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Training: A Necessity or a Luxury?

Training has always been part of any good business strategy. Yet the importance it holds depends on a number of things, including management’s beliefs about training, how much it costs, how effective it will be, how much time it will take, and what the current economy is like.

J. Kirby O’Malley, president of Garden State Precast Inc., Farmingdale, N.J., has found that education and training provide him with more qualified employees. “Since training isn’t urgent, a lot of companies focus their efforts on the urgent things, and training doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” he says.

According to Vernon Wehrung, CEO and president of Modern Precast Concrete, Ottsville, Pa., his company is very committed to training. “However, training is like marketing in that when you’re in a tough economy, you have to think about discretionary expenses,” he says. Wehrung has always believed that no matter what position employees have in his company, training should represent at least 1% of their time. This works out to about 20 hours a year per employee. “I can’t say we have achieved that for everyone,” he says. “We are usually at about 10 hours a year minimum for everyone. Of course, for salespeople and managers, there is a lot more than that.”

Marti Harrell, director of Education for NPCA, notes that in general, and especially during tough economic times, people view training as a cost center. “However, it is important to see training instead over the long term and realize that it is an investment,” she says. “That is, it does cost time and money to train people. However, having a well-trained staff helps them be more efficient, make fewer mistakes and create better-quality products in the long run.” As a result, she adds, the training actually ends up paying for itself.

So what types of training are available, and which ones make the most sense? Three of the most common sources of training are: free training from vendors; government-funded (full or partial) training; and fully paid training. Precasters may find value with all of them, depending on the specific needs.

Vendor training

“Two of the most important training methods we use are leaning on our vendors and our insurance company for training,” says O’Malley. “I am a real believer in using vendors for training. They should be able to train you on their products. If I were to find a vendor that didn’t want to provide training, I would get a new vendor.”

Garden State also uses its insurance company to help it with safety training, and O’Malley encourages other precasters to do the same. “You spend a lot of money on insurance, so you should get the benefit of their knowledge,” he says. Garden State’s insurer sends a trainer out quarterly to hold classes for employees. Recently, for example, they conducted a certification class on lifting. “It was a six- or seven-hour class, and we had about 30 of our people participating,” O’Malley says.

Wehrung has found that vendor training is usually every bit as good as paid training. One reason is that vendor training tends to be very focused. “For example, our insurance company comes in once a year and provides safety training for our safety committee members,” he says. “We also receive First Aid training from the Red Cross every two years.” Modern Precast also pays a local hospital for CPR training.

Government funding

NPCA’s website provides detailed information on how to get local training grants (www.precast.org/education). “Grants for training and employee development are often available through local workforce development offices,” says Harrell. “Many of our members have been successful in securing grants to cover some, if not all, of their ongoing employee education. Our website makes it easy to find grants available in a member’s state.”

Garden State has received several grants, and it receives a number of these through the New Jersey Manufacturing Council, which is part of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA). “I hear about these grants at their quarterly meetings,” says O’Malley. In one case, someone came out and trained employees in lean manufacturing. A consultant came out and worked with supervisors and employees for about nine months. “The grant wasn’t difficult to get,” he continues. “However, the training wasn’t completely free. It cost me about $75,000 to $100,000 in labor hours. But it was worth it. This is what you have to do with any training program anyway.” Garden State also worked with a community college on an English as a Second Language curriculum for a semester. Employees attended a class every Saturday for four to five hours.

Modern Precast has received funding through the Manufacturers Resource Center (www.mrcpa.org) at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University, which gets grant money from the state. “They paid for at least two-thirds of the cost of the PQS training that NPCA did for our whole company a few years ago,” says Wehrung. Modern Precast participated in some additional MRC-funded training last year called Market Opportunity Research. “They claimed that the market value of the program was $19,000, and we paid $12,000,” he says.

With some money made available through a program offered by the Ontario government (Yves Landry Foundation) focused on improving manufacturing processes, Hy-Grade Precast Concrete, St. Catharines, Ontario, was able to have some consultants come in to provide training. “Some of the topics included root cause analysis and manufacturing techniques,” says Dominic Girotti, Hy-Grade’s president.

Carr Precast Concrete, Dunn, N.C., heard about a program in which the state provides funding to community colleges to offer work-related training to small businesses. “Kate Brown, director of customized training programs at Sampson Community College in Clinton, N.C., came by one day and asked if there was any training that we needed,” explains Jason Canady, Carr Precast’s general manager. “They receive a budget from the state each year to provide the training. If they don’t use it, they lose it.”

Sampson sent a trainer to Carr’s facilities to provide training in forklift safety and overhead crane training. Canady then asked whether they could arrange to cover the cost of the NPCA’s PQS training program, and they did. This training was done online. “As a result, we didn’t have to actually go the college for any of the training that we received,” says Canady.

“It is evident that (Carr Precast) is committed to maintaining the highest standard of excellence in workforce development,” says Brown. “We at Sampson Community College feel very privileged to know that we are a contributing factor to enhance workplace skills at Carr Precast in order for the company to remain competitive in this global economy.”

Carr Precast is currently talking with the college about getting some OSHA training, adds Canady. “After that, the next step is to see what other kinds of training NPCA offers that might be of use to us, and then see if this can be funded through the community college.” He recommends that other precasters look into training resources in their states.

Paid training

Hy-Grade Precast reimburses its employees who want to take classes at a community college that provide skills training for the workplace. “We have brought people from the NPCA here to our plant and have a one-day, plant-shutdown training session,” says Girotti. “We also send people to the NPCA’s Precast Show and attend training while they are there.” All of Hy-Grade’s employees have gone through the online PQS program as well. “When they completed the program, we gave them gift cards worth about $200 to use at local stores,” he adds.

Garden State also pays for some training. “I believe in the importance of mentoring and coaching as a form of training,” says O’Malley. “As a result, every other Thursday a local consultant meets with our production manager or QC manager for a couple of hours. My belief is that, with the economy being the way it is, you need to have people trained to take the next step, or there will be no next step.”

Online training

The questions of training resources and cost must be answered, but how the training is delivered is also a consideration. “In-person training certainly has its advantages, however it is also important to consider distance learning, such as online learning and webinars, when deciding how best to train your staff,” says Harrell. “One of the key advantages to distance learning is the ability to train more people at a lower cost, which allows the owner to maximize his or her training dollars. Distance learning also minimizes the time commitment for training, as it eliminates the need for travel.”

Distance learning is a great way to push training deeper into the plant, because it allows owners to train employees who otherwise may not have been able to attend because of the cost and time commitments, adds Harrell. “Now an owner can schedule a webinar for a lunch hour or even give employees the option to take online classes on their own time,” she says. “We’ve found many of the companies participating in PQS Online do just this, and some even offer financial incentives for those employees who complete the training. When choosing between in-person and distance learning, employers should consider several factors including the subject matter the learning styles of their employees.”

Tracey Sprague, vice president of Carr Precast, says the training provided by Sampson Community College was convenient. “The ability to do it online was excellent, the content was first-class,” he says. “We took the training due to the need for NPCA certification. It has given Carr Precast a new focus on production and quality procedures.”

Some topics are better suited for in-person training, especially those where role playing or skills practice can be beneficial, says Harrell. “Also, individuals have unique learning styles – what works for one employee may not work for another, so weighing the benefits of distance versus in-person classes becomes important.”

It is vital to know the resources available in your state and community that may help pay for training. The trick is knowing how and where to find them – and this is where NPCA can help. Visit www.precast.org/education for more information.


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