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How a Boise State Program Helped Transform the Idaho Youth Ranch

Last spring, the Idaho Youth Ranch approached Boise State University’s organizational performance and workplace learning program with a problem: how to streamline volunteer and new-hire employee on-boarding so that they can confidently fulfill their duties in a consistent manner that provides troubled youth with a path to a valued, responsible and productive future.

“The majority of the current training materials are either outdated or ineffective. We had to take a step back and prioritize where to focus,” explained Teresa Uhlenkott, director of training and employee development at the youth ranch. “We wanted to zone in on new hire training for our programs staff, but it was a daunting task considering the limited amount of resources to help create effective content.”

As part of their education, students in organizational performance and workplace learning, an online master’s program housed within the College of Engineering, have long worked with companies on tackling specific organizational hurdles.

These practitioners focus on how to create clarity and efficiency for an organization’s employees. This includes creating efficient training and development programs, ensuring that training produces valued behavior change in the workplace, sustainably growing organizations and more.

“We understand that a degree alone may not be enough to land your first job in the field or maintain your professional currency once you’re there,” explained Steve Villachica, an associate professor in the program. “Internships provide ‘street cred’ and experience. They offer a safe space for current students and graduates to stretch their skills. They are also a place where our students, graduates and program can give back to the community in ways that matter.”

“Without good or proper training, IYR employees and volunteers alike suffer. Turnover ratios are high within certain positions,” Uhlenkott said. “When employees and volunteers get the proper training up front, it sets them up for success at their jobs. We want to set them up for success at the very beginning.”

“Companies operate off job descriptions, which should describe the performances they want. We wanted to deliver a success story, so we worked with Idaho Youth Ranch to craft accurate descriptions that we could use to announce internship opportunities and have potential interns apply to Idaho Youth Ranch,” explained Villachica. “We posted three different job descriptions on our website to see who would reply. We also set up an online form that helped Idaho Youth Ranch screen applicants and tailor interviews to both the client and applicants’ needs.”

“Our goal was to get instructional design students and graduates who wanted real-world experience. We wanted people with the talent and knowledge to help us design something useful,” Uhlenkott said. “And we wanted to work with people who wanted to work with the Idaho Youth Ranch.”

In short time, the youth ranch received so many responses from across the nation that they shut down the announcement.

“It’s important to appeal to interns as well,” Villachica explained. “They wanted assurances that they’d have someone helping them and an organization who valued their efforts. If they did good work, they could get a good client recommendation.”

In the end, the Idaho Youth Ranch accepted 14 interns for their pilot program, eight of whom were students enrolled in Boise State’s organizational performance and workplace learning program. Program alumnae Janet Emery and Karen Baerlocher also agreed to help Uhlenkott mentor the Boise State students as they worked with the Idaho Youth Ranch. The interns created new hire training modules, ranging from introducing the company to behavior management to specific skill sets like conducting a drug and urinalysis test. Ultimately, the designers created a variety of materials, including self-paced interactive presentations, facilitator and participant guides, and a myriad of job aids (checklists, information sheets and directions). The organizational performance and workplace learning team spanned the country.

Map showing where OWPL students are located
OWPL graduate students are spread across the U.S. but still able to create change in Boise.

“As a mentor, I had the opportunity to discuss these things with the interns, to help them understand what an employer’s expectations might be when building and executing the projects,” said Emery, who has worked as an instructional design consultant for years.

“What was really great was the Idaho Youth Ranch’s willingness to support our students, many of whom don’t live in Boise,” Villachica said. “Idaho Youth Ranch was comfortable working with virtual project teams. They were willing to prototype with us.”

The team decided to break their instructional design effort into phases. They began by examining the Idaho Youth Ranch’s youth specialist position – people who work directly in the organization’s two residential centers in the state supervising the youths’ daily living schedule and carrying out individualized learning in accordance to a given service plan. Prior to bringing the organizational performance and workplace learning team into the project, the Idaho Youth Ranch training team conducted several focus groups with staff to determine the required topics a new youth specialist would need for their initial training. Those topics were then grouped into modules that the students were assigned to.

The team used the current policy and procedures and worked with subject matter experts within the company to determine what a new hire would need to know and do in each of these areas. The team created storyboards showing the needs of the position and how they might be met. The storyboards were then reviewed by their mentors before moving into in-depth content. Then they created the content of the training modules, which were reviewed and approved by the organization. In the last phase (construction), the team put final design elements to the content they had already created. Idaho Youth Ranch is in the process of piloting various modules to new employees and current staff as the team continues to work on more modules.

“The mentors helped a lot – they mentored our Boise State students while I mentored other volunteer designers outside of the organizational performance and workplace learning program,” Uhlenkott said. “The mentorships were important because we wanted this to be a partnership. We don’t have the bandwidth to put together new hire materials, and we wanted to give these volunteers real-world experience.”

The program was so successful that one intern was hired as a full-time employee. Idaho Youth Ranch now hopes to expand the pilot program to other positions within the organization, using a fresh set of volunteer interns to create additional training offerings.

“This internship project gave real-world experience to students seeking to land a job in this field, while fulfilling a real community need,” said Emery. “It gave them something to show in their portfolio, and a client recommendation, and very importantly, it gave them the mentoring for bridging the gap between what you learned in the classroom, and what you’re going to encounter in the real working world – moving from theory to practice.”

“Ultimately, this would be a five-year project with one person working on that full time. Our organization doesn’t have the resources it would take to continue this in a long, drawn out process. Instead, we leveraged resources from the community – and from Boise State,” Uhlenkott added. “Volunteers who know what they’re doing and who are good at what they do are invaluable. This collaboration ultimately helps us meet our mission, which is serving the youth of Idaho. When we tallied the time that these volunteers spent and calculated its value based on average base salaries for instructional designers in Boise, we found that the organizational performance and workplace learning team had donated some $21,835 in in-kind services.”

As for the program, faculty are hoping to continue their working relationship with Idaho Youth Ranch while actively looking for other nonprofits who are willing to replicate these types of models – and success – with them.

“We’re hoping to find other strategic partners who are equally willing to partner with us in ways that are good for the sponsoring organization, our OPWL students and graduates, and Boise State. This is a space where everybody wins,” Villachica said.