How To Build An Effective On-The-Job Training Program

Let’s start with a terrifying fact for employers: 40 percent of employees who receive poor (or no) on-the-job training leave within the first year of employment. And when employees leave, it costs you.

Think on-the-job training is too expensive or too much of a hassle to deal with?

You need to have a an on-the-job training program in your business. On-the-job training is an investment in time and money, but it’s also an investment into your most important asset: your employees.

What Is On-The-Job Training?

On-the-job training is a program designed to help employees gain hands-on knowledge in the workplace.

Why Do You Need On-The-Job Training?

On-the-job training seems like it would mainly benefit employers. After all, well-trained and skilled employees mean increased productivity and growth. But there’s so much more to it.

Look at that statistic — almost half of employees leave a business because of lack of training! Clearly there is something more at stake for employers than just having skilled employees. Offering great on-the-job training programs is necessary because:

  1. You will have happier employees. Employees who are given on-the-job training, for example, are more committed to your business. The are also happier, and 30 percent are more excited about their work (as opposed to 14 percent who receive no training).
  2. You will build a pool of employees that you can promote. By providing on-the-job training to employees, you are creating a highly skilled workforce in your business as well as creating a mindset of “always learning.” This pays off big when you need to promote managers in the future. You have a loyal and skilled pool of employees to choose from, employees who already know your business.
  3. You will attract employees during hiring. If your company exists in a tight job market or in an industry where it is difficult to attract (and retain) good employees, on-the-job training can help. It’s an attractive benefit for employees who want to better themselves, and it indicates you’re willing to build your company from the inside, hinting at the possibility of promotion.
  4. You build flexibility into your workforce. Gone is the attitude of “that’s not my job” when you have a workforce that is trained well. While you don’t want to train every employee to do everything (more on that later), training can extend employee abilities beyond a narrow and walled approach of only doing the bare minimum.

When Should You Start On-The-Job Training?

For smaller companies, or those just getting off the ground, it may seem as if on-the-job training isn’t necessary. At some point, though, you will probably need to institute an on-the-job training program. When does that point arrive?

Changes require on-the-job training, whether it’s a change in employees, promotions, or how you do business. Some of the most common changes that need some sort of on-the-job training include:

  • Change in technology. For example, you’ve updated the point-of-sale system that you use or started using an employee scheduling app.
  • Change in business practice. You’ve pivoted, changing your focus or goals as a company.
  • Change in company policies. You’ve changed how your employees do their work, or what you expect of them.
  • Lots of new employee hires. You have a larger number of new employees than long-time employees, i.e. most of your workforce doesn’t know how things work while fewer do.
  • Noticeable slow-down in productivity. Whether on the factory line or in the office, productivity slow-downs are an indicator that employees don’t know what to do. There’s a glitch in your system.
  • Your business is growing.
  • Your current training was the bare minimum.

Many companies get by, even through significant changes, by leaning on the fact that the long-time employees will naturally work with new hires simply because if they don’t, the work doesn’t get done. That’s a bad habit to get into; it breeds dissatisfaction and frustration, and chases away long-term employees who get fed up.

If you’re not immediately sold on the idea of setting up some form of on-the-job training, a good rule of thumb is to watch for chaos or complaints that seem to surround some of the changes listed above. If you see it, you’re already behind the training curve.

A better option?

Assume your company is growing and will need on-the-job training and get started planning it right now. Don’t wait for the change and subsequent chaos.

Planning Successful On-The-Job Training Programs

Creating a training program is not difficult as long as you break it down into logical steps. The ADDIE method is particularly useful when starting a training program from scratch:

  • Assessment: what do your employees need to know and be able to do in order to successfully do their jobs?
  • Design: what will your on-the-job training program look like?
  • Development: what methods, resources, and materials will be in your training program?
  • Implementation: how will you implement your training program?
  • Evaluation: how will you know if your training met both your employees’ needs and your needs?

The ADDIE method is flexible, essentially asking that you preconsider what you need and want for your specific business, and then design and measure accordingly.

