Crawling out of their recessionary caves, area companies are once again investing in worker training for an altered business landscape
At the Mary Wade Home in New Haven, certified medication technicians are learning leadership skills.
At Higher One, the Elm City’s rapidly growing payment services firm for the higher education industry, every employee takes a customer-service course and can earn points and prizes for performance.
Even companies that slowed or altogether stopped hiring during the recession are again investing in worker training.
“I think for anyone to be competitive in this new world economy you have to have a trained workforce that’s agile and adept and adapted to the changing conditions of the workplace,” says William Villano, executive director of the Workforce Alliance, which provides funding to offset employer training costs.
The nature of the training, of course, depends on the company and its needs.
“For the most part people are very much nuts-and-bolts-oriented right now,” says Jerry Clupper, executive director of the New Haven Manufacturers Association. “We’ve gone through a survival period, doing only what you need to do to survive and determining how do you orient the company to serve markets that will develop, with markets changing so rapidly.
“The constant is you need to be able to read and write,” Clupper adds. “The things that are new are multi-tasking and team building, and also life cycle design challenges covering everything from sustainability and availability of the raw materials that are going to be required to do what we want all the way through the disposal cycle."
Paul Hoffman is embracing the challenges.
“Everybody talks about the new jobs but you really need to get the employees you have engaged,” says Hoffman, president of Orange Research in Milford, which makes differential pressure gauges, switches, transmitters and flowmeters. “We’ve been doing Lean for eight or nine years, and in the last year and a half to two years have wanted to make our hourly employees more independent and autonomous. I realized they didn’t have all the tools to accomplish that.”
Using 50 percent state matching funds for worker training, the company launched a worker improvement program in the last quarter of 2008 — in the recession’s deepest trough — with courses ranging from principles of managing work to communication and problem solving.
“Business was down 25 percent in 2009 so it was a great time to do this,” Hoffman says. “We’re now in an up period, and have made a priority to do it. What we found through the process was the training not only was important for the hourly workers and the teams, but also for supervisors and managers. We started doing a lot of cross training within cells so people could do all of the jobs.”
As a result, Hoffman adds, “We’ve become a lot more productive, able to do more with fewer people or keep the same amount of people. It also gives employees a feeling of engagement with the company and with customers.”
LEX Products, which builds portable power distribution products, has spent “well over $100,000” in recent months on employee training “in order to meet our overall goal, which is defect-free, on-time shipments,” says CEO Bob Luther. “We brought in the Franklin Covey [management consultant] company to set goals and it kind of cascaded down.”
LEX moved from Stamford to Shelton last October and has grown from 100 employees in 2009 to 200 this year.
Working with the Connecticut State Technology Extension Program (ConnSTEP), which assists manufacturers, the company zeroed in rectifying training inadequacies in areas such as making electrical connections, reading drawings and learning the most efficient way to set up a manufacturing cell.
Finance, marketing and sales employees also have attended three-day, off-site seminars with an instructor on topics such as improving written communication and handling difficult situations.
Luther plans to do “a thorough evaluation” of the training at the end of May “to see if we’re reaching our goals.
“Right now,” he says, “it looks very, very good.”
Other manufacturers around the state are signing up for Training With Industry (TWI), an American program that flourished during World War II to improve industrial production. The concept was embraced by Japanese companies after the war and largely forgotten in the U.S. until recently.
Offered by ConnSTEP, TWI provides step-by-step guidance on job instruction, job methods, job relations and job safety.
“It complements Lean,” explains Tom Southworth, a Lean consultant who has been teaching TWI to 36 Connecticut companies over the past year. “Many people are trying Lean with varying levels of success. In the traditional Western version of Lean, where it falls down is when no one is able to transfer the knowledge into practice.”
The 20-hour program costs $5,000 for up to ten employees, plus an additional coaching session 30 to 45 days later.
“This is not theory,” Southworth says. “We need them to take something from their work area that they’ve had trouble with and when they finish they can put it directly into practice. What we tell people is you are creating new best practices by breaking down tasks and coming up with new or better ways.”
Despite availability, funding for the Workforce Alliance’s on-the-job training program has been underutilized in the past few years, Villano says, “just because here hasn’t been a lot of hiring.
The program reimburses 50 percent of the wages during the training period, and federal stimulus funds, available through June 2011, can increase the amount to 75 or 90 percent for a company with fewer than 200 employees.
Villano thought the additional money “might be a good incentive as employers were beginning to emerge from the recession” but the response was “nowhere near the levels where I expected.
