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Got Skill? What's A Company To Do? (PART 2 of 3)

Part two of a three-part series by Colleen DeJong. It's tough enough to find employees with skill, much less keep them. Can you train, and retain the kind of skill you need to get the job done—without losing them to the higher-paying competition down the street? Sure, but they have to be open minded, creative, and well aware of what they already have around them...

As far as anyone knows, components still aren't making themselves, and finding the people capable of doing the job these days isn't easy. For sub-tier companies, the struggle is amplified by the fact that it's hard to keep up with the big guys in terms of benefits and wages, much less the resources and time to train new hires and upgrade "old timers."

But believe it or not, there are ways to find, train, and keep skilled employees, even without the billion-dollar resources of the big players.

Something Useful

There are a plethora of multi-media training programs out there, and one of the best I found was the MasterTask multi-media training system fromMasterTask Training (Rockford, IL). The program uses a combination of video lessons and CD-ROM-generated interactive simulations to teach the basic principles of various machines and quality programs.

Now, this is no glitzy Hollywood production, but it is logical, easy to follow, well thought-out and—most importantly—I learned from it.

The family of MasterTask programs includes 15 courses that range from operator training for the new guy, and vocational education programs for experienced operators who need to upgrade skills. Course topics range from CNC machining to geometric tolerancing and dimensioning to implementing an SPC program. The company will even work with you to engineer a course of programs tailored to your company's specific needs.

Be the School

The most obvious solution for this dilemma is for a company to be its own school and institute a training program. A formal, organized training program with a curriculum, not a "walk-by-the-new-guy-and-say-something" training program. This isn't as costly as it sounds. "The biggest investment you make is one of time," says Ed Castile, director of Alabama Industrial Development Training. "Money isn't really at issue because you should be able to use resources you already pay for." What resources? Floor managers, senior staff, etc.

According to Castile, there are six basic steps necessary to start a training program:

1. Analysis: Look at each job from start to finish, breaking it down as minutely as possible. And don't just look at the steps involved in completing a particular process. Make sure to look at what impacts the job as well (safety regulations, processes done before and after the one being analyzed, customer requirements, etc.).

* Pitfall Alert!: It's easy to forget the trainee knows NOTHING. Don't leave out any steps, no matter how natural they seem!

2. Objectives: Now that you know what each job entails, determine what the trainee should know and when. Are outside resources necessary to help teach the trainee (video training programs, certified instructors, etc.)?

* Pitfall Alert!: If you're going to use experts within your own company, don't forget to train them to train!

3. Develop a plan: Based on what was learned in steps one and two, set up an instruction plan. This seems like a "do-as-you-go" task, but hold off until steps one and two are completed. It makes it easier to divide training sessions into digestible chunks. As the plan is set up, make sure to include definite time lines—both for when trainees will be learning (on the job, after hours, etc.) and how long it should take to catch on.

* Pitfall Alert!: Keep things SIMPLE. If a particular operation is complicated, perhaps that's the only thing the trainee needs to learn that day.

4. Measurement: Now that the lesson plan is done, there needs to be a way to measure its effectiveness. Is testing the trainee at regular intervals enough, or is there more to gage?

5. Start Training: Now that the ready and aim are done, fire!

6. How're you doing?: Once the training program is in full swing, look at what's going on. What's working and what's not? Fine tune the process as it progresses. Get input from both trainers and trainees.

* Pitfall Alert!: Instituting a training program is a long-term commitment that requires constant monitoring and adjustment to work properly. Don't set up a program, print a manual and assume you're finished!

Here's the biggest "Pitfall Alert" of all. Don't cop the attitude that all you're doing is training people to go out and find a "better" job. Perhaps some will do that, but more won't. Consider incorporating company history and philosophy into the program so trainees understand where the company came from and where it's going. Also, sit down with each trainee and map out the company's goals, as well as his/her own. That way, there's clear understanding of how to achieve everyone's final aim.