Assessment, the first component of ADDIE, is a particularly important part of successfully creating a training program. You will be answering questions such as:

  • What do your employees need to know?
  • What do your employees already know?
  • How do your employees learn best?
  • What do I need from my employees?
  • What do my employees expect?
  • What kind of training meets all of these needs?
  • Do I have qualified people to do the training?

Know what you want over the long-term.

Part of assessment is understanding what you want, starting with your larger business goals. Once you’ve defined what success is in this regard, you are able to understand what goals you need to set to get you there.

First, what are your broad and strategic goals? Is it productivity? Profits? Loyal employees? Community reputation? Continued growth, both financially and as a team?

Write down the long-term goals you want to see. Keep these in mind as you follow through with the rest of the assessment process.

Know what each specific job requires.

Assessment includes determining the specific needs of specific employees and jobs.

On-the-job training isn’t a one size fits all form of learning. It is specific to the job at hand. Even if you have a foundational element to all on-the-job training, sooner or later the training must veer off into the specific jobs and requirements of each employee.

Start by listing the qualifications, skills, and knowledge a specific job requires. You are trying to create a definition of what an ideal employee in that specific job is able to do. It might include technology, customer service, teamwork skills, attitudes, organizational skills, collaboration skills, and so on. If you have employees who seem to excel in a specific job, consider what skills and abilities they had when you hired them, and how some of those might (surprisingly) be necessary for the job even if you hadn’t considered them before. Write down what each skill and ability brings to the job, and why it is necessary.

Next, list what skills most employees have when they arrive. This is not a negative exercise in looking down on your employees; you are simply trying to determine a baseline for a typical hire so you can better understand the starting point for most employees.

Finally, list the gaps you see in what that ideal looks like and what most employees historically have had upon arrival. You likely already know the areas of strain. Think of the struggles employees have had in a specific job in terms of productivity, customer service, and overall understanding. Consider times you’ve had to repeat yourself or ask employees to redo work. Recall the communication or teamwork hiccups that slow things down. This indicates a need for better training.

Now you have a better picture that compares what an employee needs and what they generally have. That gap is where your training is going to fill in.

Do this for each position in your company. You cannot use a cookie cutter approach to all employees across different departments or jobs. At the end of this exercise, you will have defined what each job requires from an employee, and the areas where most employees struggle in that job.

Determine the hard and soft skills.

There are two types of skills for your employees: hard skills and soft skills. Each job will have a different mix of both.

Hard skills are more “industrial”; these are the skills that are used to finish specific tasks. Usually they involve checklists or hardware.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are those that deal with people and policies. This is where your customer service and interpersonal training comes in, for example. Much of these are found in your employee handbook, and there is more overlap of soft skills between different jobs than there are hard skills.

Make a list of what hard and soft skills are needed for your different on-the-job training paths. You’ll find you don’t have to reinvent the wheel if you understand areas where the soft skills repeat for most of your employees. You may even be able to do some on-the-job training with a larger group when covering these overlapping skills, breaking off to do separate training for the hard skills.

Identify necessary tools and systems.

Assessment also requires that you find problem areas in the tools and systems that your employees use.

Look at the list you made where you identified trouble spots in productivity, communication, and employee output. Was it solely based on the employee’s lack of skills and education, or do is there some blame to be placed on the tools and systems they had to work with?

Before you can create a training program, you need to be sure those tools and systems are in order. All the training in the world won’t improve employee productivity and output if what they have to work with is broken.

Common areas of breakdown are:

  • Communication systems. Do you have a complex system of notes, memos, and hierarchy in order for your team to communicate with each other and with you? Or, do you have a vague system so that there is no clear understanding for employees on how they communicate a problem higher up the chain? Communication breakdown has to be fixed, most often by simplifying the system, but also by simply enforcing adherence to it. Is it easy for your employees to communicate in your business?
  • Technology. The frustration of employees working on old technology knows no bounds. Your employees may be much better at technology than you realize, but are hamstrung by what they have to work with. Upgrades and modern technology make on-the-job training more beneficial. Being trained to learn old technology feels backwards and is not appealing to an employee. Being trained to use new technology is exciting and instills that sense of loyalty. Do you need to update your technology before investing in training for the outdated tech?
  • Job boundaries. Depending on your company culture or the type of business you run, you may or may not have job descriptions. Whichever the case, you should be clear on which one it is. If one employee expects a job description to be honored and others are busy doing everything, you’ll have lots of conflict. Are employee work boundaries (or the lack thereof) made clear?

