Elements of a Successful Training Program

by Melissa DeDonder, Plastics Business
A continuing education approach is more realistic and effective than a “Watching and Doing” model of training.

Training and continuing education programs play a critical role in the quest for success – not only for the benefit of day-to-day operations, but also in meeting future needs – to ease or fill the gaps when a skilled employee leaves. Despite its importance, many companies struggle to fully commit to the training and continuing education process. Three plastics industry professionals – Mark Hanaway, vice president of Tech Molded Plastics, Inc.; David A. Hoffman, senior instructor/education development manager of Beaumont Technologies; and Craig Paulson, president of Paulson Training Programs, Inc. – share insights and ideas for creating, implementing and evaluating an effective training program.

Training is a process, not an event.

Regardless of whether a company commits to training internally or externally, management buy-in is one of the most important elements in creating and maintaining an effective training and continuing education program. “Every company manages a series of processes – whether documented or not – to get quality products out the door. Training and continuing education should be regarded as critical steps in the process,” said Paulson.

Despite the fact that every plastics manufacturer invests time and money on training, many companies struggle to fully commit to the process, for a variety of reasons. Hanaway explained that sometimes there’s an inherent fear – whether conscious or not – about training people who may someday leave the company. He shared a statement that reflects the company’s belief in a continuous learning culture: If you train them, they might leave. If you don’t train them, they might stay. “The risk of losing good people is part of every business. We invest in their success anyway. Fear of developing and motivating people will produce an undeveloped and unmotivated workforce. It’s a conscious choice,” Hanaway said.

Both the “Watching and Doing” and “Learning from Your Mistakes” models, while popular industry-wide, are costly mistakes that have no lasting value and carry negative ROIs.

Paulson said one of the most common mistakes or barriers when it comes to training and continuing education programs is the industry-wide reliance on the “Watching and Doing” model of training. “Despite its popularity, putting a new hire with an experienced employee is the worst training method possible because it can – and often does – transfer bad or inefficient practices and procedures to new hires,” Paulson said. Hoffman’s perspective includes another angle: “Being good or experienced at one’s job does not necessarily equate to being a good trainer or educator.” Paulson said that both the “Watching and Doing” and “Learning from Your Mistakes” models, while popular industry-wide, are costly mistakes that have no lasting value and carry negative ROIs.

Hoffman said another common mistake is regarding training as an annual event rather than an ongoing process. “Students retain only 15-20 percent of what they hear during a typical training, so an employee cannot be expected to attend a two-day, or even two-week, program and then know everything about plastics,” he said. Hoffman explained new concepts must be reviewed and practiced for weeks or even months in order for them to sink in effectively, which is why a continuing education approach is more realistic and effective. In addition, periodic refresher courses will ensure that all personnel are current and are speaking the same “production language” on the floor.

Paulson said one of the most significant advantages of training and continuing education initiatives is that it creates the ability to hire from within when a position opens up. He added, “Maintaining a steady supply of skilled workers is like having an insurance policy that protects the company from any industry-wide skilled labor shortages.”

In-house or outsourced? That is the question.

There are many resources available for companies that want to create an in-house training program.

Cost, time, expertise and level of commitment needed often are barriers that keep companies from creating and maintaining training and continuing education initiatives in-house. “Large companies may have the resources, but smaller companies rarely do,” Paulson said.

Tech Molded Plastics, Inc. is a precision molder that has been able to tackle the skills gap by looking hard at company culture and embracing the learning process. “The benefits can be seen everywhere! Effective programs challenge employees to reach higher levels of advancement, providing a career ladder that elevates possibilities and minimizes the real or imagined barriers that inhibit people from looking upward and onward for advancement,” Hanaway said.

