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June 2007
Providing Real-World Business Solutions
By Lisa Hoffmann

     It took thousands of years for humankind to evolve into industrialized beings. Yet we moved from horse and buggies to rocket ships within the same century. From room-sized to pocket-sized computers in a few decades. From phone booths to Bluetooth in just a few years. Communication technology has taken business from countywide to global in nothing flat. Companies that want to survive and thrive in this catch-me-if-you-can environment face the challenge of keeping pace.

     One solution to this challenge lies in continual training. Keeping Charlotte’s business community on the cutting edge in the face of constant change is UNC Charlotte Continuing Education’s mission. Making these educational opportunities relevant and accessible for companies and corporations is Amy Wartham’s passion.

     Wartham is the director of corporate training at UNC Charlotte Continuing Education based in the Ben Craig Center on Mallard Creek Road. “We help people broaden their skills, fine-tune their work credentials and accelerate their careers,” Wartham says. “And we help companies and corporations make their operations more effective, more efficient and better able to keep up in today’s marketplace. In that respect I see our role as one of support for the Charlotte business community.”

     “When companies improve their employees, that improves the company, which improves the way Charlotte operates from an economic standpoint, which impacts our standing in the country,” she adds. “So our perspective is always ‘How can we help, how can we make a difference?’ It’s all about keeping Charlotte business at its peak performance.”

     When Wartham joined UNC Charlotte Continuing Education in the summer of 2005 only about five percent of its programs focused on corporate and custom training. Today, the figure is five times that.

      Wartham taught business communication at the Belk College of Business prior to moving to the continuing education department and has a background in corporate America. Initially she split her time between developing and maintaining corporate and customized training and public programs. She quickly realized that Charlotte’s demand for corporate training meant she should focus all her energies in that direction. “We’re constantly building new relationships with new businesses and supplying repeat business to companies who are seeing the positive results professional development can bring about.”

     The department offers programs that let professionals maintain their accreditation, stay on top of new developments, and improve internal processes such as project management, business analysis and accounting. Public courses offer certificates in such disciplines as Web site design, paralegal studies, and fire and rescue management. Other courses prepare students for certification and school entry exams such as professional engineer certification and GRE and SAT exam preparation. Wartham’s concentration lies in the corporate and custom training arena. Her biggest challenge? Getting the word out about the program and its benefits.

     “There’s a misconception floating around out there that our department is part of UNC Charlotte’s graduate programs,” she explains. “Continuing education is not about pursuing a degree; it’s about staying up-to-date and continuing to improve yourself and your company. I’m always looking for new ways to reach out to businesses and demonstrate how we can help them.”

 

Not Old School

     UNC Charlotte’s continuing education program has been around for several decades, starting with a small program based out of the main campus. In 1995 the department opened its Uptown Center, first in the now-demolished City Fair building, then moving to the third floor of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design. That 15,000-square-foot office met some of the demand for business people who did not want to travel to the University area. Demand continued to rise, however, and UNC Charlotte Continuing Education opened another satellite campus in the Ben Craig Center, which also now serves as its base.

     Although having three locations is appealing for public courses, the trend in corporate training is toward fully customized on-site classes that can be completed in one, two or three days. This is where the programs Wartham oversees come into play.

Wartham recently created a customized process mapping course for Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Charlotte. Process mapping offers companies real world ways to rediscover and refine core processes, focusing on the heart of the company. This course teaches people from various management levels and positions to stop focusing on “local” concerns within their company, where managers tend to manage tasks, and look at their organization from a more “ global” perspective, where they manage processes instead.

     Effective process mapping, which leads to better process management, improves efficiency, productivity and customer response times and reduces waste. “Our process management instruction is designed to help companies cut the fat and move toward becoming leaner operations, which is a real necessity in today’s competitive global business community,” Wartham explains, sliding a thick, professional-looking course handbook emblazoned with Coca-Cola’s name across her desk.

     UNC Charlotte Continuing Education provides all the required course materials for their customized corporate instruction. Many of the classes are based on public courses but Wartham explained that her department is able and happy to construct courses from scratch as needed. She and her staff spend a lot of time allowing clients to communicate particular challenges their companies are facing, their expectations for courses, and the outcomes they desire.

     “The Process Management Certificate Program provided tools, techniques and stimulated thought patterns to address issues and needs within my own line of business that I currently lead,” says Karl Schul, director of project management and quality assurance for IBM Global Services. “The class participation and make-up of the class provide alternative ways of resolving and solving issues that most businesses face. This is the evolution and new frontier of business management for the 21st century.”

