Lean and Mean: Training in Tight Times
Common wisdom has it that when times are tight you pull in and cut expenses. Forgo new purchases, avoid discretionary spending, and, most of all, do more with less. But common wisdom can be wrong. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, a down economy is a great time to invest in training. In fact, say the experts, you avoid it at your peril.
If the 1990s were the years of global abundance, the 2010s will likely go down as the age of scarcity, which means there’s no doubt that trimming waste, tightening budgets, and identifying efficiencies is the order of the day. But if the implication stands that all cycles turn, you don’t want to be stumbling around, holding on by your fingernails in this recessionary mess when you could be developing strategies to make your employees more productive and your organization more competitive, and in the process build skills and acquire experience you’ll need when the economy swings upward again.
Human resource experts caution employers that tough times have more than monetary impacts. In a down economy workers, even those in apparently secure jobs, are likely to become distracted and anxious about losing that job, not to mention the short list of alternatives available to them and the limitations of government fallback programs. A distracted worker is likely to make mistakes, have trouble concentrating, and have—or cause—accidents, any of which can cost you in inconvenience and money that would be better spent on prevention.
On the other hand, research shows (as common sense would suggest) that employees who are learning and growing (as the HR people put it) have a positive attitude, do their jobs better, and are far more of an asset to their organizations. Plus the knowledge that you and your staff have functioned effectively in a downturn empowers you (HR words, not mine) to take advantage of opportunities when the economy turns around. Sound like pie in the sky? Maybe, but do you want to risk it?
In times like these, says Ladd Nelson at Carlson Software, employers can be faced with no-win situations, such as letting go of a gung-ho employee because there isn’t enough work and passing what’s left of what he or she did to a less-qualified subordinate…or, even less enchanting, dumbing-down what the gung-ho guy does. Either way, people will have to absorb new responsibilities and skills. And that means? You guessed it: training.
“I have clients,” says Ladd, “who understand that even though budgets are tight and there’s not a lot of money, if they want their staff or their crews to be productive, they need to get them in tune with what they can do and arm them with the knowledge and skills they need to do it. While $2,000 a day may seem like a lot when you’re not sure where your next dollar is coming from, it’s not if you think of it as investing $250 in each of your employees, so they’re ready to hit the road running when the economy regains momentum.”
Jennifer DiBona, owner of That CAD Girl, who offers custom training as part of her practice and is also a member of Carlson College, says she sees considerable downsizing at her end of the business, what she describes as a shift from very large companies to small jacks-of-all-trades. Likewise, principals in contracting companies are being forced to do jobs “they haven’t done in 20 years, or maybe not at all.” Which means starting from the beginning or at the least, re-training.
If you’re with me so far, read on for some hints about how to proceed.
1.) Remember, training is a process. Which means it’s ongoing, which means that after training comes trouble-shooting, which means having someone onboard who knows the program or system or whatever, so you don’t have to spend big money on outside experts. Which is how Neil Bergstedt, senior engineering technician in the St. Louis County Bridge Department, handled it. Bergstedt had spent the last two years as head of the CAD department. There’s money now for bridges because of recent infrastructure failures (but not so much for roads, so you know where the money for bridges is coming for), so when he was faced with getting his crew up to speed on new design software, he took the leap and invested in a two-day product-sponsored seminar, and in the process made himself the in-house expert.
“I wanted to give our group a solid introduction to the new system,” he says, “but I’ve made it my business to learn as much as I can so I can teach it myself. Now when we have new people coming in, I’ll train them to the best that I can, then I’ll have an expert come in for advanced questions.”
Bergstedt, who oversees designers in three different locations, pressed the county to develop a system of remote access whereby he can plug into employees’ computers and individually walk them through problems. “In a tight economy, what it comes down to is whether you want to kick people out or train them to be better.”
The key to investing in this kind of onsite training, says DiBona, is acknowledging what you’ve got. “If you have a very wide gap between people, you need to split it up. Otherwise you’re going to have 50% for whom the training will be over their heads and 50% for whom it’s below their level. And nobody’s going to get what they need. I’ve had cases where an organization has people who’ve never touched Autocad and others who are really well advanced, and they want me to skip the introduction to Autocad and go strait to Carlson. When this happens, I’ve refused to do the training because it won’t be effective. For people learning something for the first time, it just doesn’t stick if you expose them to eight hours of training at one time.”
