Field Training: Bridging the Gap Between Classroom and On-The-Job Action

|  February 8, 2016
Photo: courtesy of, and copyrighted by, Gene White, pmimages@earthlink.net

Photo: courtesy of, and copyrighted by, Gene White, pmimages@earthlink.net

More than just ride alongs, field training creates a bridge between classroom education and on-the-job action.

Not all professions lend themselves to on-the-job training, but technicians in pest management do not work in a vacuum.

They do more than show up and provide treatments. They also have to deal with people, unforeseen obstacles, and unexpected challenges — all while remaining professional, friendly and visibly capable. This is where field training picks up the slack left in the classroom. And though it’s certainly essential to provide other types of training, there are some things you simply can’t learn behind a desk or in front of a computer monitor.

More than book learnin’

“Field training is absolutely an essential part of the onboarding process,” says Kim Kelley-Tunis, BCE, director of quality assurance and termite claims for Atlanta-based Rollins Inc. “Many people tend to learn more by doing a task, rather than reading or talking about the task.”
Kelley-Tunis suggests that conducting training in the same environment an employee will be working in increases the chances the information will be absorbed faster, and retained for a greater length of time.

“The other benefit is that you can watch what the trainee is doing,” Kelley-Tunis says. “You can correct any behaviors that might need to be corrected, on the spot. It’s easier to correct inappropriate behaviors before they become habits.”

Jay Bruesch, technical director/entomologist for Plunkett’s Pest Control, Fridley, Minn., sees field training as an important part of the bigger training picture.

“It’s the other half of classroom study,” Bruesch says. “The latter imparts knowledge and values, but the former is necessary in order to translate knowledge into useful skills.”

Pat Hottel, technical director of McCloud Services, South Elgin, Ill., agrees that field training closes the gap between what is memorized and what is put into practice.

“The amount of information a new service technician is required to know is enormous,” she adds. “Repetition is needed in training, and field training provides one more opportunity for reinforcement with the added benefit of relevance. Reading or listening to a lecture about rats is far different from being in the field, seeing the pest and performing the control.”

Bruesch points out that field training does more than supplement classroom learning. It also helps a company construct a uniform fleet of technicians who are on the same page where both knowledge and experience are concerned.

“The biggest benefit of training in the field is that the new technician’s company gets an employee who, by virtue of the training he or she has received, is able to do the same things as an experienced technician,” Bruesch says. “In spite of turnover and growth, we need all of our employees to be able to function like a trained veteran. Field training is the bridge that gets us from well-educated rookie to competent professional in a very short period of time.”

On-the-job/In-the-field

Jay Bruesch

Jay Bruesch

When most people think of field training, their mind goes to ride alongs — seasoned technicians bringing newbies with them on their route to both observe and participate. But, as Bruesch explains, there’s more to it than simply hitching a ride with a pro.

“We have an on-the-job training checklist that each new technician receives upon graduation from the classroom portion of our training,” he says. The Plunkett’s checklist comes in the form of a booklet, which lists a variety of tasks a new technician will experience at some point during their first year. “For each task, the new technician receives a preparatory homework assignment that involves reviewing what they learned about the target pest, explaining how they’ll prepare for the first-time experience, and relating how they’ll carry this task out.”

An experienced technician or supervisor must be on hand with the new tech when he or she completes each of the tasks on the checklist, to sign off on the assignment. At the end of the new technician’s first year, the supervisor turns in the checklist as proof that the technician has experienced all of the required tasks under the guidance of an experienced fellow employee. The checklist is added to the new employee’s personnel file as proof of training.

Hottel says that McCloud Services employs a similar checklist in its training program, which serves as a guide for field trainers of all the material they need to cover in the field.

“It’s important for making sure key skills and information are covered, and also serves as documentation and proof of exactly what training occurred for that employee,” Hottel says.

Trainers as trainees

Even if you’re the person putting the checks in the boxes of an employee’s training checklist, you should already know that education and training never really end when you’re in pest management. It’s not only to keep you sharp and your knowledge pool up-to-date; as a trainer, what you know determines how well you’re capable of training.

“It’s important to have a quality field trainer who has the time to conduct field training properly,” Hottel says. “We often think of field training as being exclusively for new hires, but it’s a very effective method for continuing education as well.”

Hottel, Kelley-Tunis and Bruesch all agree that training should not necessarily be the job of one person.

