There's more to training than learning how to hold a hammer.
By Paul Hull
There are many employees, managers and technicians who cringe at the word "training." This is sometimes because we think we know how to do anything without someone telling us what to do. Another reason for the sneer is that we think we know as much as anybody else. Manufacturers of tools and equipment that have spent many hours and dollars in the development of new products have every right to be angry when they find users who think they know it all before they've handled the product. But training is not simply a course in the handling of tools and equipment. Utilities are service businesses. Managing customers is an equally important part of training.
We should never underestimate the value of teaching an employee how to use a new product, whether it's in the office or the field. We should never let an employee use a tool without first knowing how to use it correctly. The training or education of employees does not attempt to teach them how to design or engineer new tools-it does not try to teach them Engineering 301. A technician who knows how to use new, more productive tools, does not need to understand the metallurgy involved nor the specific, design results that produce those more efficient jobs. The trainee does need to understand that a new tool will work more smoothly and efficiently than the ones it replaces, and that its use will benefit all those involved. To me, it's always been similar to television. I don't need to know how it works or how each component contributes to good results, but I do need to know what benefits it can give me. It's the results of television use that are helpful-or not. A perfectly functioning television may show me nothing but garbage, but I don't blame the tool maker. In our utility businesses, users need to know how any tool can help and how to get the best results from it. Some of that involves understanding, not of the fabrication of the tool or other equipment, but of the purpose for its introduction and acceptance.
If your training session involves a new piece of equipment or a new tool, it might help make the lesson more interesting and effective if it starts with the instructor telling the students why the equipment was bought and why it will replace similar tools the students are possibly familiar and content with. It doesn't hurt employees to know why decisions were made, decisions where they may have had little influence, but it is an integral part of all training and education to help the learners understand why they are learning. In school, algebra may make little impact on students except groans because they have already heard how awful algebra is from parents who were told the same thing-but they will be more attentive, and even enjoy it, when the teacher has shown them a practical, everyday occasion when they use algebra. "Will my vehicle be able to park in that spot?" It's algebra that determines if it can. If X is the width of the vehicle and Y is the width of parking space, then you can park there if Y is greater X. That's simple algebra, used every day by millions of people.
If your training sessions involve new tools and new equipment, you should try to have an experienced person from the manufacturing company talk to your employees about the product, reminding the guest that the instruction should show employees how to use the equipment in the best way, pitfalls to avoid and maybe shortcuts to adopt. The instructor does not need to impress the class with his or her own brilliance.
The Non-equipment Side of Training
Learning how to deal with coworkers and customers is an important, ongoing aspect of training for utility employees at all levels. Utilities are service businesses and the way they treat customers is as vital as the brand name of the wrenches and trucks they use. Being able to work well as a team in the field may depend on how well workers can cooperate with each other and how well a supervisor can communicate instructions. This can be a matter of language. Do your trainees understand what is being said to them? That does not mean they understand basic English or Spanish. There are levels of understanding in any language, and training should be taught at a level the trainees can understand. If trainees understand, they feel more confident about asking questions and more confident about applying what they have been taught. Communication is a two-way street. Both instructor and student must use language that the other can understand. One nonsensical way to destroy student/trainee interest is for the teacher or vendor representative to use words or initials the students don't know, just to show how smart the instructor is. The students need to learn, not see how smart the teacher is. The students are there to learn and the instructor to teach. Your best instructor or teacher for the use of a particular tool may be an employee who has shown he or she can use that tool well, rather than a foreman, supervisor or manager who has seldom used the tool but has read about it.
Sometimes forgotten, or treated too lightly, is the role of testing after the instruction. How many high school or college students have you met who say they attended a certain class but remember nothing of what was taught? Training in the utility sector must accomplish something; it must give the learner something to understand and remember. It's easier to assess the success of training if we are talking about tools and equipment. If the student has learned to use the tool correctly, he or she can show us that new skill. When the instruction is related more to ideas and behavior than the use of tools-for customer communications, for example-it's more difficult to test for results.
The Foundation of all Training
The foundation of all training sessions is that work must be done safely. The safety of your employees is what is most relevant. Using a tool correctly, using an electrical device correctly and using a lifting boom correctly are tasks that strive to guarantee the user's safety. Every training session, with one or several employees, should emphasize the importance of safety. If the worker doesn't do the job correctly, he or she may not be around for the next training session. Some of the training will be a reaffirmation of your utility's commitment to safe work-and the training in that area will concern the need to address every task as a new one, to refresh one's safe conduct every day, whatever the weather, whatever the season, wherever the jobsite.
For most workers, it's not only themselves they protect, but the others who work with them. The person at the top of the boom, close to electric dangers, must also consider the colleague on the ground. If you use excavators or loaders to complete some of your projects, the operators should be trained to care for other workers who may be close to swinging booms and buckets. They will, of course, have already checked to ensure nothing is below ground for them to slice or break. Checking the terrain above and below is something field technicians should be reminded of. A few years ago, beside the front door of my office, a telecommunications truck was working. The driver raised the boom and cut two wires above. Fortunately, the wires were not electric, and the main line to the hospital across the street was missed by at least six inches. The experienced operator was embarrassed, as he should have been. He forgot to check overhead. Safety concerns everybody and everything at the site.
Safety concerns customers, too. Your utility should be seen as a safe business and your workers seen working safely. It would be helpful for your utility's image and standing in a community if you also publicized safety guidelines for your customers, something more than footnotes on the back of their utility bills. Your technicians are seen by your customers when they work; their conduct is seen and noted. Training, then, like education in its broadest sense, will become an ongoing pursuit, not just an hour here and there to address a particular problem. A well-trained employee shows the value of training in his or her everyday work; it does not stop at any given point. Training does not stop when the instructor has completed his or her talk any more than education stops when a student receives a diploma.