Lifelong learning is for contractors too

As I've listened to contractors over the years, there is one question they all ask: How do I keep my employees up to date on the latest information in the industry? The dilemma, they say, is that things are moving so fast at work. We're lucky to get the next bid out or the last job completed on schedule. We don't have time for training! Too often company owners simply hope their employees learn on

As I've listened to contractors over the years, there is one question they all ask: “How do I keep my employees up to date on the latest information in the industry?”

The dilemma, they say, is that things are moving so fast at work. “We're lucky to get the next bid out or the last job completed on schedule. We don't have time for training!” Too often company owners simply hope their employees learn on the job what they need to know to remain competitive, but leaving training to chance is risky.

In reality, opportunities exist for companies to train their workers. We are all lifelong learners at heart; with a little effort, contractors can tap into their employees' thirst for knowledge and develop an in-house training system that promotes not only professionalism but also personal growth.

At McCarl's Inc., a family business built into one of the top 50 mechanical contractors in the U.S., we had such a training vehicle. We made learning a component of our daily operations, and it was a win-win strategy. A focused training program helped us become a best-in-class company; our employees were more productive and more committed to the company. Our program, The McCarl Way University, was awarded the Robert E. Kent award from the Mechanical Contractors Association of America for innovation in the industry.

Top management had met and agreed that an in-house training program would help attract and retain the best employees. First, we did extensive research, including meetings with other companies and local colleges. Then we reviewed the performance evaluations of our employees to identify areas of critical need. Lastly, we developed a curriculum, and each course was designed with specific job titles, departments and employees in mind.

A meeting room was designated and equipped as a classroom. Employees with appropriate skills and the desire to teach were handpicked as instructors, and it became part of their job. In time, all in-house instructors were certified in the subjects they taught, from computer training to the seven habits of highly effective people. When we did not have the expertise on staff, we paid for outside instructors.

Classes often took place during business hours, and no one was away from their job for more than part of the day. We looked at our work schedule to identify the least busy times for classes. Employees were paid during normal business hours, and compensation took other forms as well. Many courses offered continuing education credits; all awarded certificates at completion. The improved performance of many employees earned them bonuses.

An unintended consequence was that communication at all levels got even better at McCarl's. Employees saw that their supervisors, department heads and human resources personnel were all part of their future, offering them the training to be their best. Relationships in-house improved, as did interaction with customers.

Based on our experience, here are four things to keep in mind when organizing an in-house training program:

  1. Consider the alternative. We tried sending employees to seminars, but with mixed results. Not only are seminars expensive, but they also are typically out of town and take employees off the job at inconvenient times — incurring travel costs, lost work time and lost personal time. Also, employees who attended seminars often found it difficult to transfer the knowledge they learned to their associates. For one thing, they found an overflowing in-box waiting for them when they returned to work.

  2. Make use of “teachers” on staff. We discovered we had many team members with great experience and the natural ability to share knowledge. These employees made up the core of our faculty. This peer-to-peer method of educating our employees added to our already strong sense of “Team McCarl.” It gave us a way to recognize talented individuals by letting them teach, and that started a “mentoring” mentality at the company.

  3. Define specific goals. McCarl team members had a development program that listed the classes required for them to attain their next level of success. This growth track tied into the annual performance evaluation. It also enabled our company to identify needs at key positions and often helped us to fill those needs with in-house personnel. For employees who wanted to cross-train or develop other skills, The McCarl Way University offered many technical classes as well as “lifestyle” training, such as public speaking.

  4. Innovate every day. We wanted to have a great education program at McCarl's, so we evaluated each class in the first week with each instructor, and changes were made regularly. This kept the classes fresh and the instructors focused on delivering a valuable asset.

Recognizing our employees' desire for lifelong learning helped to make the company best of class in every way. If you plug into this desire, you can lead your company on a path of success, sustainability and profitability.

F. James McCarl was president for more than 30 years of McCarl's Inc., a family business that he grew into one of the top 50 mechanical contractors in the U.S. McCarl's became a wholly owned subsidiary in 1999 of electric utility PPL Corp., Allentown, Pa. In 2003, McCarl became chairman of The McCarl Group (mccarlgroup.com), which helps family-operated businesses, mechanical contractors and nonprofits maximize their potential through strategic planning and risk management.