Be sure you aren’t asking your employees to use broken tools and systems. On-the-job training that forces them to do so will feel less like training and more like a joke. Get things streamlined and up-to-date so that any training feels like forward motion instead of a waste of time.

Determine what the training will look like.

Do you have a vision of what the training will look like? Where will it be held? What format will it be in? Your on-the-job training might be in-person, online, via video, or all of the above.

Decide which formats and materials will fit best with your objectives and your workplace. Some training will be in-depth classroom style training initially, and assigning a mentor to new employees to help them put that knowledge to work. Other on-the-job training will be of the structured variety.

Structured on-the-job training programs are useful for businesses where employees are performing repetitive tasks, such as an industrial job. In this situation, your on-the-job training is task-oriented and often uses an employee who has the necessary skills already. Using a company provided and standardized checklist of necessary tasks, the training employee works with the new employee to make sure they understand what they are to do and that they know to follow the standard checklist. Once the new employee has demonstrated the necessary skill, they are signed off to begin. This type of on-the-job training is the most basic, requiring only the skill of a current employee (who ought to be patient and not domineering) and a checklist that your company has created and made available.

However, not every company can use something as basic as a checklist.

You may have employees dealing with fluid situations that aren’t as structured. Trainers, particularly for in-depth on-the-job training that doesn’t fall into the structured on the job category, need to be a skilled teacher. It’s not always enough to simply ask an employee who already does the job to do the training for those who are new. Not everyone learns the same way, after all, and a good trainer (as well as a good program) has to determine how an employee learns in order to apply the training to them in a way that will work. Some people learn by:

  • Doing: Practice doing actual tasks or through simulations.
  • Feeling: Participate in role playing, group activities, or talk about personal experiences that relate.
  • Thinking: Prefer independent activities, reading, or taking tests.
  • Observing: Attend lectures and seminars, solve specific problems, or discussions.

While you may not be able to tailor an entire training course to every individual learning style, creating a set of possible options, particularly when testing or determining if an objective has been met, may give each employee a better chance at “passing” to the next level of training.

For example, you may give three options for an employee to show you that they have learned what you trained them, allowing them to choose to take a written test, have a conversation, or do role playing to illustrate their new knowledge.

Once you know how your training will look, you can find materials to flesh out your training objectives outline in a variety of places:

Decide how often the training will occur.

On-the-job training is rarely a one-time event, though initial training is generally the most in-depth when an employee starts a job. Periodic training throughout an employee’s career is common. For example, on-the-job training might include circumstances such as:

  • Learning about company policies.
  • How to work the factory line.
  • How to respond to customers.
  • Using the new inventory system.
  • How to fill out business expense and financial reports for reimbursement.
  • Updates on changes to communications systems.
  • How new laws affect employees and their jobs.
  • Refresher course on last year’s teamwork training.

Clearly, training ought to be an ongoing matter since most employees, depending on their job, will need to stay informed as the business changes.

Understand what employees need.

It’s important that you don’t get caught up in creating an on-the-job training program that only meets your needs. Your employees have expectations that must be met, too. For example, they will likely need:

  • A methodical approach. They will expect more training won’t be dumped on them unless they are ready for it, and that the training program will take this into account.
  • To be appreciated. They will not want to be patronized, but will expect a training program (and a trainer) to appreciate their life skills and what they already bring to the table. They need to feel valuable from the get go. They don’t want to feel like a nameless student, but an individual employee embarking on an important job.
  • Practical training. They will expect that the training will not just be theoretical, but practical, giving them tangible skills they will put to use directly to see results and feel accomplishment.
  • Motivation. Whether internal or external, they will want to feel motivated whether through rewards or legitimate praise.
  • To feel success. Getting the taste of success through training builds confidence. This might happen through practice of skills, role playing, or testing.

Remember that you are training human beings, not robots. Your end goal isn’t to just get the job done better, but to make the employee doing the job feel important and valued. Your training should have that built in.

Outline the training program.