“We have been working with some weatherization [programs] and have done some spotty manufacturing,” he says, “but most of 2009 I don’t think we wrote one [approval for on-the-job training funds], and it wasn’t until March 2010 that we started doing what turned out to be about 30 for 2010. We used to write about 100 a year.”
So far in 2011, Workforce Alliance has approved around ten on-the-job training programs.
The organization also offers funding for an “incumbent worker” training program “for employers seeking to upgrade the skills of their existing workforce to keep pace with changes in technology or the demands of the workforce,” Villano explains.
The Mary Wade Home received incumbent worker training funds recently for two programs — a leadership training course for certified medication technicians in its residential care unit, and a course in stress management, conflict resolution and compassionate customer service that was open to all employees.
“We’ve been doing these programs for years,” says Constance Crosley-Myers, Mary Wade’s director of staff development. “This is the first time we partnered with the Workforce Alliance to get funding.”
At the Mary Wade Home, medication technicians must take 32 hours more than the state-required eight-hour course for certification. “They have to pass our own test,” administrator Teresa Wells says, adding several of those who do are “hand-picked to take the four-part course on leadership created by our human-resource consultant, which covers all those things you might need in order to lead a shift and manage the problems that might arise.”
The leadership course has led to promotions, according to Wells. “Of those who were hired to work in a leadership role, eight have gone on to nursing school and several have come back here to work,” she says.
Between 15 and 20 employees, including kitchen workers, aides, nurses and department heads, are taking the stress-management session that began this March. It is taught by Jack Gesino, an associate professor in the social work department at Southern Connecticut State University, whom Wells describes as “not only a good teacher but also a clinical gerontologist whose specialty is families with seniors.”
Customer service is so important for Higher One that all employees are required to take a 20-hour training course, including home agents in five states, who use an online module. The company employs around 200 “customer care agents” most of the year but during peak times in spring and fall hires 300 to 400 more.
The “Stellar Service” training is designed to result in “the most beneficial experience for the customer, whether a parent, student or administrator” with the “same consistent quality of style,” explains CSO — Chief Service Officer — Casey McGuane. “We recognized early on [the need] to make sure we did the best job internally to provide the best service so our external renewal rate was strong.” The renewal rate, he adds, is nearly 100 percent.
The training involves “a lot of role playing,” McGuane says, and delves into the intricacies of verbal communication, including discussions of “words to be preferred and words to consider avoiding.” Employees are encouraged to use a stress ball and Slinkies during the process “to try to make it as fun as possible.”
Advanced Stellar training and Stellar facilitator training also is available to employees, who are encouraged to rate their peers on performance, and earn points that can be redeemed for gift cards at Amazon.com, Macy’s, Panera Bread and T.J. Maxx, among other retailers.
The company also offers two online game-based training modules for students using Higher One services, which focus on financial literacy and financial education.
Higher One’s new headquarters, a 140,000-square-foot facility being built in New Haven’s Science Park, will contain a main training room equipped “with the latest in video conferencing,” McGuane says. “We feel our commitment to Stellar Service has been very successful to us and continues to help us have a healthy organic growth engine.”
Some industries have well-developed training curriculum available to employers. Others are devising such programs.
The Marine Trades Association is working on a collaboration with the Sound School in New Haven in which employees of its members will receive scholarships to take marine technician training courses.
“Our hope is to keep our technicians up to date and get ten to 15 technicians out of that school every year to help augment the recreational marine industry workforce,” explains association President Grant Westerson.
Employees in other sectors are learning new skills in new technologies.
Green training is very much in vogue these days, with courses such as a new “Green Collar Champion” certification program offered by ConnSTEP and the Workforce Alliance deconstruction [of buildings] training program, which launched in New Haven last June.
To prepare for the arrival of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, expected in 2012, Mark Norko, shop foreman at the George Harte Nissan dealership in West Haven, has taken an online company course and will attend a week-long hands-on training session in Somerset, N.J.
“Before the car comes we have to have charge stations for customer and dealer-specific tools,” he says.
Norko began training to become a “Nissan Master” in 2000, and “finally made it in 2008, after taking 30 courses paid for by the dealership. Once you have your basic courses, you’re also required to do new model training every time something new comes out, and take more advanced update courses” on existing models, he says. “My job is to handle every problem car that comes in the door.”
From Villano’s vantage point, education is more important than ever.
“It’s really clear that all the increases in productivity and the changes in technology in the rapidly changing workplace demand a lifelong commitment to training and retraining,” says the Workforce Alliance leader.
Employers who don’t make that commitment risk falling by the wayside.