Bringing Training Out of the Dark Ages

Manufacturers are always looking for different ways to pass on practical experience within an organization. Revamped training methodologies may be the key to bridging the gap between the retiring, skilled employees and the new hires.

Matt Ruth, president, Avanceon
Matt Ruth, president, Avanceon

Compared with the luxuries of our current age, Medieval Europe doesn’t seem very enticing. But despite rampant disease and famine, the craftsmen of the Middle Ages were able to pass on the skills and knowledge that were vital to their survival and ensured that a steady stream of skilled artisans made it through apprenticeships. The word apprentice literally means “someone learning,” and a Medieval apprentice acquired both hands-on techniques and mental habits from years of training from a master.

No one wants to go back in time to gullies and ditches.  And hopefully we’ve seen the last of the Bubonic Plague. But today we’re facing new challenges that can make hiring and training difficult, like the need to bridge the skills gaps created by retiring Boomers and the lack of vehicles for practical experience for Millennials, the fast and changing pace of new technology, and the financial and time constraints on manufacturers. We’re also seeing the need for a new class of technical worker, whose skill set is neither firmly “white” or “blue” collar, but somewhere in the middle. Finding “New Collar” hires with a wide set of “middle technical” abilities is another challenge vexing manufacturers.

Recruiting a capable hire can be difficult enough, and when manufacturers find the right person, they also risk losing that individual if they lack proper training and support. In many factories, the best person to train and mentor a new hire is the person who previously held the job. Unfortunately, that person is either at a new position or basking in their retirement. So, how can manufacturers ensure knowledge effectively transferred and that it stimulates (not frustrates) new recruits?

The best training would not only include all essential knowledge and execution methodology, but the people skills that would make your new hire a great fit for your organization. Thinking beyond the traditional training methods can provide a solution that’s faster than the decades-long Medieval method. Best Practices in training include delivering a mix of classroom and experiential environments that includes shadowing or having an instructor educate a trainee while said trainee performs what will be their typical job duties.

Additional team leadership can also be addressed by an instructor working with a team as they execute a particular project, having the instructor acting as a mentor and to illustrate proper leadership and communication skills. Students can be embedded in a project outside their organization as well, taking on a specific role and learning proper project execution through immersion.

The key is focusing on the person, or team, being developed. As such, individualized development planning is a strategy that can be used to meet a staff member—newly hired or an experienced employee—where they are, assess what gaps may hinder their progress, and develop a plan for addressing them. All of this should be supported with weekly mentorship time that’s focused on the short (current roadblocks and challenges), medium (approach and plan for upcoming work), and long-term (observance and reinforcement of training concepts put into real use) goals.

In order to keep track of it all, a learning management system is recommended to house and provide access to training as well as work instructions, standard operating procedures, and other relevant documentation that can be accessed from anywhere, whether it be at their desk, on their mobile device or on the plant floor human-machine interface.

Training shouldn’t be a burden for either the hire or the manufacturer. Rather, the best training brings out a new hire’s potential and sets up a positive long-term relationship between the company and its newest employees. Efficient training also ensures that processes keep functioning effectively while the trainee learns both the technical and people skills they’ll need to succeed.

If the guilds of the Middle Ages did it while fighting the Hundred Years’ War, so can you!

Matt Ruth is president at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). See Avanceon's profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.