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Tips On Establishing A Structured On-The-Job Training Program

Is all of your orientation and onboarding done in a classroom? Or perhaps it’s done via Elearning? How much of it is on-the-job training?

Several weeks ago at the Association for Talent Development’s annual International Conference and Expo, I had the opportunity to meet presenter, author and Head of Training at Baker Construction Enterprises, Paul Smith. Paul has literally written the book on how his organization successfully implemented a formal, structured on-the-job training program that effectively helps bring new employees up to speed while also helping them to feel supported in their new work environment.

Transcript of the Conversation with Paul Smith

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And I am joined today by Paul Smith, who is the Head of Training for Baker Construction Enterprises. Paul is here along with myself as we’re recording this at the ATD International Conference and Expo. And Paul’s going to be talking about this idea of structured on-the-job training.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: Before we get into that, let’s go ahead and do a little bit of introductions. As we always do, Paul, for our guests, we like to introduce ourselves using exactly six words that might be something along the lines of the topic. So for today’s topic, for example, I would say that “I mostly learned on the job”. How about you? How would you introduce yourself in six-ish words?

Paul Smith: “I support development success of others”.

Brian Washburn: And I’m really excited to talk about this topic. So thank you so much for carving out some time while we’re kind of busy at the conference because this idea of on-the-job training, I think has been around for a long, long time. You’re talking specifically about structured on-the-job training. So can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by structured on-the-job programs?

What is Structured On-The-Job Training?

Paul Smith: Sure. And structured on-the-job training is a concept that’s been around for a while, too. I mean, it’s used in the medical profession, the military has used it – but it is being increasingly rediscovered. And it’s being deployed, especially now as our workforce has changed, even before the pandemic stuff last year. Businesses and organizations were under pressure to rapidly upscale their people, people doubling up on covering multiple tasks. How do we get them up to speed as fast as possible? 

And what they’re discovering was there’s a big disconnect between, you know, if we put them in the classroom and tell them all the stuff they need to know, and then kick them out to the job, which is what a traditional on-the-job training program is – that’s not cutting it. They’re not then stepping into the roles and being able to do it. And how do we make that better? 

Well, structured on-the-job training comes in and says, “Okay. The on-the-job training is important. However, we’ve given no definition to that”. When we develop for the classroom, we define what we’re going to do. We define what we’re going to talk about, what we’re going to measure, what we’re going to track, what the objectives are, blah, blah, blah. But then we get done with the classroom training and we just kick them out to, you know, sit with Wanda and Wanda is going to show you the ropes. And as soon as you walk away Wanda turns to the trainee and goes, “I don’t know if they showed you in the class, but let me show you how it’s really done”. You know, or things like that. And so there’s no structure whatsoever. It’s just this random haphazard approach. 

And then the structured part of the on-the-job training model – the SOJT Model – is to say those same things that we do in the classroom – that we think about for the classroom – we need to do for the on-the-job. Then we need to decide: what do we expect them to actually learn? What should they actually be able to demonstrate they can do as a result of the on-the-job time? And how are we going to measure that and track that? And you know, how are we going to make sure that they actually have gotten exposed to everything that we wanted them exposed to the way that we wanted them exposed to it? And you know, right now we just leave that all up to chance, in most cases. And so the SOJT approach says,”No, let’s not leave that all up to chance. Let’s actually plan for that”.

Brian Washburn: So there actually is a classroom component to this?

Is Classroom Learning Part of Structured On-The-Job Training?

Paul Smith: Oh yeah. In most cases because, you know, I’m a big fan of classroom education.

Brian Washburn: Sure.

Paul Smith: Or online, instructor-led or whatever. But the reality is it is really good for dispensing information. You can have some engagement, some practice – I’m not discounting that. But when it comes to someone actually being able to demonstrate or develop their own level of self-confidence, that they can do a certain task – which is of course the key to them being successful in that task – they actually have to have done it.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Paul Smith: And not in a staged scenario in the classroom, but actually doing it.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. So can you give us an example of what this might look like in practice?

What Does Structured On-The-Job Training Look Like in Practice?

Paul Smith: Well, I can give an example. However, it’s not like the template. Because this is unfortunately one of those things where there’s a lot of variation based on what the organization needs and what the structure of the organization is.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Paul Smith: But a scenario like at Baker right now, we have a program that we have for– it’s targeted to our foreman level individuals to elevate their skills. And when they’re done with the program, they become a “certified crew chief”, you know, that we put them into that. But it’s an eight month program. Out of that eight months, there’s only four days they’re in a classroom. The rest of it is completely on the job. But those four days, we stretch them. We challenge them. We poke them. Because the fact that they’re there– they’re selected to be there. Not every foreman goes to this program. They’re selected to be there because they already are good at what they do. So we don’t discount that. But we push them to go farther, to stretch beyond what they already do. 

And so to do that, we can’t just talk about it in the classroom and then send them out to do their thing because they won’t do anything different. You know, they’ll just– “I’m already good at what I do. Why would I–?”. So it has to be – here’s the classroom component where you’re introducing things, challenging them, stretching them. And then you send them out to do some job site application tasks that are customized to them, in the case of this program, and whatever they’re doing. 