Design the on-the-job training program much as you would an outline, with each main section being the objective you want the employee to achieve before moving onto the next section. Each objective should be a prerequisite to the next objective.

It’s important that you follow this kind of logical order. You don’t train someone to print documents before you’ve showed them how to turn the printer on. Start with that “baseline” employee that you listed earlier, the typical employee freshly hired with a limited set of skills. These are the skills they arrive with. What skills are the next step on top of those? Repeat this down the line. If your objectives are not in a logical order and don’t build on previous knowledge, you will create confusion and frustration.

At the end of each section, determine how you will measure employee success. Do they need to demonstrate a skill to you? Pass a test? Discuss, in their own words, what you want them to do? Role play scenarios dealing with an irate customer? Each objective should have a defined success that must be met before the employee moves on to the next step.

Determine who will do the training.

Implementing a training program isn’t easy. Before you dive in, be sure you know whether or not you (or other managers in your company) are the best ones to do the training. Some of the people you’ll need include:

  • Mentors: Current employees that are matched up with new employees so they have someone to ask questions to easily.
  • Training coordinator: Someone in charge of the entire on-the-job training person who will schedule and assign necessary training.

You may decide that hiring outside trainers and instructors will yield better results. You may need to send your in-house trainers to their own training so that they are better able to run your on-the-job training program. You may choose to outsource your training and use an in-house coordinator to work with the company handling the training.

How do you know if you should outsource your training?

Well, how much time do you have? Have your managers ever trained anyone before? Do you have employees who feel comfortable doing the training? Are there interpersonal conflicts that may get in the way of training? Do you have the materials, rooms, and other tools to successfully train employees? Are you as familiar with what they need to be taught or does someone else have more knowledge? Are there professional training or continuing education programs in your community that you can use to run your program or at least train employees to run your own training program?

Be honest — great training is key to great employees. There’s no shame in outsourcing some or all of the training you know your employees need.

Making Use Of Your On-The-Job Training

The greatest on-the-job training program will suffer if you don’t let employees put what they’ve learned into use as quickly as possible, when the knowledge and promises of the training are still fresh in their mind. The faster you allow your people to put into action all that they practiced in both practical skills as well as in scenarios, the faster you will progress towards the goals your training was meant to sustain.

Additionally, if training isn’t put to work right away, employees might forget what they learned. So, for this reason, you may want to break your on-the-job training up in sections depending upon what they will need in the near future and what they will need later. You also want to avoid training “too much” in the sense that you dump every possible bit of knowledge onto employees.

  • Train for what employees need. A cardinal rule for any business is to not waste employee’s time. That’s lost money on the clock, and it’s also a way to create a bad attitude in your employees. Their time has meaning, too, and they have the pressure of work that needs to get done. Don’t waste time with training they don’t need. Train them to be flexible, but the certainly don’t need to be omniscient.
  • Train for scenarios that actually happen. Over training only adds confusion and weight. Train for the specific scenarios and situations an employee will experience in that job. If they change jobs or get promoted, they can receive additional training.
  • Don’t make empty managerial promises. This dovetails a bit into training only for what an employee needs in their job. If you add managerial aspects to their training but have no intention of allowing that job to ever have a managerial aspect to it, you help create a sense of frustration in the employee. Why did you waste their time and get their hopes up with training that they won’t use?

Any training employees don’t need merely slows down an employee’s ability to put good training to work. And that slowdown reduces the sense of success that gets attributed to the training. It’s similar to employees who are weary of endless meetings that seem to produce no changes or results: you are wasting their time and they resent it. If they can connect training directly to practical use and success, they will not resent you or the training.

Remember, being over-trained is not the same as being well-trained. It’s merely extra weight to bear.

How Successful Is Your On-The-Job Training?

On-the-job training doesn’t necessarily guarantee success; good on-the-job training does.

Success is an improvement in employee work, skills, confidence, morale, production, and more. You need to determine how well your training is actually working just in case it isn’t — what a waste of time and money to continue with worthless training!

How do you know if you need to finetune or completely revamp your approach?

Know what success looks like first.

Do you know what you define success as, in terms of your on-the-job training? Do you have definitive goals that you will use to measure whether your newly trained employees have improved, whether production has increased and costs have decreased?

