to grow its own leaders. It is a grass roots effort to develop our workforce."

Offering the Essential WorkSkills program was one of the first initiatives of Susan Carkeek, vice president and chief human resources officer, who was familiar with the program from her experience at the University of New Mexico prior to coming to Virginia in fall 2006.

Supervisors are required to nominate employees to participate in the Essential Workskills program, and are encouraged to support their employee's participation. There is no cost to the department or the employee to participate.

The next class session will begin Sept. 10, meeting on Wednesdays through Nov. 12. For information or to enroll, visit

— By Sara Hunt