Thursday October 11, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A revamped business management program designed according to state competencies at Southwest Vermont Career Development Center had its first group of students earn nationally recognized customer service certifications last week.

Instructor Billy Obenauer took over the business management program in January when it was under internal review. With federal funds, Obenauer was able to evaluate the program already in place and improve on it with revised curriculum.

"I attempted to follow the state competencies through programs that were laid out by recognized industry training partners or organizations that would offer some sort of college credit," Obenauer said.

A new focus on the curriculum has students work toward earning national certifications. The first of those certifications students in Obenauer’s first-year class were tested on was customer service through the National Retail Federation Foundation, which all seven students passed.

To receive the certification, students take an online exam testing their ability to ask thought-provoking questions, assess customer needs, and handle stressful situations, among several other skills.

Students in Obenauer’s class to receive the NRF customer service certification are Courtney Jones, Jason Lofaro, Michelle Case, Bailey O’Neill, Kyle Fletcher, Kayla Duval, and Brinkley Legacy.

"When I took over this program, kids were doing some great things, but they had no way to substantiate their accomplishments to prospective employers," Obenauer said. "Through new curriculum and certification opportunities, we have not only found a way to raise the bar for our program, but to also give our students an advantage when applying for both jobs and college acceptance."

With the CDC now being set up as a designated testing center for NRF, American Hotel and Lodging Association, and Certiport (the administrator of Microsoft Office Specialist exams), students in the business management program can earn about a half-dozen certifications in the two-year program.

In addition to customer service, students are eligible to earn a NRF certification in sales and retail management. Students will also be prepared to become certified in hospitality, sales and marketing through the AHLA -- which is also accepted as three college credits through the American Council on Education, and certifications in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which can be used as one college credit each.

The NRF certifications are not accepted as college credits, but Obenauer said he is in discussions with a college that incorporates NRF standards about giving students credits. Even without college credit, Obenauer said the certifications are valuable additions to a resume.

"You can’t overlook how it looks on a resume ... when you actually have nationally recognized certifications that required you to pass examinations, that tells an employer there is substance behind what you are telling them," Obenauer said.

By passing the test, which Obenauer said the average person who has not been through the program would be unlikely to do, it also ensures that the students are prepared to work in retail.

"Customer service is a dying art. Everybody thinks they’re great at it, but the customer service you see out in the field today isn’t the customer service you saw decades ago," Obenauer said. "Prior to teaching, I was a business manager where I had several tasks taking over different retail operations that were failing, and customer service was, honestly, always the basis for what turned them around."

NRF statistics say 20 percent of jobs in the country are in the field of retail, "so being aligned with NRF curriculum can only be to the students’ benefit," Obenauer said.

In addition to the business management program, Obenauer is attempting to offer an adult education class designed to allow adults to earn the same certifications. The first attempt to offer the course this fall did not draw enough interest to run.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi.