You need to train your people, but your budget is virtually nonexistent. So how do you satisfy your employees' thirst for knowledge without drowning them?

Competence and confidence is an ideal mixture in the workplace. Employees with these traits can motivate others to work together and create a safe and productive environment. How can you build this utopia at your facility? Establishing an effective training program is the best way to start. However, building a strong and knowledgeable staff isn't free. These 10 tips will help you make the most of your training dollars.

Tip 1: Use variety. You have many training media and methods available: Use as many as you feel comfortable with. For example, if you tell a group of electrici ans some facts about troubleshooting a new motor drive, you'll pass on some knowledge. But you'll pass on much more if you let them view a video on that drive, read the manual, watch another electrician working on it, or listen to a tape on how to troubleshoot it. The more ways you present information, the more your staff will learn and retain. Vary the pace and style of your training. Formal training is good, but informal training fills in many gaps. Magazines, books, and on-the-job training (OJT) are all very useful. Because magazines cover many topics in a single issue, you can bring the knowledge of many experts into one place.

Tip 2: Use repetition. Informal training repetition can mean you distill portions of the training into slogans, factoids, and images. Including slips of paper in with paychecks with a sentence or two about some idea can work well with safety training. You can also include photos, illustrations, or icons to get your point across. Even passing around a copy of a magazine article, maybe twice a year, can help employees remember important information. Refresher courses are also a form of formal training repetition. Recap previous sessions before continuing with new material.

You may also follow up with annual or semiannual recertification. Let's say someone earns a Master Electrician's License. That license requires extensive knowledge of the NE Code and how to make Code-related calculations. Yet, a typical Master Electrician will use only a portion of the knowledge needed for the exam, while expanding knowledge in other areas. If you have a monthly refresher course that takes, say, 1 hr each Friday, you keep the bulk of that knowledge at the front of the electrician's mind. Once a year, you can take a half-day to give a portion of the Master Exam in-house. Anyone going through even this low level of repetition will be 90% prepared for licensing day.

Tip 3: Use feedback. Feedback reinforces learning by making the student recall information. The method of feedback is important. For example, master exams tend to intimidate people. Brief quizzes reinforce the learning experience, without intimidation. In fact, success on frequent quizzes will boost the student's confidence. Quizzes can be formal, informal, oral, or written. Using these tools in combination is best.

For some reason, the learning communication path is wider when it has two-way traffic. One simple way to get feedback is to ask for it. For example: "What did you learn about photo sensors today? Take 5 min and tell me some details." Some companies try to get feedback by requiring electricians to write follow-up reports. This approach seems cold and impersonal, so the emotional element that reinforces the training just isn't there.

Tip 4: Administer small doses. Most people get "burned out" if they get too much of a good thing-at least too much at one time. That's just the way most minds work. If you're going to schedule a week of training, you'll do better to spread all five topics, a little at a time, across five days, rather than covering a full topic each day. Administratively, this is a little more work, but the payback is much higher. Having a tip of the day is another easy way to administer small doses.

Tip 5: Apply knowledge right away. It's too easy to forget something if you don't use it. Experts disagree on the "shelf life" of learning, but there's somewhat of a consensus you should wait no longer than two weeks to make use of newly acquired skills. Even if people didn't forget, they are much more motivated when they know they can put their learning investment to use right away.

When someone returns from a training session, assign that person some work related to that training. For example, if you're going to send a person to PLC training, delay non-emergency PLC work until that person gets back. Then, give that work to the person who just got the training. Remember the saying made famous by Gloria Steinem, "Tell me, and I'll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I'll understand."

Tip 6: Make it interes ting. Bore people, and their minds become stones instead of sponges. Keep material dry, and you get nowhere.

First, if you're using written materials, how do they sound when you read them out loud? Does the writer try to bring you into the discussion? Do you feel any emotional response? Does the material sound wordy or stuffy? If so, it makes poor training material. It needs to be concise and clear. If the material sounds like the author wrote it to impress someone with a huge vocabulary, rather than to share with the reader, then that's probably the case. On the other hand, if the writer seems to be talking to you, this is probably good material to use in training.

Second, can you draw any parallels between the material and other interests of the students? Can you show them how this will affect their work or lives? Does it relate to any outside interests? Build a profile of each person.

Third, add an interactive element whenever you can. Group projects and discussions help accomplish this objective. It's always good to ask people how this relates to their work. "Do you have breakers that give you nuisance trips?" Another question might be: "Do you have any sloppy wireway in your plant?" Personalize the training to make it interesting. People are more interested when you're helping them solve their problems than when you're passing on information they don't have an immediate need for. Find that need!

Tip 7: Use training experts. Several companies produce interesting training videos and other aids that use the principles of variety, repetition, and small doses. Who are the experts? Certainly, a company that makes motors knows about motors. A company that makes digital multimeters knows about digital multimeters. These companies provide training aids at very low prices. You can find some of these by looking through this issue of EC&M.

Realize you have experts among your own people. They may not know everything, but they know enough to be a good resource for training. The typical OJT arrangement is apprentices working under a journeyman. If you keep track of the kinds of work assigned to the apprentices, you can count their experience as training.

Let's say you have an annealing furnace with specialized controls. You have four people who maintain the furnace. One of them always serves as the brains when you do any major repair or troubleshooting. That person may be the one you need to pair other people with. You could use the same OJT techniques electrical apprentices use: hands-on training under the guidance of a qualified person.

If you want your in-house experts to put on formal training, educate them on how to train others. Your local community college is one resource, or send your experts to one of the many "train the trainer" seminars.

Tip 8: Use your vendors. Vendors routinely put on mini-courses. While these may accent a particular product, it's worth it to pass on information an attendee can use. Many times, a vendor will come to your office or plant. Many companies train their sales representatives. Granted, that training tends to be equipment-specific, but don't you buy and use specific equipment?

This type of training has some side benefits. For one thing, your own people become familiar with the vendors on a first-name basis. Sometimes, this can get you exceptional service you wouldn't get otherwise. You also learn more about your equipment and usually wind up on the short list for product update information; and the ball caps, screwdrivers, and pens vendors usually hand out at these mini-courses are always an added bonus.

Tip 9: Use a matrix. Many engineers and financial types often use spreadsheets. If you don't have spreadsheet knowledge, ask for help. If you don't have a matrix, you're administering your training in a haphazard manner. This says something to the people who work for you. Change the message to a positive one.

Nobody likes to be behind their coworkers. If posted prominently, a matrix allows people to compare their own training progress with their peers. This can have a motivating effect. Before you post such a matrix, though, make sure you've taken at least the first step toward correcting imbalances. If someone feels cheated, it'll be counterproductive to showcase the reasons why.

Tip 10: Give everyone a chance. What was that comment about feeling cheated? If you leave an employee behind the group in terms of training, you marginalize that person. Use training to show you have confidence in them and their contribution is important.

When you show everyone is important, through the way you administer training, you have a positive effect on the team dynamic. When everyone is an expert in something, then you've accomplished one of the main goals of training: a strong, knowledgeable staff. The attitudes from such an environment give rise to teamwork as well as excellence.