At Tech Molded Plastics, the training program covers everything from Tech Math Certification and Blueprint Reading Fundamentals to Corrective Preventative Action Certification, RJG Injection Molding Essentials Certification and more. “As much as tradition is challenged by today’s culture, tool makers and machinists learned the trade in vocational technical schools and on-the-job. Our company was founded on those principles – developing apprentices and transferring knowledge to motivated people who want to advance their skills and earning potential,” Hanaway said. Tech Molded Plastics has maintained the tradition of providing a career path where the individual owns his/her level of success. The company also is certified by the state to administer Journeyman credentials for graduates.

If your company wants to create an in-house training program, there are many resources available. “You don’t need to think of an in-house approach as an all-or-nothing solution because not all solutions can or should be generated internally anyway,” Hanaway said. The first step is identifying areas for improvement in your company’s culture – as well as the underlying objectives and potential barriers for success – and then reaching out to other companies for guidance. “You quickly realize that some of the best practices come from sharing knowledge and experience with external industry leadership and from listening to your people. Great ideas happen every minute – acting on them takes training,” Hanaway said.

Paulson cautions not to try to create something from scratch. “Companies that try to create training programs from scratch often find that it is a much larger and potentially more expensive project than they anticipated,” he said. Stick to proven course content to ensure that training is aligned with company needs. He suggests using training authoring software and interactive computer or online training modules, as well as molding machine simulation. “Online training can be customized as needed to better align with company policies, procedures and best practices,” Paulson said. Another option is to supplement in-house training by sending employees to seminars or by bringing customized seminars to your facility.

When it comes to outsourcing training and continuing education initiatives, Hoffman said the most significant benefit is that employees gain a perspective that reaches beyond what is practiced in their workplace. “Sometimes, people and companies become complacent in what they know and why they do what they do because, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” An outsourced educator can encourage the innovative thinking that could ultimately improve the company’s bottom line,” Hoffman said.

What elements should my training program include?

Regardless of whether your program is created in-house or outsourced, there are several key elements that every training or continuing education program should contain. All three experts recommend getting a variety of employees involved in both creating and implementing the program. These employees should include, but are not limited to, top management, human resources, production managers and the trainers/educators themselves. “Appoint one person – someone who is well-liked and trusted – to serve as the liaison between the employees and the supervisors,” Paulson said.

In regards to curriculum, Hanaway emphasized the need to accommodate the various learning styles of a diverse workforce and the need to build a succession plan into the curriculum. “Succession plans are critical for every task in which a person’s temporary absence will create pain in the operation,” he said.

Hoffman stressed the importance of a curriculum that builds a solid foundation for the four key areas of injection molding: materials, part design, mold design and processing. “Having a deeper understanding of each of the four areas allows employees to think outside of the typical “process change” mentality box, ultimately resulting in being able to either fix the downstream problems faster or to prevent those problems from occurring in the first place by engineering out the issues in the upstream part and mold design stages,” Hoffman said.

Whether in-house or outsourced, having an experienced training provider is just as important as having the right curriculum in place. “There are a lot of consultants who will offer to provide training but – as in any profession – there are good instructors and bad instructors. Make sure any seminar provider has a proven track record,” Paulson said.

If training in-house, Hoffman recommends answering the following assessment questions:

  • How much education and experience does the potential trainer possess?
  • Has this person been formally educated or is he/she recommended due to longevity?
  • What is this person’s attitude toward training people who may one day replace him/her?
  • Is this person an innovative thinker?
  • Does this person have the time to develop and deliver a high-quality training program, or will he/she view it as a major distraction and, therefore, not do an effective job?
  • Does this person have the ability to relay difficult concepts in easy-to-understand terms?

Every successful training and continuing education program needs to be monitored and evaluated. Interactive computer or online training modules have built-in tracking and scoring options, and Paulson recommends having assessments at the end of each lesson to ensure that all employees complete the lessons in the order they have been assigned. Hanaway suggests using pre- and post-tests to measure personal growth levels, followed by a review to confirm retention.

Recognition programs can be helpful and can provide some motivation for employees as well. “We provide certificates, which have proven to be very good for morale and for fostering an individual sense of accomplishment,” Paulson said.

How should a training program be implemented and evaluated?

