7/22/2013

#7 Training, Who Needs Training? (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

Thirty years ago, I worked for the City of Dallas (Texas) Water Department. That was my first "professional" job. I was a meter reader. For two weeks, a senior meter reader and I hiked my routes. He showed me how to find meters, how to read them, how to avoid angry customers who thought I was going to shut off their water, and how to protect myself from dogs. When he set me free, I was ready to do the job. For the next 2 1/2 years, I read an average of 350 water meters per day and averaged under 3 "errors" (valid customer complaints) a month. Looking back, I think that was the first, and last, adequate job training I've received from a business. And it was a city government job.

Since then, I've been a technician, an engineer, a supervisor, and a manager in a half-dozen industries and a about that many companies. Each of those industries and companies had some sort of "training department." Several of those companies had training procedures that attempted to describe job tasks. Not a single one of those companies put together anywhere near the quality of training they needed. Most of the training programs were nothing more than half-hearted, butt-covering games whose purpose was to fool OSHA, FDA, customers, or some simple-minded executive.

In an economy that claims to be begging for a skilled and educated labor force, you'd think someone would be making a serious effort to build and keep that sort of labor in the company. Not many are. Why the heck is that?

For one, it's expensive and, for two, it requires management planning. Since most businesses are wasting piles of money fooling around with training, Number One can't be the hold up.
But Number Two is pretty much an oxymoron. Management Planning. It's almost impossible to imagine those two words in the same sentence, paragraph, or book. The usual substitutes (management scheming, management manipulating, management abuse, management incompetence, etc.) don't do the job. Training that has a purpose and has to meet real requirements takes a load of planning. Short and long range planning.

Short Range: You have to decide what kind of skills you want your employees to have at the end of the training program. You have to figure out who can teach those skills. You have to sort out who will be able to accept and learn and retain the skills you want to have taught.

Long Range: You have be smart enough to know that a percentage of your labor force will be in training and not available for labor. You have to decide how to make training attractive so that people will want to let go of their daily tasks and work for new skills. You have to figure out where your company is going and what kind of skills it will need when it gets there.

And so on.

Absolutely none of the above is taught in an MBA program. For my money, absolutely no management skills are part of anyone's MBA program, but that's another issue. The first requirement for sorting out those questions is an understanding of the company's technology, the company's markets, and the company's future. There's that damn leadership thing, again. It's pretty easy to see why it's in such short supply.

Just for kicks, I did a search on the word "training" on my company's intranet. Not a single hit. A company with nearly 2,000 employees doesn't have a single active, advertised, on-going training program. Sure, there is a lot of window-dressing, remedial training going on. There are a few technical classes offered to a few engineers. Human Resources always seems to be treating itself to off-site classes in "How to Screw Over the Most People with the Least Effort." Since company networks never work and managers can barely find their computer power switches, IS "professionals" can always convince Management that they need more training. But, for the most part, my employer is a mirror of my business education experiences of the past.

So what all these execs are whining for is not trainable employees, but pre-trained employees. Ideally, self-trained employees. Perfectly, self-trained in the exact tasks needed employees. What they get are a few people who are self-motivated enough to teach themselves skills that will enhance their personal opportunities; and a lot of people who learn enough to get by. The first group won't be generating any loyalty for the company with their efforts. The second are too busy getting by to think about what happens after lunch.

For employees, the key is to get into one of the minority fields that management thinks is worth training. Attract just enough attention to get yourself into regular, general purpose classes that will make you a more valuable employee to all employers. Avoid any sort of "job training" that will make you an expert in your company's most obsolete functions (never, never, ever learn anything about IBM's System 36). And be sure to list all of the industry training programs you've attended in your resume. You never know when some idiot executive will be looking for a free lunch.

February 1998

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