Investing in Employee Training

It’s Got Bottom-Line and Employee-Retention Benefits

by Charles McChesney, Senior Editor

Nobody is born knowing how to distribute gases and welding supplies. But at thousands of facilities across the country and around the world, gases get safely delivered and hardgoods get sold every single day. This happens because, along the way, the people who do the work at distributorships have been trained in every aspect of their jobs.

For many employed in the business, their training took place on the job, as they learned, position by position, what it takes to properly handle and correctly fill cylinders, to work at the counter at a retail location or to drive a truck and deliver gases to customers. For some, the lessons continued onto inside sales, then outside sales, and perhaps in time to positions of leadership and even in the executive ranks.

Many GAWDA member firms have created formalized or semi-formal programs to provide training to their employees. These programs give workers insight not just into their current job, but positions they may aspire to in the future. Other companies are cross-training employees so they can cover for each other if someone is out of work. Still others are developing programs to ensure everyone in the business — including those in back-office operations — has a clearer idea of what’s involved in welding and gases overall, so they are better able to communicate when they work with customers.

Companies also invest in sales training, which can focus on teaching techniques to sales people or familiarizing sales people with the features and benefits of the products they sell.

Safety = Fundamental

Safety training is fundamental at many distributorships. At General Distributing Company, in Great Falls, Mont., each week begins with a safety meeting and every new hire goes through hazardous material general awareness training. It is part of their onboarding process, says Michele Covino, General Distributing’s human resource manager and compliance officer.

Those who work in General Distributing’s fill plant and all the company’s drivers are also required to have hazmat security instruction. “Part of our ongoing training is that we retest all employees for the hazmat awareness every three years,” Covino says. The test is done online and Covino can see how well each employee did on the test and how long it took them to complete the work. To keep safety consistent across General Distributing’s branches throughout Montana — no small feat in the fourth largest state in the Union — branch store new hires are required to complete safety training within three months of joining the company.

At Butler Gas Products, in Pittsburgh, Penn., safety meetings are held monthly. The meetings are done in different sessions so that the entire work force can participate without bringing the business to a standstill. “We prioritize without hurting customer service,” Butler Executive Vice President Abydee Butler Moore says of the meetings.

Some distributors turn to vendors for help with training, particularly basic technical lessons. “We rely on our vendors a lot,” says Brady Bush, vice president and general manager of A-L Compressed Gases of Spokane, in Spokane, Wash. The second Wednesday of each quarter, Bush gathers the company’s 12 outside sales people for a training meeting. “We’ll discuss what we’re seeing out there and how we can help each other,” Brady says of the meeting’s first hour. After that, vendors make hour-long presentations, bringing A-L’s people up to speed on the latest equipment or trends. In the third quarter, the employees heard from the maker of automated welding and cutting products, a representative of an abrasive company and another rep from a company that makes helmets, tapes, safety products and adhesives.

Some A-L branches are hours away from the Spokane office, so Bush sets the schedule a year in advance so everyone can block the time and plan to attend. Every couple of years, A-L sends people more than 1,500 miles to a session with a major supplier for more in-depth training.

Teresa Moore handles operations at Koehler Welding Supply. She came to the company with knowledge from a previous employer in the industry and used that experience to show others at Koehler how to operate new machinery. In time, she says, Koehler sent two workers to formal training with the manufacturer of the gas-moving equipment, and they have been sharing what they learned since returning from the two-day class.

U.S. Workshops

Pferd, the Germany-based maker of abrasives, has an extensive training program for its distributors and their customers, explains John Thompson, the company’s national technical sales manager.

Twelve times a year Pferd hosts two-day workshops at its U.S. headquarters in Milwaukee. The firm conducts the training to improve distributor employees’ understanding of the company’s products and what the products can do for end users. Sessions include classroom work, but are mostly hands-on. After the program concludes, even people with decades in the business have expressed surprise at what they didn’t know, Thompson says. Pferd also offers safety training to final users at the request of distributors. Those who take the classes can earn safety certificates. It’s a program that helps build the relationship between distributor and customer, Thompson says, and can come in handy when a customer is pushing for a discount.