     Other courses designed to help companies tighten up their operations include “Principles of Project Management,” “Process Value Analysis” and “Measuring and Improving Processes.” Courses such as “Human Performance Improvement in the Workplace,” “Forensic Accounting,” and “Cost Estimating and Cost Management” are designed for H.R. representatives, financial professionals and managers. “Our course catalog has just exploded in the past few years,” Wartham says.

     In 2006, UNC Charlotte Continuing Education delivered 300 courses and programs to 6,000 participants representing about 800 organizations including such notable corporations as Bank of America, Duke Energy, Wachovia, TIAA-CREF and American Express. Clients are happy to learn that the continuing education staff can deliver courses anywhere in the country.

     Being part of the UNC system offers clients unique access to resources in the form of research and expertise. Instructors are experienced business people and often part of the university’s faculty. The department also acts as a liaison between corporations, facilitating valuable networking opportunities. These benefits, coupled with the fact that UNC Charlotte Continuing Education’s programs are less expensive than a private firm or consultant, make the programs both effective and affordable, Wartham says.

     Sometimes Wartham sits in on classes and says she thoroughly enjoys watching “ah ha” moments as they happen. “I love it when I see those light bulbs going on with our clients’ employees. When they see how things can be done more effectively they understand the reasoning behind making certain changes and they’re eager to go back and apply the principals they learn from our instructors, which they can often do the very next day.

     Although UNC Charlotte Continuing Education is part of the university system, it is self-supporting and receives very little funding from the state. It’s a non-profit organization that has to remain diligent in its financial comings and goings to stay afloat. Corporate and customized courses provide financial buoyancy. Where public courses are a financial risk—it can be difficult to predict enrollment rates—specially requested company training most often takes place as scheduled. Even when companies cancel they usually reschedule for a later date.

     “Having the corporate training department grow the way ours has offers a financial boost to the entire program,” Wartham says. “We’re placing a heavy emphasis on marketing to maintain healthy growth.”

     Wartham regularly attends the Friday morning meet-and-greet networking breakfasts held by the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club at Carmel Country Club. “Our marketing strategy revolves around doing a lot of talking,” Wartham says. “I’ve also been speaking at the Chamber of Commerce and setting up personal meetings whenever I can. Challenging misconceptions about our program and helping people see how we can customize courses to their needs is best done in person. What I like most about that is the surprised look on peoples’ faces when I say, ‘Sure, we can do that!’ when they ask about finding a solution to a challenge they’re facing at work.”

 

Maintaining Momentum

     Wartham is pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic reception the expanded corporate and customized programs are receiving and the amazing growth of the programs which doubled last year and are expected to triple this year. “I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised because we offer such a wide scope of programs at such an affordable price, but the palpable excitement of our clients is contagious,” she explains with a smile. “And corporate training leaders love that I am always available, that I answer the phone and e-mails and return calls quickly. Being able to talk to a real person holds a lot of value these days.”

     Dr. Connie Martin, director of the Office of Continuing Education, Wartham and the staff at UNC Charlotte Continuing Education plan to continue on the same path they’ve forged over the past two years. The key is to remain focused on offering practical applications to their clients and keeping courses tight and relevant, Wartham says. People are pressed for time and can sense when precious work hours are being wasted. Clients also want virtually instantaneous results: skills, ideas and techniques they can apply immediately. UNC Charlotte Continuing Education delivers.

     “The Project Management Certificate Program has provided me with the useful tools that I can use day-to-day in managing my projects,” says Paula H. Lauher, senior IT auditor in the audit project office of Wachovia - Finance. ”I particularly enjoy the real world exercises that help to put these project management concepts into practice.”

     “We’re fortunate in that there’s an obvious need for high-quality, research-backed, affordable customized corporate education here in Charlotte,” Wartham says.         
     “Our vision is to continue to grow our client base and increase instructional hours. We’re seeing more and more repeat business, which I take as a very positive sign that people are seeing a concrete benefit from our courses.”

     UNC Charlotte Continuing Education continually seeks feedback to stay on track and up to date. With an ever-increasing focus on running lean operations, companies want to retain and make the most of the employees they have and continuing education is a potent way to generate high returns on investments corporations make in their personnel.

    “It’s really about supporting companies and helping them succeed,” Wartham says.     “Sometimes companies get bogged down and we can help them find a fresh perspective and help them find and overcome weaknesses. Above all, what we provide is clarity. And we’ll do whatever it takes to help corporations find it.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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