Tech Molded Plastics, Inc. is a precision molder that has been able to tackle the skills gap by looking hard at company culture and embracing the learning process.

Training and continuing education initiatives can create anxiety and tension for employees, but honest, open communication will help diffuse concerns. “Make it very clear to everyone that this is not a “pass or lose your job” initiative. A “we’re in this together approach” should ease apprehension from the beginning,” Paulson said. Hanaway agreed, saying, “When people know that you are investing in their success, the likelihood of success for the company increases.”

Another way to diffuse apprehension is to get your employees involved from the beginning. “Outline specifically what you want to achieve, inspire people to create the vision in small, easy-to-manage steps and then praise success along the way,” Hanaway said.

One way to get employees involved is to have supervisors recommend what training is needed most. “Have employees complete a Needs Analysis assessment to target areas where overall knowledge and skillsare weak,” Paulson said. Once needs have been assessed, Hoffman suggests developing a Continuing Education and Training Implementation Guide to evaluate the various job functions of the people who will be trained and then create a plan of “required” vs. “recommended” courses. Required courses are intended to make employees more effective at their jobs, while recommended courses should be available to reinforce concepts and expand the knowledge base. “Work closely with managers and human resources to develop an effective timeline for each employee, and then fully commit to the trainings and timelines,” Hoffman said.

Before launching a training initiative company-wide, Paulson recommends selecting a small group of employees to complete a test run. “This will uncover problems with course content or implementation issues that can be addressed before all employees start participating,” he explained.

Hanaway said that one of the greatest challenges is likely to be training people who already have a lot on their plate. Because full commitment is critical for success, buy-in likely will need to be reinforced along the way. “Any training or continuing education program will require time away from a person’s normal job function, and sometimes this occurs when things appear to be at their busiest. It would be easy for an employee – or management – to make the “I/we don’t have time for training right now” excuse,” Hoffman said. In those moments, management will need to dig in and stay the course.

Once the training program has been implemented company-wide, keep track of progress via lessons learned and comparisons of the pre- and post-test scores of the employees. “This is a very good way to find out where the knowledge and skills gaps are on the production floor, and then you can modify your program accordingly,” Paulson said. Hanaway said the maintenance and evaluation process should include a “grapevine check” to measure spontaneous interest from employees who didn’t receive the training. “You’ll know that you have an effective program when people ask when the course will be offered again,” Hanaway said.

To maximize and retain the knowledge acquired, it is important to maintain a conducive atmosphere. “Training concepts must be reinforced and utilized in routine job functions, and new or advanced concepts must be taught as employees progress down their personalized tracks,” Hoffman said. Hanaway added, “Recertification and formal refresher courses are practices to strive for, but they may not be feasible in all instances.”

Every plastics manufacturer invests time and money on training. Maximize your investment by making training and continuing education a critical step in the manufacturing process, by avoiding common barriers and industry-wide mistakes that ultimately crush ROI, by getting your employees on-board and involved and by maintaining an environment that’s conducive for success.

Plastics Business would like to thank the following contributors:

Mark Hanaway, vice president, Tech Molded Plastics, Inc. Located in Meadville, PA, Tech Molded Plastics, Inc. is an injection molded plastics company that supplies full-service injection mold design and development, precision mold tooling, custom injection molding and integrated packaging and assembly to the medical, automotive, consumer, electronics and aeronautics industries.

David A. Hoffman, senior instructor/education development manager, Beaumont Technologies. Headquartered in Erie, PA, Beaumont Technologies is a plastics engineering firm and technology/service provider that specializes in injection molding and plastics education/training, MeltFlipper®, process troubleshooting and mold filling simulation software.

Craig Paulson, president, Paulson Training Programs, Inc. Headquartered in Chester, CT, Paulson Training Programs, Inc. provides a broad range of in-plant interactive plastics industry training courses, world-wide e-learning solutions and expert-led seminars to help injection molders, extrusion processors, blow molders, part designers and many other plastics professionals grow and compete on a global scale.