Weldcoa’s Precision University is another training alternative. The maker of gas filling equipment uses a functioning specialty gas filling facility in Aurora, Ill., to offer training in specialty gas mixing, gas chromatography and process instrumentation. Participants receive certification in the processes they learn.
Other vendors provide training at their facilities or at distributorships, depending on demand.

At General Air Service and Supply Company, in Denver, Steven Duren has an unusual title: engineered solutions education manager. He is focused on getting more employees to a higher level of technical knowledge. “I just thought it would be a good idea to start teaching everyone the basics,” he explains. Duren conducts small classes of two or three employees, and sometimes a single employee at a time, to encourage questions and avoid intimidation. He typically spends two-and-a-half days with those who are learning about welding, including flux core and TIG. “It’s been working pretty well,” Duren says. So far, 50 employees have been through the course. That’s just under a third of all General Air employees. Duren says the company uses the customer experience and subsequent sales measures as metrics for determining the effectiveness of its training programs. He notes that the company is pleased to see that, even though there has been something of an industry decline, sales levels are staying at satisfactory levels.

Jim Bonestell has launched a similar program at Noble Gas Solutions in Albany, N.Y., with a slightly broader goal. Bonestell has set out to train everyone in the business so they know a little something about welding and gases — even people in accounting and other operations — where striking a spark isn’t part of the daily grind. The program started with some counter staff and sales people receiving simple instructions on oxy fuel, plus some book training and online training using websites hosted by vendors. Then came the hands-on training. Bonestell says the goal is that, while “I don’t expect them to be phenomenal welders, I do expect them to understand the theory and the components.”

Everyone’s in Sales

Since “Everyone who works here is a salesperson,” according to James Earlbeck, president of Earlbeck Gases & Technologies, everyone gets a chance at training.

During a recent week, 10 of Earlbeck’s 36 employees learned about plasma cutting. They came from customer service, shipping and receiving and operations, and arrived a half hour ahead of opening in order to fit in training time. “The more they know, the more competent they will be in their positions,” Earlbeck says. Sales Manager Joe Vincent agrees that training benefits the employee, and ultimately, the customer, too. “When their employee growth is on the right track, I believe we’re on the right track,” he says.

Providing training also is a way to reach out to the next generation, Earlbeck says. “One common thread is millennials want to be taught. They want to keep growing. So why not feed that desire?”

The role that training can play in transferring skills and knowledge from the current generation of workers to the next is underscored in research conducted by The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Its research found that “younger workers want opportunities for development and self-improvement, even if that means searching for employment outside their current organization.”

That is a diplomatic way of saying millennials will quit if they aren’t getting enough opportunities for self-improvement. It’s a reality that can’t be brushed off in some sort of inter-generational pique, because the welding and gases industry, like other industries in North America, needs an influx of new blood. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that by 2022 more than one-quarter of the U.S. labor force will be in the 55-plus age category, compared with roughly one-fifth of it only 10 years earlier, in 2012.

That reality check comes to bear in a job market where 68 percent of human resources professionals already are reporting difficulty finding people to fill full-time jobs, according to SHRM. The situation isn’t just that there may not be people to do the work, but that there won’t be enough people who know how to do it. According to the organization, “As huge numbers of baby boomers prepare for and enter into retirement, organizations are at huge risk of a brain drain and a massive loss of intellectual capital.” Training, therefore, is necessary not just to bring new workers up to speed, but to pass along the knowledge the current generation of gases and welding workers, leaders and owners have accumulated during their long careers.

Many GAWDA members report that they address this need in part by having newer workers learn from and train with more experienced workers. When a worker expresses interest in moving up to sales at A-L, Brady Bush will bring that worker in on a Saturday (which is a pretty quiet day on the counter), and pair him or her with a veteran. “They get a taste for it,” he says.

