Precasters can now train entry-level employees for about the cost of a good pair of steel-toed boots.
By Bridget McCrea
When Ron Sparks, general manager at Columbia Precast Products in Woodland, Wash., noticed NPCA had dropped the price of its Production and Quality School Level I online course to $99 per student, it didn’t take long for him to figure out how to take advantage of the great offer. Not long after that, the precaster incorporated the course into its employee development program, knowing it would help accelerate the time it takes to get new hires up to speed, comfortable and producing high-quality precast concrete.
“We’re facing the same issues that all precasters are right now in terms of finding and developing new talent,” said Sparks. “We view PQS I as a good, entry-level educational opportunity. And now, we can get five employees through the course for roughly the old price of one.”
Once Columbia Precast Products’ new hires go through an initial, probationary period, they must take and pass the course. To make the learning accessible, Columbia added two computer workstations in its lunchroom so employees can do their coursework. The workspace is also for employees and managers completing other online coursework.
With most employees completing PQS I after a few sessions, Sparks sees the online offering as a benefit for an entry-level employee who is coming on board to work for a specific department.
“That person isn’t generally in the position to see or comprehend the entire operation and usually comes back and says, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that there was that much to it,’” Sparks said.
The PQS I course also helps get new employees through the job initiation process faster than they would if they didn’t have that level of guidance.
“Most people spend the first 30-to-60 days on the job just trying to get acclimated and finding the quickest route to work in the morning,” Sparks said. “They’re not necessarily thinking about what’s going on in the rest of the company.”
The online course helps to fill that gap without putting any undue stress or pressure on the employee, who, upon completing it, can go back to getting initiated in his or her new job.
“They go back to their departments with a much broader vision of what we do here as a company and are able to focus faster on exactly where they want to put their effort,” Sparks said.
7,000-plus and growing
It’s been about 25 years since NPCA first introduced its Production and Quality School to the industry. Because online learning wasn’t born yet, the courses were administered in a classroom setting to precast employees nationwide.
“The Education Committee at the time felt this would be a great way to provide fundamental, industry education on how to make good quality concrete,” said Marti Harrell, NPCA’s vice president of technical services and professional development.
Over time, those early efforts morphed into PQS I, which today stands as the organization’s flagship course. To date, NPCA has trained more than 7,000 individuals since it started tracking completion rates. The price change to $99 was voted on by the NPCA Board of Directors to make it more affordable for a wider swath of members and their employees.
“They wanted to push this right to the shop floor and make it accessible to everyone,” Harrell said. “Previously, it was used more by senior, experienced production workers.”
The self-paced course is part of Precast University’s educational offering, which is a total of six classes. PQS II focuses on four specific areas (technical, production, quality and safety) and PQS III is a production leadership class. Once students complete all six classes, they graduate as Master Precasters. Since developing the program in 2012, more than 160 industry employees have become Master Precasters, or roughly 40-50 per year.
“That designation is a huge honor and source of pride for graduates, and it all starts with PQS I,” Harrell said.
Teach us something new
Harrell has seen everyone from the brand new employee to the veteran manager take PQS I, with both ends of the spectrum taking value away from the educational offering.
“This is such an important part of the industry,” Harrell said. “If a precaster doesn’t have trained, knowledgeable workers producing quality concrete, then little else matters.”
In some cases, veteran employees are skeptical about the course’s ability to teach them something new. That skepticism is generally dispelled as soon as he or she logs into the system and starts interacting with the course content.
“I’ve seen people who have been in the industry for 20 years take it because their bosses instructed them to,” Harrell said. “They come out the experience saying, ‘Gosh, I really learned something new and picked up several things that I wasn’t even aware of.’”
This anecdotal proof just goes to show how even a basic, introductory course can be worth going back to once you’re a seasoned professional.
“It really is an important class regardless of someone’s level of expertise and experience in the industry,” Harrell said.
Meeting quality control standards
For smaller precasters, online education that’s both relevant and affordable can mean the difference between employing uninitiated workers and having people on your team who truly understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Also, many of those employees learn from those who came before them, so they aren’t exposed to outside training sources.
“A lot of our precasters are mom-and-pop shops, so when they bring in training from an outside source like NPCA, they get a different viewpoint on industry best practices,” Harrell said.
By infusing an independent voice into early training and employee onboarding – much like Columbia Precast Products is doing – precasters gain access to coursework that is based off the NPCA Quality Control Manual for Precast Concrete Plants.
“If you’re working towards certification, this class is actually required as part of that,” Harrell said. “Employees who take the PQS I class and follow the processes outlined in it should do really well when it comes to meeting quality control standards.”
Taking PQS I at The Precast Show
As with any educational opportunity, PQS I also presents interesting new networking opportunities for students who attend the course at The Precast Show. In fact, Harrell sees this component as one of the most important takeaways for professionals who have taken the course.
“It’s a live class [at The Precast Show], so there’s always an opportunity to make connections with other people who have a similar job, but in a different part of the world,” Harrell said. “That gives you the chance to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I’m having this trouble with my mix design. How do you guys handle this?’ That’s really a valuable piece of the puzzle.”
The entire PQS series was developed by professional engineers who have 30-40 years of experience in the precast concrete industry, making it a solid choice for training.
“The course developers were responsible for running precast plants, consulting, doing quality inspections or even working for a DOT,” she said. “As a result, the content is really top notch and put together by people who know how to do this job really well.”
Boots on the ground
Ever since Columbia Precast Products moved to requiring PQS I, Sparks said the decision has paid off. Along with new workers, the company also required all of its existing employees to take the course, if they hadn’t already done so.
“It’s been great,” Sparks said. “We’ve had very positive feedback, and we’ll continue to do it.”
To other precasters that might be considering a similar strategy, Sparks said most are struggling with similar issues: a tight labor market, the retiring Baby Boomer generation and the influx of younger generations into the workforce.
Courses like PQS I help to ease some of those pain points by getting employees interested, engaged, and productive faster – all for an affordable cost.
“If you think about it, we’re basically investing $99 in an employee,” Sparks said. “That’s pretty inexpensive, and about the same cost as a good pair of steel-toed boots.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.