Classes, service projects offer personal growth opportunities

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The government has not made continuing education or volunteer service a formal part of its work-life balance initiative so these opportunities remain rarer than in-house job training or reimbursement for work-related classes. Still, a number of agencies have started offering personal enrichment programs and in addition to keeping current employees satisfied, they can be a valuable recruiting tool.

"People want to know where they are going to be three years from now," said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "A big part of the 'How do I get there?' is knowing [agency] leadership will help with that, whether it's professional development or outside classes or mentoring programs."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Professional Development Center, for example, administers both personal and professional self-directed education programs, such as Chinese and French language courses, communications seminars and parenting classes. And NRC employees can donate personal time to arrange special events, such as a Joy of Statistics course, Earth Day celebration, chorus groups or a tennis league. Most activities are free for NRC personnel.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Worklife Center organizes learning opportunities for personnel at NOAA's Silver Springs headquarters and remote offices. Departments can request sessions on résumé writing and business development, and the center's staff organizes distance training courses for other locations on software and job skills. NOAA also has a popular brown bag library series, which brings in scientists and industry professionals.

Other agencies offer classes that aren't directly work-related as part of health and wellness initiatives. The Securities and Exchange Commission has seminars on bike maintenance and nutrition, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention host first aid and CPR training sessions. Both the State Department and General Services Administration have offered lunchtime cooking classes to teach employees how to make nutritious meals at home.

Federal Executive Boards organize enrichment programs for employees outside the Washington region. For example, the San Francisco FEB holds financial education classes, personal safety and bicycle commuting workshops, and organizes cultural programs and exhibits to accompany heritage month celebrations.

Personal enrichment is an area where the private sector excels, particularly given corporate social responsibility commitments and comprehensive employee benefits packages. Bingham McCutchen, a law practice with nearly 2,300 employees nationwide, offers a wide range of continuing education programs for associates and staff. A Law 101 series provides nonlegal employees with a basic overview of the firm's practice areas, and senior leadership has designed a core curriculum for firm managers to meet and share best practices.

Community engagement is an integral part of Bingham's corporate culture. The company organizes firmwide and city-specific volunteer programs such as the Backpack Project, in which employees donate and stuff backpacks with school supplies for local students. In New York, Say Yes to Education sends associates to tutor in Harlem Schools. Many initiatives are employee-driven, such as the Volunteer Day program, which matches time spent on firmwide community service with hours off for individual volunteer projects. "Employees are often your best resource for ideas and development," said Lynn Carroll, Bingham's chief human resources officer.

Toy company Mattel, like many corporations, gives grants to charities through its foundation, but it also encourages hands-on employee participation in service programs. The Partners in Local Activities for Youth, or PLAYers, program brings underprivileged kids to company sites to play for a day, appoints employees as Secret Santas, and sends teams to assist at Special Olympics worldwide.

Giving back has long been a priority for federal agencies, and Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry in particular has encouraged governmentwide participation in a variety of community service initiatives, including the Combined Federal Campaign, an annual effort that was initiated by former President John F. Kennedy and pools charitable donations. Federal employees also have been involved in United We Serve, President Obama's nationwide call for community service projects to support Recovery Act programs. The Feds Feed Families canned food drive over the summer was one such initiative. And federal employees can work as volunteer tutors for Presidential Classroom, a program that brings students to Washington to learn about government service.

In addition to these broad volunteer programs, some agencies have tailored initiatives for their workers. The Housing and Urban Development Department allows employees to tutor at nearby schools during work hours. And the Education Department allots employees four hours of volunteer time per pay period.

Such programs might take employees away from their work temporarily, but the idea is they will come back refreshed and better able to contribute to their agency's mission.

"People want to be able to know they can focus on their job and do it well but have some semblance of work-life balance," McManus said.

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