Staff Education Prevents A Generation Gap

A key Rochdale cooperative principle is continuing education about cooperatives. It is ironic that co-ops often forget to apply this principle to their own employees.

There are many practical reasons why an ongoing program is important. When cooperatives are founded, it is often with a very committed workforce that is knowledgeable about co-ops. But over the years, newer employees often are less and less knowledgeable about co-ops.

One large co-op (no longer in business) had employees who not only didn't know about co-ops but often told customers co-ops were a bad idea. One farm co-op recently completed a survey and found that the majority of employees didn't even know they were a co-op or what a co-op was! At some co-ops, many employees become confused in distinguishing a patronage refund and a dividend.

North Coast Cooperative has a strong natural foods orientation. Many of our employees are quite knowledgeable about natural foods and believe in the products. This does not mean they know about co-ops.

Other co-ops may exist in a labor shortage area, or for other reasons employees may come from outside areas. These employees are often less knowledgeable than locally based employees. As wages increase, so does the pool of grocery employees without co-op experience.

Conclusion: there is almost a natural progression of co-ops, as they age, to employ those who are less ideological and have less knowledge of co-ops.

Your staff are a key to a successful co-op. They are on the front lines with customers and vendors. As one person stated, "If employees selling the co-op don't know what it is, don't expect them to convince your customers to buy." Kate Read, education director of the Hanover Co-op, put it this way: "An employee who understands the nature of the cooperative will provide better service to members."

Key components of a good employee training program are (a) an initial orientation and (b) ongoing education programs.

The initial orientation

For an initial orientation, key topics should include as a minimum:

  • A brief history of the co-op: when it was founded and how it is doing.
  • Different kinds ofco-ops and what kind of co-op you are: producer, consumer, worker, etc.
  • Examples of local co-ops: credit unions, housing co-ops, artist co-ops, food co-ops, marketing and producer co-ops.
  • Co-ops that are very similar to yours and subject to comparable membership demographics and market concerns.
  • Rochdale principles.
  • The membership goals for your co-op and the specifics of how to sell memberships. This should include the pamphlets and forms members need to fill out.
  • Common member questions and answers.
  • Employees should be aware that there is a board of directors elected by the membership.

For the orientations, it is important to have the manager or a highly placed staff member present. This communicates how important being a cooperative is. Following hiring, such orientations should take place earlier rather than later.

Ongoing education programs

Theresa Steig, member relations coordinator at Puget Consumer Coop, suggests that cooperative education, like all education, should be done at a key learning point -- and new employees are eager to learn. She adds, "Use the opportunities of cooperative events for educational purposes" -- when there is an election, use that as focal point to discuss member ownership.

The corporate visions and strategic plans distributed to employees should include the cooperative goals and principles. Employee bulletins and notices should contain cooperative principles and actions.

For example, our co-op recently gave a $250 grant to a housing cooperative to establish an on-site composting program. Great care was taken to point out in our worker bulletin that this was an example of the Rochdale principle of cooperation between cooperatives. This builds pride among employees, educates about cooperative principles and shows the interconnections locally.

One good idea is to develop an advanced study plan about cooperatives. Some co-ops have this regularly scheduled as part of employee orientations. Others have developed a voluntary curriculum for employees to study. If they pass a test after study, they are entitled to some kind of premium pay. I think this approach builds a better appreciation than a mandatory program.

Tie employee rewards to the larger cooperative picture. Each year we have a Worker of the Year. Karen Zimbelman came up with the excellent idea of substituting for a conventional trip one sponsored the National Cooperative Business Association. This has led to tours to China, Japan and elsewhere. Employees not only enjoy memorable trips, but also come back with a grand vision of cooperatives. After our employees pass their first ninety days at work, we award them a cooperative membership. (Check first with your local labor commissioner or labor union.) Our employee food discount program is tied to this cooperative membership as well. Being a member is tied to a recognition of success and material rewards.

Special training needs to be developed for managers and other key long term employees. Here it pays to be creative:

  • Exchanges with other co-ops.
  • Training at the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives.
  • A favorite of mine is the Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference. On the surface this seems very expensive. It really isn't. Every employee we have sent has come back excited about co-ops, much more knowledgeable about co-op principles, and very aware of a greater cooperative movement.

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