5 easier ways to stay on top of continuing education

education class

Continuing education is crucial for directors and their staff alike, but it also can be daunting. How do you know what makes sense for your team; and even then, how do you actually make it happen? FoodService Director asked operators how they keep themselves and their staff on the path to career-long learning.

1. Think beyond requirements

Keeping up with certifications in nutrition and food safety are a given. But what are you doing above and beyond that? “I encourage my folks to pursue items that I would call indirect or supplemental, but [are] not actually in their job description,” says Dawn Aubrey, associate director of housing for dining at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Some examples include inclusivity and diversity training, or American Sign Language, Spanish or Cantonese language training to improve communication with students. “University of Illinois has the most international students of any public university in the U.S., so to me, that’s a necessity,” Aubrey says. Areas of possible development are identified at annual review time and touched on throughout the year.

2. Bring opportunities inside your operation

Multiday conferences and out-of-town workshops are great opportunities, but they’re not always geographically or financially feasible. “We live in a very rural community … so those kinds of education opportunities aren’t as frequent. We have to be kind of innovative,” says Shey Schnell, director of food and nutrition services for The University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital. “We’ll work with vendors and say, ‘Hey, while you’re here, can you do a class for us?’”

Webinars also are a convenient, bite-size way to address specific topics, such as how to have critical conversations, with a modest time commitment, Schnell says. “Whether it’s in our department meetings or daily stand-ups, we try to make people aware that these opportunities are available, and if you have interest, [to] let one of your supervisors know,” he says.

3. Provide tangible support

Even with interest and good intentions, it can be hard to follow through with continuing education without the resources to support it. That support can come in the form of time or money—or both. At U of I, Aubrey’s department offers up to $1,000 in funding per year for continuing education on or off campus. U of I classes are free for employees, so in that case funding goes toward books or other classroom materials. During Aubrey’s nine and a half years in the position, 53 staff members have taken advantage of the opportunity, she says.

4. Keep an open mind

When deciding what continuing education to approve, Aubrey considers whether it matches up with the department’s core competencies and overall mission. Sometimes an opportunity that might seem off-topic could provide value, such as the time one of Aubrey’s employees applied to take a prop building and special effects class. “I struggled with it, [but] I said, ‘Dawn, you need to be a little more open-minded,’” Aubrey  says. “[The worker] said, ‘For special events, we’ll know how it works, and we can do it more cheaply.’ We ended up using their expertise and making the most awesome haunted house you’ve ever seen in your life.”

5. Lead by example

Creating a culture of learning is key, and practicing what you preach is the best way to do so. “I think the staff recognizes me as, ‘Shey loves education,’” says Schnell, who is pursuing a master’s degree in healthcare administration. “I fully believe in lifelong learning.” Aubrey is interested in researching food anthropology, the origins of food and its connections to culture and identity, especially with Gen Z in mind.  “If I didn’t have my day job, I’d launch into this and spend all my time,” she says. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity.” 

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