“Field training of new employees is everyone’s job!” Kelley-Tunis says. “While the management team is responsible for creating the training program and overseeing how it’s done, everyone within the company has something to add.”

Hottel says ongoing training can take a variety of formats: “It can be organized so a class or group is taken to the field, or less formal, where the opportunity is taken when working with an employee to teach a better method of performing a job or coaching for remedial purposes.”

Bruesch suggests that a company’s designated trainers better be at the top of their game, which means making sure they’re knowledgeable and professional enough to lead by example.

“It’s very important that field trainers offer new employees a model version of a technician, and that they present a practically perfect example of the performance that’s expected of the new technician,” he continues. “If the field trainer’s performance is less than exemplary, the new technician will begin his or her backslide from there.”

It’s important that trainers consider their time available to train and, if their sole job isn’t training, how to balance it with other job responsibilities.

“Training has to be the priority when the field trainer is working with the trainee,” Hottel points out. “If the trainer is responsible for completing a full route while trying to spend quality time demonstrating and reviewing important field training points, the training can suffer.”

The challenges

As Kelley-Tunis explains, when field training includes ride alongs on account calls, it’s important the customer not get lost in the mix. “You must be conscientious of your customers’ time as well as the trainee’s,” she says. “It always takes longer to conduct training at a customer’s home than it does to perform a routine service. Therefore, you have to plan accordingly to ensure that during the course of your training you don’t neglect, or miss completely, any of the other customers that might be scheduled during the course of the day.”

There’s never enough time, it seems, for anything important. This is especially evident to the trainers who must consider many factors when putting together an efficient, but unrushed, training plan. Plus, after you’ve nailed down an ideal plan for well-timed efficient training and time is on your side — the weather might not be.

“There can be some seasonal challenges,” Hottel admits. “You might need to do field training on yellowjacket management, but it’s being performed in December in Chicago. That training needs to be either rescheduled for the spring, or a comprehensive mock-training should be performed.”

However, even after you’ve identified your ideal trainers and want to recruit them to take on the responsibility, you have to make sure each of them is fully onboard with the idea.

“Finding experienced persons willing to take a new technician under their wing and provide field training isn’t always easy,” Bruesch says. “Likewise, it can be difficult finding enough field-training experiences for each new person during their first year so that they’re exposed to every kind of work we do, including seasonal work involving carpenter ants and yellowjackets.”

That said, no trainer is perfect — and it’s virtually impossible to cover everything in the training process, as pest management work really knows how to throw a curve ball. But you do the best you can, and many agree that field training should be a part of your best training efforts.

“If you choose not to offer field training, and instead just hand new technicians a book and get them ready for the test, the test is exactly what they’re ready for,” Bruesch concludes. “But they won’t have a clue what to do on their first day on the job, or when they encounter a task they haven’t done before.”

Photo: ©istock.com/dcbog

Rolling time behind the customer-service phone into training can be the perfect way to acclimate new employees to talking with customers. Photo: ©istock.com/dcbog

 

Fielding the phones

Field training isn’t exclusively synonymous with training that occurs during ride-alongs, or even outside the office. Pest management professionals (PMPs) who conduct field training often have a broad definition of the word “field.” On-the-job training can apply to some of the critical work going on in the office — such as manning the phones — and not in the trenches.

Every workday starts at the office, where some of the most important customer service takes place. In addition to prepping vehicles and inspecting equipment for the day ahead, most companies have at least one individual at a desk manning the phones for customer calls. Calls can range from a simple request for service, to questions about services to be performed, to complaints from often reasonable (and sometimes seething) customers.

Rolling time behind the customer-service phone into training can be the perfect way to acclimate new employees to talking with customers. Communication is one of the larger, yet less talked-about components of pest management. If the lines of communication between a PMP and a customer break down, it can set the stage for a variety of problems. Making sure that every customer understands the service that’s to be performed on their property is essential. An inability to clearly describe what will be done can lead to complaints, callbacks and other time- and resource-consuming customer issues.

Putting a new tech behind the phones for a few hours a day for a few days helps them develop an understanding of what they can expect from customers. It will teach them about customer expectations — and the kinds of questions they might have to answer when they’re finally out there doing the job they’ve been trained to do.

You can reach Senior Editor Will Nepper at wnepper@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3775.

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