Without these types of goals, you can neither plan your on-the-job training, nor can you review it later (which we’ll talk about at the end of this article).

A successful on-the-job training program:

  • Looks at the big picture. That means that you not only make sure your training fits the needs of specific employees in specific jobs, but that it also fits with the overall goals in your company. A winning program should help employees see how they fit in with your broad company goals, how they specifically are important to the success of your company and why they — and the work they do — are important.
  • Includes the human element. Success in the job also means success in the employee as a person. Confidence, excitement, and loyalty are all offshoots of great on-the-job training, and so the presence of these in your employees has to be considered as part of the success equation.
  • Has a measurable impact. A successful on-the-job training program most definitely will produce measurable results in productivity, profit, growth, employee retention, and so on. These are most often what business owners are looking for in the first place, so you ought to see measurable improvements in these areas if your training works.

Now that you know what the definition of a successful training program involves, you can determine if your program is, indeed, successful.

Ask your employees about the training.

There are several ways of determining how successful your on-the-job training program is, and one of those involves a very simple approach: just ask.

This ought to be done through a carefully planned questionnaire or survey that allows for anonymity, and should be given before, during, immediately after, and several months after the on-the-job training session.

For example, you might ask employees, before training begins, what they expect to learn and what they expect will change after the training. During the training, you might ask how things were going so far. After the training, you might ask specific questions about particular areas of training, and if employees felt objectives were met. Several months after the training, you might ask if the training was applicable and helpful to their work, and if there was an area that they thought they needed more training on.

However you phrase the questions, you are trying to to determine how successful your training was according to what your employees experience. It is helpful to know what they expect before, during, and after because it gives you a better picture of how your training is performing in the life of the employee rather than merely “does it help you get your job done?” Remember, on-the-job training is more than a mere tool to boost productivity. It’s also about employee attitude, loyalty, and experience. The well-trained employee who dislikes his job reveals on-the-job training that was only a success in one area.

Look for improvement in employee work.

Did your employees improve? Being able to measure and determine whether or not the training actually worked is crucial to understanding if the on-the-job training worked or if you need to make changes to how you approach the training.

You can measure employee improvement by comparing productivity markers from before training to after training (e.g. higher commissions from sales, more items assembled, etc.). Monitor employee retention — are your trained employees staying on longer than what you’d experience before training?

Some things cannot be measured, however. Customer service and attitudes, for example, are tough to measure. Fewer customer complaints is great, but employees build their “customer service confidence” over time as they put training into practice. These types of skills that can’t really be measured by numbers will definitely require observation and conversations with managers who might be more aware of what’s going on in their department. Discussions at employee reviews are helpful in deciphering how well the training has affected an employee.

Overall, though, do you notice an uptick in the positives? In attitudes, in workplace culture, in sales? That’s what you’re looking for.

When to intervene in lagging performance.

Not every employee is going to hit the ground running the minute the gate opens, and you may need to offer additional on-the-job training for some employees who are struggling.

Lagging performance or an inability to perform according to training may be an indicator that the training program lacked a necessary intermediate component (think of those outlined objectives, and the need to progress in a piecemeal and logical order) or missed something crucial altogether.

Remember, part of training is the challenging of learning new habits. Habits take time to form, and it may be that an employee simply needs some help figuring out how to create those habits in a sustainable way. This is particularly the case when training was not immediately put to use; employees are people and people forget.

The Qualities Of Great On-The-Job Training

So — what does great on-the-job training look like?

  • It’s planned to fit both your business and your specific requirements.
  • It creates a skilled workforce.
  • It cares about the betterment of employees.
  • It doesn’t waste anyone’s time.
  • It measures its success (and failures) to make sure it’s healthy.
  • It continually updates and stays relevant.
  • It offers continual training throughout an employee’s career.
  • It creates a workplace where employees want to stay and you want to promote them.

It’s easy to think that on-the-job training is as simple as showing a new employee how to run the cash register or use the phone system in the office, but that is clearly not the case. Once you look at on-the-job training as your own business-specific university in which you are building the future of your business on the employees you have today, it takes on a whole new meaning.

How To Build An Effective On-The-Job Training Program