Others utilize branch managers or sales managers to informally initiate younger workers into the intricacies of the industry.

Jim Bonestell, left, branch manager for Noble Gas Solutions, of Albany, N.Y., shares a lesson with fellow employees as part of the company’s efforts to educate all workers about its products and how customers use them.

Glenn Bliss, president at General Distributing, saw a need to revamp the way the company handles not only its training, but even its hiring practices to meet the challenges of the developing workforce. Early this decade, General Distributing was plagued by employee turnover of 25 percent or more, he says, which drove up costs for the six-branch company. So the company made some changes.

A new, more formal interviewing process and a tighter screening process were adopted. Turning the usual practice on its head, General Distributing now requires an applicant to have three references from an applicant, and those references must call the company on the applicant’s behalf. The change helps the company “weed out low performers,” Covino reports. New hires also take a job-match personality assessment, she adds. Once a person is hired, Covino personally handles their start on the job, spending time with each of them on the first day of work. Even if the employee is working in one of General Distributing’s far-flung branches, she goes to each location to onboard that employee.

General Distributing also has changed its review process, moving away from annual reviews toward shorter, quicker quarterly reviews, and pushes the process down to the manager level. The company also started using a version of the job-match personality assessment to help decide promotions. “It kind of takes the bias out of it,” Bliss says. “The results are interesting; it does help.” These changes have dropped turnover levels at General Distributing to around 7 or 8 percent, Bliss says. While that’s above the 5 percent goal he and Vice President Eric Bliss have set, it’s a third of where the rate was just a few years ago.

Does Training Work?

So, does all this effort to train employees work? And importantly, does it pay off? Is it worth the expense to distributors in work time lost to training days or meetings?

When it comes to safety, the answer is plain. Training not only works, it is necessary. As GAWDA’s consultants can attest, welding and gases is a highly regulated industry and training is part of doing business.
What about all the sales training? Does it lead to higher sales?

“The benefits are huge,” according to A-L’s Brady Bush. While most customers know what they want, sometimes customers come in with many questions. If the staff can’t answer them, well, that’s a missed opportunity, as he sees it. “Sometimes it’s hard to quantify what you get with the training. But to see these inside guys take the information they get and use it on a daily basis, that tells me it is money well spent. I can see them put that information to use.” He illustrates how that works, and how the trade-off shows up. Now-trained staff handle matters that used to require assistance from someone in the service department, he says. “That frees up a whole lot of time for the guys in service. Obviously, that’s where we’re making money. So if service guys don’t have to handle these questions across the counter, they can work on the stuff that pays. For us that’s a big deal,” Bush reports.

Pferd’s Thompson says his company foots the bill for its training programs and sees results. “We see a bump every time groups come in. We go back and look at their ordering cycles. We see that they are more comfortable working with Pferd. They have actually picked up and used the product,” he says.

Glenn Bliss values training, even in tough times, which he says his company is experiencing this year. “We have not cut back. Training is not one of the areas we would cut back. Especially when it comes to the safety training; the technical training is critical as well,” he says. What might get pulled back somewhat is soft-skill training, with the company working on that internally, he ascedes.

Though Bliss readily concedes that the benefits of training aren’t quite quantifiable, he relies on feedback from customers to gauge its value. Recounting customer praise for the sales staff “about how passionate they are about the business and how caring they are,” he notes that these “are the soft skills that you try to train, but it’s hard to teach someone to care.” Bliss says customers have told him that staff members, “really know what they are doing. They’ve helped me out. When they call on me they are either bringing me new products or ideas or they are smart enough when I say, ‘I’ve got a problem;’ they can help me.”

Training is important in any business, says sales training expert Earl Honeycutt, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Elon University in central North Carolina. “It cuts down on turnover, helps performance and makes the sales manager’s job easier because your people are knowledgeable about what they are selling.” And it is not optional, he concludes. “Training is just part of the management’s job.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association