By William Atkinson
William Atkinson is a freelance writer who covers business and safety issues for MC and other publications.
Every day, precast concrete manufacturers lose business because of a fundamental flaw: a lack of proper training. The problem’s origin may surprise you, because it isn’t a one-sided issue. It swirls among both management and production segments of the industry. Either company’s leadership lacks business savvy, the floor workers are improperly trained, or a combination of both exists. But all it may take are investments in education to smooth over production and management flaws to get clients’ business back.
That trust can be best earned through education and training – two factors, J. Kirby O’Malley says, that fuel the steady growth of companies like his own Garden State Precast. O’Malley is the education-focused president of the Farmingdale, N.J.,-based manufacturer. He is a member of the National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA) Board of Directors and a member of NPCA’s Education Committee since 2003. But O’Malley’s devotion doesn’t end in a board room. He offers Garden State production workers precast-specific training, and managers have opportunities to hone leadership skills; all in an effort to become better employees, further earning their clients’ trust.
Because the precast niche of the concrete industry is relatively small, O’Malley says education will lead to better visibility. “The better educated we are, the better we are able to make our products easier to install, lighter and more beneficial overall to contractors,” he says. “Contractors can come to rely on us more often for stock items, rather than having to train their own people.”
The challenge with education and training in the precast industry, though, is that most of the companies tend to be small. “As such, few of them have large libraries of information or other education and resources on site,” points out O’Malley. He believes that this situation is one of the reasons NPCA is so important. “NPCA is able to provide the education and training that this industry, its managers and its employees need.”
Joan Shirikian-Hesselton, northeast regional safety manager for Oldcastle Precast in South Bethlehem, N.Y., and chair of NPCA’s Safety, Health & Environmental Committee, agrees with O’Malley, especially when it comes to technical education. “Employees need technical education, including information on how to operate equipment, what the product is and what happens downstream,” she says. This helps them understand what their tasks are and why they are so important to the overall process. According to Shirikian-Hesselton, when employees understand why they are doing something and what happens to it in the next phase, they are able to perform their tasks better. She cites an example: With knock-outs, if employees don’t realize what is going to happen further along, they may leave them with rougher edges, which causes more work and exposures for the next phase.
Research has continued to show that good training (training that is targeted to the right people and conducted in the right way) is cost-effective and actually profit-producing. However, to get the most from the training, it is important to determine what type of training will most benefit your organization and measure the results to make sure the employees are actually applying what they learned.
A 2000 study (“Watson Wyatt Human Capital Index”) conducted by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a business consulting firm, researched the impact of training on 405 companies. Two of the interesting conclusions they reached were that:
- Emphasizing training for the next higher-level job rather than training on how to succeed in the current job can actually be counter-productive. A focus on helping employees improve their knowledge and skills in their existing jobs provides greater payback.
- To be successful, formal training must be combined with on-the-job training and consistent encouragement from management. In other words, formal training on its own may not provide much in the way of benefits, if not supported by on-the-job training and management involvement.
One key element of technical training should be safety training. According to Shirikian-Hesselton, managers should participate in one of the 10-hour courses offered by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which provides a comprehensive overview of OSHA regulations and what is required. “NPCA often runs these 10-hour courses,” she says. “One benefit of taking the OSHA course through NPCA is that, while OSHA’s general course tends to be a standardized curriculum, we are able to modify it to apply specifically to precast.” Front-line employees should receive more in-depth safety training, such as lockout/tagout, confined space hazards, etc.
Regardless of the kind of training you arrange, Shirikian-Hesselton emphasizes the importance of making it an enjoyable experience. And the best way to do that is to make it fun. “If you make the training fun, the employees are more likely to pay attention and use the information,” she explains. “We’re dealing with adult education here. These are people who are not used to sitting in a classroom.”
She cites an example of how training can be made fun. “For the last two years at the MCPX (Manufactured Concrete Products Exposition), we have done a ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ training program,” she says. This involves staging a couple of photo shots in a precast facility where safety errors are taking place. Before the program begins, participants receive copies of the photos and are asked to try to identify all of the errors. The person who ends up identifying the most errors wins an iPod. Then, during the actual training program, the trainer reviews all of the errors in detail. As a result, the participants are much more interested in hearing the details of the errors than they would be if they hadn’t participated in the photo contest.
Shirikian-Hesselton also emphasizes the importance of making the training hands-on. “For example, if you’re discussing ladder safety, don’t just talk about it,” she states. “Have a ladder there. Show people what to do. If you are talking about machine guards, actually show how the guards go on and how they work.”
Training in action
At Garden State Precast, about 15 percent of the employees attend the Production & Quality School (PQS) forum offered by NPCA. “We are also always sending our people to local ACI (American Concrete Institute) classes for various levels of technicians,” adds O’Malley. “We also have some people come in at least quarterly to do some supervisory and management leadership classes.” The company tries to keep these classes very small to ensure as much one-on-one interaction as possible.
O’Malley sees numerous benefits to all of the training. The most important, of course, is the actual information that is imparted. However, another important one, he believes, is the interaction that takes place during training. “It’s difficult to argue with yourself,” he explains. “When you are in a class and have the opportunity to banter back and forth with other people, this is where education opens up a wide spectrum of opportunities because of different experiences and different information.”
His employees also participate in plant tours. This helps them see things that they may be able to do better when they return to their jobs. “The situation also occurs in reverse, where our people may be able to offer some ideas to the people in other plants,” adds O’Malley. “In sum, the tours provide a broadening of horizons.”
In terms of measurement, the most widely used reference is a book titled “Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels” by D.L. Kirkpatrick (1994, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco).
Level 1 is based on employee reactions immediately following the training. This involves asking questions related to whether employees liked the training, whether the material was relevant to their work, and what they specifically felt they gained from the training.
Level 2 attempts to identify actual learning. Here, employers can provide pre-tests (prior to the training) and post-tests (after the training) to employees to see if their knowledge has actually increased.
Level 3 focuses on transfer of information. Here, employers observe employees on the job to see if they are actually implementing the new knowledge and skills that were covered during the training.
Level 4 evaluates actual results. The focus here is on “bottom line” results, such as whether there are actual improvements in productivity, quality and/or service, reductions in accidents, etc., as a result of the training.
Garden State Precast measures a lot of things in order to assess its performance. O’Malley has found that, as a result of the education and training programs it has initiated and participated in over the years, measures such as productivity per man-hour have increased, and turnover has decreased.
O’Malley says that if you’re not investing time and resources into training employees, you’re going to miss out opportunities that will help you improve productivity. “And in this industry, it’s all about productivity,” he says. “Productivity comes about through education.”