One More Time: Training As Career Development

At Grading & Excavation Contractor we have long made the point (expressed repeatedly in this column) that training is not just about getting employees up to speed on how to use a new software program or operate equipment. Really good training, worth the time employees spend on it and the treasure management directs toward it, involves investing in your employees as critical and valuable assets to your organization. What this takes is an expanded view of employee education-away from programs based on specialized skill training, whether developed by vendors or in-house, toward a focus on developing individuals within the context of your organization’s needs.

If there’s a common denominator that has emerged from our recent mini-series on innovative training programs, it’s that the best employees look to this kind of training as an aid in helping them do their job better, enjoy what they’re doing and advance with their current employer and in the industry as a whole. As one of the participants in the New Hampshire Grade Foreman’s Boot Camp put it, learning is a lifelong process, the path to a rewarding and lucrative career.

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According to Harry Ward, president of Harken-Reidar Inc., a company that offers training exclusively to the construction industry, the way to make this happen is for companies to lay out career tracks for their employees and offer organized programs that lead to promotion. “The idea is obvious,” says Ward. “You link training with advancement within an organization. It’s not only logical; it also takes the onus out of training and makes it real. Training becomes an experience that helps people in their careers rather than something they have to engage in because their boss says so.” Ward’s ideal is that every employee in every position in a company would have a set of courses, from safety and mathematics to such specialized job-based modules as computer-aided design and modeling, which they are required to complete to move up the chain.

We met Ward in our last issue when we profiled the programs he developed combining hardware and software training in machine control. (“A Man Who Speaks His Mind,” October/November 2014). One of his pet peeves is that employees in construction who have the greatest need for technology and automation typically come into the industry with lower levels of education (as opposed to surveyors, engineers, etc.), and that the industry would be wise to step up to the plate and give this spectrum of employees the training they need to do their jobs well.

A licensed engineer as well as a member of the faculty at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, Ward has been educating contractors on construction software and 3D modeling for over a decade. He designed training programs for Topcon when the company introduced Millimeter GPS and developed Carlson College, the software manufacturer’s highly successful training arm. He also works with construction firms around the country that recognize the virtue and practical consequences of investing in their employees, designing what he calls “Internal Universities,” which are focused on training as a path to career development. Companies like Brasfield & Gorrie General Contractors, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, which make employee development, from the time of hire onward, a critical component of their management policy.

“Our philosophy on training is not to have a “check the box” type of training program,” says Howard Davis, Brasfield & Gorrie’s Field Training Administrator. “We believe that if we provide the resources and opportunities, then employees will want to increase their knowledge and skills. Creating the “˜want to’ rather than requiring an employee to follow a certain path is the key. This provides buy-in and creates a drive to get as much out of the classes as possible. Whether those classes be craft training or leadership development, we have engaged employees because they choose to be there.”

Davis describes several layers of training, which reflect the company’s needs as one of the largest privately held construction firms in the country. The first layer is introductory/orientation training, which is required of all employees as a condition of employment. This is followed by compliance training. Requirements vary depending on the employee’s role, but this is typically safety training or HR training. After that comes career development training, which Davis handles for the company’s field forces (a counterpart doing the same for office personnel).

“As opposed to a step-by-step training program to move up in the field, we have suggested training hours and participation in training as a part of the yearly review and raise process. There are different offerings based on employees’ job descriptions and the career path they choose. As of today, we have classes for superintendents, foremen, field engineers, assistant field managers, and entry-level craft employees. All of these classes either focus on an employee’s specific craft or developing them for the next level. Harken-Reidar provides training for some of our Field Engineers that focuses on expanding their use of Carlson Software and AutoCAD systems. They have been doing this for several years and it has been a great success.”

The model for Ward’s Internal Universities is based on Harken-Reidar’s work with the state of Virginia, where the company is authorized under the Workforce Investment Act to retrain unemployed construction workers. “Many times people are laid off because they don’t have the skill set to move to another position,” says Ward, “and the company they worked for doesn’t have the philosophy or resources to invest in the training they need. The government’s position is that if we can teach someone like this skills that build on their experience, we can get them off the unemployment rolls. Maybe someone has some good field experience as a surveyor or inspector and what he or she needs is how to do the model. So we teach them some computer-aided design, some Carlson, or some Civil 3D, and off they go.”

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The students Ward sees most often tend to have no college experience and have been out of high school for a while and need refresher courses on things like basic math. “Nobody should be on a computer if they can’t do the calculations by hand,” says Ward, “because they have no idea whether the answers they get are right or wrong. When we teach this kind of course, instead of grabbing a calculator and announcing that we’re going through a bunch of equations, we take the approach that we’re going to look at some things they do every day.” Other courses in the curriculum might include basic computers and basic AutoCAD, after which students move into customized courses that reflect specific job skills.

“Although at Brasfield & Gorrie we haven’t put a dollar amount on this kind of training in terms of ROI,” says Davis, “we know through employee surveys that through our training programs they are becoming more engaged, better leaders, and building on our learning culture. We also know that by educating our employees about their particular craft, we are improving the industry as a whole.”