Training Workers

The interviewing, hiring, and training process lays crucial groundwork that sets the tone for sound employee management. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

A simple, yet structured, training program can help keep your business adequately supplied with talented, conscientious employees.

Last month, we identified two key steps to finding and keeping talented, reliable workers: thorough, honest interviewing, followed by a clearly structured training program for new employees.

Being able to offer training to a candidate who may be lacking in one area or another, but who has an overall grasp of the skills needed for the job, allows you to bring people in at a lower wage, rewarding them as they gain experience. (Just don't forget the 'rewarding them' part!)

Moreover, making it clear during a job interview that your company offers training helps a potential hire to relax, allowing you to get the information you need to decide if he or she is really right for your company at the present time.

'But I don't want to hassle with training people,' you say. 'I just want to produce great furniture and cabinets, not run a vocational school.'

Fair enough. But consider this: When you buy a new piece of equipment or a new adhesive or whatever, don't you make sure your employees know how to use it properly? Of course. Well, the fact is that any new employee deserves the same consideration. No two shops do things the same way. If you are not willing to get new hires acclimated to your shop's way of doing things, you will get employees who feel frustrated and spend their free time looking for something better (which often means they spend their time at work thinking about something better, rather than focusing on the task at hand).

Conversely, if you help new hires understand what is expected of them and give them the resources they need to meet your expectations, they will be committed to doing their best and will look for ways of doing things better, instead of looking for a better job.

It may seem like a hassle to put any effort into a training program. After all, you are busy enough dealing with customers, pricing out work and doing any number of things for which there are not enough hours in the day

But training new people does not have to interfere with your busy schedule, nor should it. In fact, the best training programs are carried out not by owners or top managers, but by people already on the shop floor. And these programs wind up teaching lessons not just to the new hires, but to those doing the training as well.

Certainly, those in supervisory roles should take a keen interest in the progress of all employees. But the best supervisors and owners are 'hands off' enough to recognize that too much meddling does more harm than good.

I say harm, because top managers who spend too much time in the shop risk setting a tone that deters even the most determined workers from growing into their roles in the shop. If you have ever worked for someone else (and most of us have), you know what I'm talking about. The entire atmosphere of the shop changes when the owner sets foot on the shop floor. That's O.K., provided you recognize this dynamic and let it steer your actions when you are in the shop.

If you think all this is a lot of hooey, you have obviously never worked in the shop or you have forgotten how intimidating a top manager's presence there can be.

None of which is to suggest that you should exile yourself to the office - not by a long shot. What we're concerned with here is demeanor, its impact on the workforce as a whole and the control of it. Dramatic displays of displeasure with an employee's work on the shop floor not only degrade the employee, they injure the respect other workers have for you. Likewise, consistent, outward demonstration of pride in the work of a few employees over others do damage to employees' hopes of advancement.

'But,' you protest, 'I own the shop! I can do as I please!' True. I just hope you don't mind constantly searching for new employees, because with that attitude, you will be doing plenty of it.

There's no crime in enjoying the benefits of owning a business. The ability to take an afternoon off now and then for a round of golf or a game of tennis is just one example of many pleasures that help balance the long, hard hours so many owners endure.

But if you take pleasure in berating or embarrassing employees who make mistakes (and believe me, they all do), you may well need to hit the golf or tennis ball (in other words, get out of the shop) a little more often. While ranting and raving at an employee may momentarily relieve some stress, the long-term damage it does to your shop's reputation in the local labor pool will produce far more stress for you later when you can't find any help.

There's another option: creating an employee-driven training program which makes excellence the goal, while recognizing that everybody has a learning curve and will make mistakes along the way. The idea is to keep the mistakes to a minimum and correct them when they do occur, not only preserving the trainee's self-esteem but also supporting his retention of the lessons that mistakes invariably teach.

The most successful programs begin with an intense period of training ranging from three days to several weeks, depending on the job's complexity. After the new hire begins to feel at home, the 'apron strings' are severed. However, the program should be structured so that a new employee and the trainer will just naturally continue to communicate with each other regularly.

This is not a new-age approach in any sense. The program is rooted in practicality. So, how do you start?

Assign each new worker to a specific trainer, someone who already works for you and has expertise in the particular area where the new hire will work. Ideally, the trainer is someone who is ready to move up and will be training his replacement.

From the beginning, make it clear that the trainer is the new hire's primary supervisor for the next few days (or weeks) and see to it that this is the case. Let your shop foremen know that any direction given to the new hire should be channeled through the trainer if possible. It may not always be possible, but the more closely this rule is adhered to the better. Few things are as confusing or frustrating to a new employee as having too many bosses.

Once the ground rules are spelled out, let your new team get to work, and you, the owner, must also steer clear. An occasional 'How's it going?' as you pass by the work area is fine. But beyond that, stay out of the way and watch the good things happen. And happen they will.

For one thing, the trainer will retain a certain sense of accountability for the quality of work produced by the new employee. The practice also gives the new hire a resource person who knows the job inside and out, someone he will feel comfortable about approaching with questions any time, whether it is next week, next month or next year.

When you begin training people in this way, you also train yourself. For example, you can expect at some point to be walking through the shop and notice new man Bill fouling up. But avoid the temptation to go over and scream at him. (You didn't want to train people yourself anyway, remember?) Find his trainer, discuss what you saw, and ask him to deal with it, calmly and rationally. This way, you train yourself to delegate, you train your trainer to supervise, and show your new hire the space he needs to grow into his role. More pluses.

At the end of each day or week, sit down with your new employee/trainer team for five minutes to evaluate the new worker's progress. Do this maybe two or three times (more, if necessary, depending on the demands of the job). Use these meetings not to bash the new hire's shortcomings, but to identify areas where he is doing well and to pinpoint those in which he needs to get better. Then, encourage both the new hire and trainer to pay particular attention to those areas.

There are a few big keys to making this training system work. One, you must be clear from the start that it is up to the new hire to seek out his trainer when there are questions. Two, the trainer must be required to check in with his 'pupil' a couple of times a week after those 'apron strings' of the intensive training period have been severed.

Another big point is difficult to overstate. The new hire must understand that mistakes are only acceptable if they are learning experiences, but that making the same errors again and again is not acceptable.

Finally, choose a trainer who can work well with other people and knows the job itself backwards and forwards. Even if someone does not strike you as trainer material initially, give him a chance. Sometimes the best leaders just need to know they are trusted in order to really shine.

Take this simple, yet structured, approach to training your employees and you will reap many rewards. Perhaps best is the feeling it generates among your workers - that yours is a shop which recognizes that we are all human, that we make mistakes and where employees are expected to learn, grow and produce excellent work.

One of the toughest things about running a business is accepting that mistakes come with the territory. But by giving new employees the room they need early in their tenure you will be repaid handsomely with a highly skilled workforce and a steady stream of people who are eager to work for you. And what would you rather be choosing from, the cream of the crop or what's left of the rest?

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

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This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.