Bell Atlantic Honors First Graduating Class of Innovative Higher Education Training Program

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TROY, N.Y. - Ninety-two Bell Atlantic union-represented employees in New York, the first graduates of a precedent-setting higher education and training program that provides the latest skills in customer care and communications technology, were honored today at a ceremony at Hudson Valley Community College.

The graduates of the program, Next Step, have earned two-year associate degrees in applied science with a focus on telecommunications technology from Hudson Valley and five other community and technical colleges in the state. In addition, the graduates were promoted to telecommunications technical associate, the highest paid craft job in the company.

"I dropped out of school 35 years ago, and I saw this program as a golden opportunity I couldn't pass up," said John Kelly, a Next Step graduate who attended Queensborough Community College. "Knowing that Ivan Seidenberg [Bell Atlantic's chairman and chief executive officer] began as a technician and got his degree by going to school at night gave me the added incentive to stick with the program."

Next Step prepares students to solve customer problems and provide outstanding service. The program emphasizes teamwork, leadership, critical thinking and customer focus. It is administered jointly by Bell Atlantic and two unions, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"In the Information Age, the key to success lies as much in the skills, dedication and problem-solving abilities of employees as it does in management making the right investments and strategic choices," said Donald J. Sacco, executive vice president of Human Resources for Bell Atlantic, at the ceremony.

"These experienced, committed, capable technicians will walk out of college and back into our garages and central offices. They're smart. They're good. They're driven to excel," he said.

Barbara J. Easterling, secretary-treasurer of the CWA, also spoke at the ceremony.

"Education and the concept of lifelong learning can literally change lives, and the Next Step program is doing just that," she said. "This visionary program represents the collective bargaining system at its finest. It is a win-win situation for both American workers and American corporations. The end result is better-educated and more productive workers who are uniquely equipped to meet the challenges of an intensely competitive marketplace where change is the one constant."

Next Step was established as a result of the 1994 collective bargaining agreement between the unions and NYNEX, which subsequently merged with Bell Atlantic. The program, which began operating in New York and New England in 1995, was the first of its kind in the country.

Robert Reich, then U.S. Secretary of Labor, praised Next Step for breaking ground and serving as a model for labor and high-tech companies throughout the country. Last July, Vice President Al Gore cited the program as a successful effort to promote lifelong learning for employees.

Next Step students attend class at the colleges one day a week - on company time - for four years. In addition, the students are required to complete 15 to 20 hours of homework each week on their own time.

Each student is assigned a laptop computer that is used in the classroom for courses in mathematics and electronics and for E-mail, enabling the students to communicate with one another and their instructors. The students also take courses in English, physics and telecommunications.

Bell Atlantic pays all costs for the program, including tuition, books and the computers. Each college in the program has a coordinator who works closely with Bell Atlantic and the unions to ensure that the program runs smoothly.

Because of the heavy workload, the Next Step students must carefully balance the demands of the program and their jobs with the time they spend with their friends and families. Many of the graduates had not been in a classroom for more than 20 years, and they had to relearn many of the skills - such as how to study and take notes - that younger students tend to take for granted.

Currently, 1,600 Bell Atlantic employees are enrolled in Next Step at 25 community and technical colleges throughout New York and New England. To qualify for the program, students must meet several criteria, including passing an aptitude test that measures skills in reading, writing, numerical reasoning and elementary algebra.

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