2.) Take a look in-house. There are different types of training: skills training to minimize time spent answering questions and mistakes and redos, and compliance and safety training to minimize your liability and employee development. If you do a little poking around, you might be surprised to find you’ve got people onboard who could be tapped for at least one of the three. Although topic expertise doesn’t necessarily translate into training expertise, experience suggests that formal training doesn’t have to be the goal, that employees can transfer information between each other informally via peer mentoring, coaching, and brown-bag sessions.
Knife River Corp. uses a peer-to-peer program for operator training. There’s nothing better, says Director of Learning Services Dan Abbott—nothing better, more credible or effective. “It goes back to the old Chinese adage: Catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a person how to fish and they can do it for themselves. When the operators hear what we have to tell them from someone of their own tribe, they latch onto it easier. And the bonus is that in the process of training others, the instructor-operators become better operators, thereby making the whole group more effective.”
In the city of Kitchener, ON, vehicle and equipment training specialist Jerry Rade has had success with an experimental program that partners employee trainees with in-house mentors. Rade makes the city’s heavy-equipment simulator available to employees who want to learn on their own time. Once they’ve made it through the simulator benchmarks, they’re assigned a mentor who puts them through their paces on the equipment. Then, once Rade’s satisfied they’re up to speed, they’re eligible for fill-in work for the city at its heavy-equipment operator rate. (Don’t think that doesn’t make for a satisfied employee.)
“The program has broadened the number of employees we can draw from on certain tasks,” says Rade. “If we need someone to run a backhoe and everyone else is busy and it’s a fairly easy task, we can assign one of the trainees, and he can continue to build his skills. Then when one of our heavy-equipment operators retires, we’ve got someone already ready, willing, and able to take their job. We know what we’re getting, because we know they’re been properly trained in everything from machine operation to safety.”
Like Abbot, Rade says the program has increased skills among the instructor-mentors. “We tell them to make sure all their I’s are dotted and their T’s crossed, because people will be watching them. The job has to be textbook perfect.” But he cautions that operator trainer or mentor programs should be based on an established curriculum. “When you’re doing this, your operator trainers are bound to run into some issues, and you have to be prepared to do some development with them. Especially because when people are first getting into this kind of thing, they want to teach absolutely everything, which would take forever. So our rule is: If it isn’t going to kill you, you don’t have to know it. That’s basic; then the instructors add the gravy.”
3.) Not everyone learns the same way. So don’t go spending a lot of money on face-to-face onsite training if you’ve got a bunch of people who learn better in a quiet corner with packaged information (like safety training from Vista Training, now becoming available online) or from a no-cost webinar. “It depends on the topic and it depends on the people,” says Bergstedt. “Group training is rough because people learn at different rates.” Like DiBona, he recommends training in smaller groups with people who have similar capabilities. “We’ve made good use of the manufacturer’s library of prerecorded webinars. The best thing is they’re recorded, but the key is you have to follow along—you can’t just watch it. You need to follow what’s being presented and go back if you don’t understand it. That seems to work pretty well for a couple of our employees, me included. On the other hand, with face-to-face training it’s easier to ask questions.”
Whenever possible, DiBona prefers to train online, no more than two people at a time with both of them using the same computer and following along as the lesson proceeds. The session is recorded, so students have easy access to the information they’ve covered. “Although some people like to take notes they can refer to, I tell them not to do that during training; go back and look at it a second time, and take your notes off of that. When I do face-to-face training, we always record it, but you have to index the video, take decent notes about what’s covered in each session and the time we covered it.”
Bergstedt says he’s doesn’t like training to be too formal. “I prefer not to have too many boring handouts and follow-along type of things. I’d rather record the session. I also like to show them in person in their own working environment, using some of the projects they’re working on that they can fall back on when they’re actually doing the job.” (This is an idea that coincides neatly with another principle of good training—schedule what you’re teaching as close as possible to when employees will have a crack at implementing what they’ve learned.)
4.) Adults learn differently than kids or teenagers. Adults have to see a reason for learning something new—personal advancement, escape, stimulation (all of which Rade cites as motivations in Kitchener’s heavy-equipment operator mentor program), and unlike children and teenagers, adult learners have responsibilities that must be balanced against the need to train, lack of time (lunch is good for live programs, says DiBona—record it and put it in the company intranet), access and scheduling problems (another reason for customized online training), and lack of confidence or interest (good enough reason for in-house trainers or mentors.)
So the moral of the story is: Right now, when you’re short on jobs and long on time, it’s a good time to take a good, serious look at your operation, how well it’s working, and what you can do to make it better. Have your priorities changed with the economy? Select the top three and get to work implementing strategies to accomplish what you need to in the short term while keeping your eye on the future. And put training at the top of the list.
Penelope Grenoble writes on issues concerning waste operations, equipment, and technology.