Perhaps the next evolution to the internal training program just described is an apprenticeship/mentorship program. Take machine tool builder Hydromat, Inc. (St. Louis, MO), for example. Twenty years ago, the company set up an apprentice program based upon the European apprenticeship model.

The four-year program involves bringing in high-school aged apprentices to learn the ways and means of metalworking. Upon graduation, the students have accumulated 8,000 hours of hands-on training and almost 600 hours of related classroom-type training. Final cost per apprentice—salary aside—is about $20,000. It seems like a hefty sum until you consider that it costs at least that much to get a new hire with no experience up to speed.

According to Bruno Schmitter, Hydromat president and CEO, less than 2% of Hydromat's apprentices leave the company. "Through their training," Schmitter says, "the apprentices are exposed to virtually all aspects of company operations—from the front office to engineering to information systems to the tool room—and they realize their horizons within Hydromat are limited only by their aspirations."

In the U.S., apprenticeship pro-grams as mature and structured as Hydromat's are rare, but rare doesn't mean impossible. Apprenticeship programs can be as involved as Hydromat's or as simple as an after school sort of "shop class plus" for local students.

The School Next Door

During the past 10 years there has been a dramatic, nationwide decline in attendance at post-secondary trade/vocational/community colleges. And many such schools now in existence are predicted to close by the year 2002.

Caught on the 'Net

Among the organizational and small-business oriented sites I surfed to, here are two with some useful stuff.

First off, at www.mep.nist.gov, you'll find the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP, Washington, DC), a division of the NIST, which works through regional arms to give small manufacturers a leg up in various ways. Nearly every state in the union (including Alaska and Hawaii—and psuedo-state Puerto Rico) has an MEP organization. One of the things that MEP stresses is that not only can readers turn to it as a resource, but they can become a part of the resource as well. Volunteers are always welcome!

For those companies wanting to set up their own training programs, but have no clue how to go about it, there's www.nims-skills.org. NIMS, short for the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (Vienna, VA) was launched by several metalworking trade organizations in an effort to develop skill standards and encourage certification to them. The group also has a programcertification designed to help companies determine if their training program really teaches. Granted, this site does not hand out any free advice, but it does outline its programs very briefly, and lets you order skill standards and program standards online.

And for small and mid-sized manufacturing companies, it's a damned shame. Not only are these schools a great place to find new hires with basic skills, they're a great (and inexpensive) way to introduce seasoned employees to new technologies. And this begs the question: why aren't companies of this size using this withering resource? Studies show that somewhere between 70 to 90% of all companies in existence—large, small, and in between—have some sort of tuition reimbursement plan for front-office employees. But these plans very rarely extend as far as the factory floor.

Such policies could easily encompass shop floor. Adding the factory floor to your tuition plan will only impact the bottom line briefly, says a 1995 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. It finds that the better skilled your factory floor employees, the more productive. And the more productive, the fatter the bottom line.

The Motivation Factor

One of the things that many smaller companies worry about is how to motivate employees to participate in in-house training programs—both as teachers and students. Here's one point where you can get as creative as you want. Many companies offer over-time to those who stay late to participate. Others let participants translate the hours spent in training into extra time off (so eight hours of training is an extra day off). Still others base end-of-the-year bonuses and raises on how much formal training he/she received the previous year. One California software company with 30 employees went so far as to split programmers into teams, sending them out to learn new programming languages. At the end of the training they held a "Programming Olympics," having the teams create programs in specific languages to do specific things. The team with the best programs won a week of two-hour lunches at the restaurant of its choice.

Basically, there's no limit to what companies can (and do) do to encourage employees to boost their skill levels.

Size Doesn't Matter

At the end of the day, says a majority of American laborers, it doesn't matter if they're working for a huge multi-national company or a 100-man shop in an industrial park. What does matter is that they're treated well. And, say these folks, if these same companies, big or small, don't want them to do a better job or advance along their chosen paths, they'll find a company that does. Now who's expendable?