Few people actually talk negatively about training and developing employees but even fewer actually do a good job of it. Employee shortages will continue and are not just a temporary phenomenon. In the last 30 years, the number of workers over age 55 in the U.S. had doubled while the number of workers ages 18-24 has dropped 29%.

These are statistics, not a political statement. The birthrate in the U.S. just dropped for the sixth year in a row. Finding employees, particularly field employees, is going to be an ever-increasing competitive situation. Our workers are aging, which means companies will have to replace an aging workforce with new recruits. This in turn will increase the demand for employee development.

Too many contractors use the osmosis training method. Osmosis is the process of absorption and diffusion. It’s an effortless and unconscious assimilation. In other words, throw a new recruit into the crew and he or she will learn the trade by the natural association of being there. While this works for some, for many it does not. Infiltrating a crew with a new employee does not ensure he or she will learn the trade.

When it comes to training, many of us think of Votech or apprenticeship programs. The simple truth is that neither really represent a majority of people entering the trades. Votech is not necessarily supported by the educational community. Also, many new hires are too impatient to participate in a formal apprenticeship program or there is not one available in their trade or area. Most contractors are really not developing employees with either of these methods. Again, most throw new people into a crew where unless they are a self-starter, they drown.

Many trade skills are repetitive. Training and coaching people one on one or in small groups can have a tremendous impact on their skill progression. Remember when you dad taught you how to hit a baseball? He didn’t just show you once or twice and expect you to hit the ball. He didn’t show you a movie or video. He made you practice. He coached you over and over while correcting what you needed to improve. He also deconstructed the skill required into bite-size pieces. Your stance, how to hold the bat, how you step into the ball, etc. So, what are some basic requirements in developing people?

Follow good coaching practicing. Coaching should follow a simple formula:

  • Show them what to do
  • Let them try to do it
  • Correct to improve skill required
  • Let them try it again
  • Correct if necessary
  • Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Yet, most contractors rarely train someone to do a specific task through repetition and isolation. Again, osmosis is the training method of choice. Expose them to jobsite activities and they will learn. Unfortunately, learning doesn’t work this way and it certainly isn’t how your dad taught you how to hit a baseball.

Many contracting tasks require repetitive skills. Start by identifying what skills you would like to help workers develop. Limit your selection to no more than 10 skills. Deconstruct the skill into bite-size pieces. What to do first, second, third, etc. Be as specific as possible. Show step-by-step how to perform the skill and then let the trainee try. Correct and repeat. Training one on one or with no more than one or two people is best. Remember, workers can be very prideful and may not want to make mistakes in front of a large group. Most blue-collar workers are visual and hands-on learners. You can show a video on how to do something, but people learn by jumping in and doing it.

Think of this training as a way to give the trainee a chance to succeed. While he or she may not become a superstar with just a few hours of practice, it gives the person a chance to succeed. Without any training to hit a baseball, your son or daughter may end up as a ball fetcher. Without some starter craft training, that new employee may end up as a laborer and quit.

Such specific skill training will produce results. Very few of your field supervisors are exceptional at training people. Plus, we require them to hit budgets and make productivity. Having a new person to train conflicts with the goal of the foreman’s production accountability.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been doing this for 40 years but with that comes some experience. The vast majority of people who read this article will agree with some of it, if not all of it, but few will change their behavior. Unless there’s a devastating depression, workers of tomorrow will be a much sought-after commodity. It’s just math.