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Edge Manufacturing employees, from left, Andrew Hannie, Luke Laskowski, Tim Baumgartner and Bob Heimann sit in on a financial management class.

Learning beyond the job

Bluffton company’s classes cover life skills

Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Jason Brooks, sales and marketing manager for Edge Manufacturing in Bluffton, explains the steps to a financial program he is teaching to the employees of Edge to help them manage their finances.

Spencer Harris is young and single.

A lot of guys might use that status as an excuse to live for today and let tomorrow be darned. But they aren’t Harris.

The 27-year-old Bluffton man recently signed up for a personal finance course being offered free by his employer, Edge Manufacturing Inc.

“Anything that’s going to help me better my finances or better my life, I’m all about jumping on the opportunity,” Harris said of the class.

Handling money is the topic of one in a series of classes being offered to employees by the Bluffton manufacturer, which sells sturdy plastic and metal baskets to customers in diverse industries. Edge’s owner and managers say they have a responsibility to help people succeed.

Doug Wood, PNC’s northern Indiana regional president, has met with numerous business leaders over the years, both here and in the Chicago area.

It’s uncommon – though not unheard of – for managers to see the workplace as a mission field, the banker said.

“I certainly commend them for doing it,” Wood said of Edge’s leaders.

Gentle guidance

A second class Edge offers teaches workers how to draft a résumé, dress appropriately and answer interview questions, said Jason Brooks, Edge’s sales and marketing manager. Company officials realize most employees will move on to other jobs eventually.

“It’s teaching them to fish, not just giving them a fish,” Brooks said, invoking the adage about enabling a man to feed himself for a lifetime instead of feeding him for just one day.

The third class in the works focuses on choosing friends who are positive influences and spotting red flags that signal a situation is headed in a dangerous direction.

“It’s sort of a how-not-to-be-a-knucklehead class,” Brooks said, adding that it’s also sometimes called a lifestyle class.

Brooks has met a few folks who needed red-flag reminders. He’s taught finance and other courses to inmates and people on parole. That’s why he includes tips on how to find a job if you’re a convicted felon.

“These are issues that most people don’t have to face,” he said.

But some Edge workers do face it. The company doesn’t keep an official count of the number of employees who are on probation or parole, but Brooks put the number at five or six of 35.

Managers feel called to seek out job hunters who’ve had run-ins with the law, he said. But the workers aren’t considered a source of cheap labor. The company surveys similar employers to make sure its wages are competitive and recently raised them in response to its findings.

And although it could, Edge doesn’t participate in any government programs that help subsidize the wages of parolees.

Dennis Houlihan of Houlihan Asset Management LLC said financial incentives motivate some cost-conscious employers to hire parolees.

But not every company wants to count on ex-cons. Small, family-owned businesses have a better chance of successfully connecting with workers than a larger, more impersonal workplace, he said.

“Obviously, it’s a hit-and-miss kind of program,” Houlihan said. “You hope there are more hits than misses.”

Atheists welcome

Harris isn’t one of those second-chance workers, but the Edge laborer appreciates his employer’s efforts to hire people down on their luck.

“Our company is based on helping people,” Harris said. “It’s a Christian company. There are people here who’ve gotten a chance that wouldn’t have gotten a chance anywhere else.”

Although Christian principles guide Edge’s leaders, they don’t use workers as a captive audience for witnessing.

“We don’t try to proselytize or convert anybody,” Brooks said. That includes during class time.

Brooks, who teaches the finance course, uses materials from Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. The organization’s motto is: A biblically based curriculum that teaches people how to handle money God’s ways.

Some employees have expressed interest in the class but weren’t sure they’d be welcome because they aren’t religious. Brooks said he’s happy to have them participate if they’re willing to take the useful information and look past anything they don’t believe in.

In fact, Brooks appreciates when people open up to him about their faith – even if it’s a lack of faith they’re professing.

It means they trust him.

Classes take place immediately after work once a week for eight weeks. In addition, a few local experts are scheduled to come in and talk to workers during lunch breaks. Brooks plans to spend the first half hour teaching and the second half hour fielding questions.

“We don’t want anybody leaving, scratching their head and saying, ‘What just happened?’ ” he said.

‘That’s scary’

Amy Betancourt is one of a dozen workers who have formally registered for the personal finance course. The administrative assistant has worked at Edge for three years.

She isn’t overwhelmed by financial challenges but figures anyone can learn from a personal finance course.

“Of course, I’ve got bills. Everyone does,” she said. “It’s not often that something like this comes along, with somebody saying, ‘Here, let me help you out for free.’ ”

The course is free for workers, but Brooks estimated that Edge is paying $250 each for materials and the licensing fee.

Betancourt, a 40-year-old married mother of five, has two kids in college and three more at home. After a period as a stay-at-home mother, Betancourt went back to work part time for several years. That’s affected how much she’s been able to save.

“My retirement is very small, and that’s scary,” she said. “If I could find a way to make it grow faster, that would be fabulous.”

Edge’s management isn’t offering the classes as a way to boost business, Brooks said. But the company reaps the benefits when workers aren’t living paycheck-to-paycheck. Crushing debt leads to stress, and that hurts employee morale, he said.

Those who master money management also bring those skills to the job, Brooks said.

“We have a firm belief that if an employee is dutiful with personal assets,” he said, “they’ll be more careful with the company’s resources.”

sslater@jg.net

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