In the Know: Small Classes and Hands On

When it comes to training, it helps to know what you’re talking about, to stop a minute and evaluate what you think you know. We know, for example, that training involves the presentation of information, and hopefully opportunities to practice, and that the goal is to develop a minimum standardized proficiency among employees tasked with similar jobs and responsibilities. In the construction industry, this mostly involves learning new or different software, equipment, technology, or revisions in procedures brought about by any of the three. We expect a result from this type of training that is immediate, specific, and obvious: The employee does-or does not-perform the desired behavior. If yes, then we conclude all is well and abandon further action. If not, we wring our hands and cast about for scapegoats.

This kind of training is typically the purview of professional trainers, the kind of instruction software developers insist is crucial and equipment manufacturers maintain employees don’t get enough of. Managers have been known to criticize the time it requires and worry about its efficacy, failing to spend any significant time evaluating the quality and value of the experiences to which their employees are subject. The result is that much of this is boring for both managers and employees, in part because it’s based on what vendors and regulators believe is important to learn, which can result in material that is overly generalized and rote and uninspiring.

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The good news is that training has another side. To train also means to help grow and develop. Good training with competent instructors, the opportunity for hands-on experience and substantive instructor interaction can help employees progress and grow in their jobs and develop into valuable organizational assets. This kind of training lays the groundwork for discovery, providing opportunities for employees to expand their skills and develop their curiosity and initiative. It also provides a vehicle for advancing people who will make a contribution to the companies for which they work.

Before anything, training is about competency, but not just the limited competency involved with the mechanics of a software or technology. Good training involves confidence on the part of employees that they have the wherewithal to expand into opportunities they might not have otherwise considered. In addition to hands-on experience, this kind of training typically involves the opportunity to ask questions and exchange information with people whose jobs are similar and who are facing similar challenges, which opens a window to a wider world and help employees project where they might go in an organization. Often this type of training isn’t product specific. Because of all this, it can be costly and time-consuming compared with webinars and self-paced learning.

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Pie in the sky, you say? Not really. In the next few columns we’ll take a look at training programs that aim to fulfill training’s second function, both as resources that contractors can take advantage of and models to incorporate in their own programs.

A little over a year ago we reported on a program developed by a New Hampshire construction instrument dealer and an engineer aimed at helping small and midsize contractors gain the competency they needed in surveying and layout technology. This introductory course originated as the New Hampshire Grade Foreman Boot Camp and offered a comprehensive overview of the essential concepts needed to utilize today’s modern survey equipment and computers for construction layout. It was a two-day course, limited to 22 individuals (two over the designated cutoff) whose employers paid $2,500 to send them. The Construction Education Academy (CEA), which developed and presented the course, was the brainchild of Tim Edes of Eastpoint Lasers LLC, in Hooksett, NH, and Kent Brown of Brown Engineering LLC, in Meredith, NH. After more than two years of operation, CEA has expanded and in January 2014 offered its first advanced course focusing on Carlson takeoff and surface modeling software.

Edes describes himself as being “on a mission” to teach small and midsized contractors the ins-and-outs of high-tech layout and surveying equipment and software. “It’s not that contractors don’t want to be up to date and take advantage of the newest technology; they don’t know where they can get the training they need. Our customers kept asking me where they could go for additional training, and I didn’t have a place to send them. These little guys aren’t going to the big national programs like Trimble Dimensions. They need something more local. In the introductory course, we looked for the guy in a company who’s a worker but doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life on a pipe crew. A guy who’s already shown an aptitude for math and doing layouts and will be sticking around for a while.”

Both the introductory and advanced courses use a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training. Both are taught by Edes, based on his knowledge and expertise as a dealer working with contractors, and include invited guest instructors. Todd Carlson from Carlson Software participated in this year’s inaugural advanced course, along with a professional model maker whose background is in construction as opposed to software development (based on CEA’s preference that instructors have on-the-ground experience).

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CEA has also streamlined its introductory course, which it still limits to 20 people, from two weeks to one, developed its own computer lab and arranged to provide the hands-on part of the course in a heated indoor soccer field to avoid downtime due to weather. We talked with two graduates of the introductory course about their experience and why they elected to take the advanced modeling course.

Tom Burke of Gordon T. Burke and Sons Inc. in North Conway, NH, is third generation in a construction company that was founded by his grandfather in 1946, and with his cousin is in line for leading the company in the technology-dominated 21st century. “You have to have technology to keep up, and Tim’s introductory course gave me all the basic skills to do general applications, particularly given that we went back to the basics. This was helpful, because some of the technology has you ahead of these fundamentals. Going out in the field and using the equipment, whether it’s a total station or GPS or rover, you become familiar with how everything works. And being in a room of 20 people like yourself, you get their view of how they do things compared to how you do it. Everybody can ask questions and help one another-you wouldn’t get that off a webinar. And because the course isn’t focused on just one manufacturer, you get to try different kinds of equipment and see the advantages of the other styles of software.” According to Edes, the introductory course covers software for the three main data collectors. Participants fill out a preregistration form that includes what software they’re running, and if it’s not something they regularly feature, CEA brings additional instructors.

“We didn’t have Carlson before I went to the class,” says Burke, “but I really saw a lot of advantages and how it could save time, so we ended upgrading.” Next year he expects his cousin will take the introductory course and the advanced Carlson course the year after.

Ben Inman at Weaver Brothers Construction Co. Inc., in Concord, NH, took the introductory course after he graduated from the University of New Hampshire. He worked as a laborer during college, went to work fulltime after he graduated and the company sent him to the course. “I went to college for civil engineering, and I’ve been learning as I go along. In the past year and a half, I’ve gone from being a foreman of pipe to grade foreman.

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“The thing that benefited me the most was that the course was hands on, and it’s a small group. You’re not distracted, and you have the benefit that the teacher can focus on each person and make sure everyone understands everything before they move along. In some aspects for me the course was a refresher, but seeing the equipment and being able to touch it for the first time was new. And it wasn’t until two years later-now when I’m actually running some of that equipment and remember it from the class-that I realize how valuable it was. I’ve actually dived into some of the things we talked about, and because of the smaller class size, I can bring back what I learned.

“The company bought a new robotic total station, which is technology they hadn’t thought about until we got into a situation on a job site where we needed it. Since I had seen in it the class, I suggested we rent it so I could get used to running it, and then we could purchase it, which is what we did. With a 30-minute reminder from the dealer and what I remembered from the class, I said to myself, “˜I can do this,’ and I began to layout that day. Not only wouldn’t I have known how to use it if I hadn’t taken the class, but I wouldn’t have known what it could do for me.”

Ben also recommended that his employer purchase Carlson takeoff software and took CEA’s January advanced course so he could learn the ins and outs and “demonstrate its productivity. I don’t think I will be ready to do large jobs like large highway jobs right off the bat, but I can do some 3D models, slopes, take in a file that maybe needs to be dressed up and fine-tuned and do comparisons of existing grade to final grade and get quantities as the job progresses.

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“A course like this is a forever learning type of thing. You’re supposed to continue your learning-that’s what the professors told me at school-don’t stop learning. I want to progress with this technology and take it as far as it can go. When I graduated from college, the company asked me what I wanted to do here, and I said I want to integrate new technology into this company.” He thinks for a minute. “What I want is to be their engineer.”

Enough said. For more information on CEA and how they train, go to