But then an instructor is going to come out to their job site and check in with them and evaluate them. They’ve got documentation and things they’re supposed to be working with. We also have a mentor in place who generally is their direct supervisor who is observing, making sure they’re doing stuff. And all of these individuals that are part of this checking-in and there’s multiple of these check-ins, obviously if it’s an eight month program and there’s only four days of classroom time. You know, there’s a huge emphasis then on, “Okay. Here are the specific things you should be attempting to do”. 

And the reason it’s eight months is because it’s– we don’t even want them doing stuff just because they had a checklist that they had to do, or some assignment. The ultimate goal of the program is that they get to the end of the program and they’re just doing things different than they were doing when they started. And now it’s just what they do – it’s habit. And so it takes time to build that habit, that reinforcement. So that’s one example, one model of how the classroom and the on-the-job stuff then connect.

Brian Washburn: I think that’s super helpful in terms of painting a picture. Now, a lot of times when people think, “Oh, on-the-job training – the department can be in charge of that”. So in the way that this structured on-the-job training works, does the training team need to be involved in the design of this? Or can it really be left up to each of the individual teams or departments?

Who Should Design Structured On-The-Job Training?

Paul Smith: Well, my advice would be the training team actually needs to drive the development for a couple of reasons. One – when you’re doing this one of the purposes should be a sense of standardization, of a uniformity of what’s being expected, what’s being trained. And that should be, you know, anybody being trained to do a certain role no matter who they’re working with or what regional office they’re in, or whatever – if they’re doing this role in our company, they should get the same SOJT program. Well, that means that somebody removed has to develop that and usually a training person is going to be more removed to put that together. The other reason is that when you start having individual subject matter experts – they’re important. You need to include– you need to interview them– the program I just mentioned I interviewed a hundred people within our organization when we put that together. However, if you leave it up to them to develop it, what they will develop is not necessarily what is best for everybody to learn. They will train what they do.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Paul Smith: The way I do this is by– and you’re right back to the one– the scenario that I talked about before – except now you’ve standardized it and made it your program. Well, that may be a really good way but odds are there are other people that have different opinions and you need to talk to all of those people and then kind of triangulate to what actually is the best way to do this. And then that’s what’s being taught. But again, a local person who may be really smart at this, they’re not going to think that way. They’re going to think in terms of, “This is my experience and here’s what I think you should do”. And so it would be very narrow and limited in that sense.

Brian Washburn: And so, you touched on this a little bit, but I’m going to ask it a little bit more specifically here. What are some of the advantages to structured on-the-job training versus just, you know, formal classroom training or e-learning? And you mentioned that’s even part of this, but what are some advantages of taking it a step further into this SOJT?

What Are The Benefits of Structured On-The-Job-Training?

Paul Smith: One of the biggest advantages is relevance. You know, all of us remember back in high school in your math class and there was always somebody – sometimes it was us – who would raise their hand and say, “Why do we need to know this?” And the answer at that time was, “Well, it’s gonna be on the test”. Well, that was good enough in high school but what that also told us was once I take the test, I don’t have to remember it anymore. But that doesn’t go– I’ve worked with little kids and little kids they– they’re, you know, “Why are we doing this? What is it?” Adults are exactly the same way. In fact, even more so because now you’ve got somebody– and again, I work with a construction company – when I bring people into a classroom to train them, I’m pulling them off a job site. That’s expensive.

Brian Washburn: Right.

Paul Smith: To pull them out of production work, to come sit in a classroom and, you know, I better be able to justify why I’m doing that. There better be a relevancy because if it’s just to check off that people attended, that’s a waste of everybody’s time, and it’s an expensive waste of time. 

However, structured on-the-job training – now there’s just a little bit of classroom, but there’s a whole lot of on-the-job in the context of doing the job. And there’s a direct connection to the relevance. How is what I’m learning relevant to me? Well, because it is what I’m actually doing. It is my job. It’s clear – that connection is obvious. So that is a huge benefit of that. 

To the organization there’s also other benefits, too – not just in the communication of clear training, but it also works out well in recruitment and retention as well. Because my experience has been when new, younger individuals are being interviewed, being courted to come work for a company, they really like seeing that this kind of program is laid out. “Oh, you’re going to teach me all this stuff? And it’s actually going to be in context, it’s actually– not just sitting in the classroom, and doing whatever?” – they like that. And individuals who sometimes might leave a company because – “Well, I don’t see that I’m going anywhere.” They plug into these things because it connects with them stronger. It makes it more direct to them and they see the value, the impact of them in their career. And they’re more likely to stay, in that regard. 

And we started doing a lot of our sessions– we have a huge Hispanic population within our workforce. And so everything that we develop, we develop in Spanish as well and we deliver Spanish sessions. And I’ll tell you when we do those sessions, a lot of the individuals who participate in them, I mean, some of them literally – not even exaggerating – some of them are teary-eyed at the first session because their experience has been nobody has done this for them. Nobody has given them this quality of instruction in their language. And that is a huge hurdle – it gets past that too. But then you take it– so it’s not even just an understanding of language and the language barrier thing but now I’m going to be doing most of it with my hands and not sitting in a classroom. Huge, huge impact to that.

Brian Washburn: And so for people who are listening, thinking, “This sounds really good– this sounds like a really effective way. Maybe we should start to move towards this”. What might be one or two steps that people might want to take to start to position themselves to do something like this?

Steps To Build an Effective Structured On-The-Job Training Program

Paul Smith: Two steps is a good way to put it because there really are– what I tell people is I can summarize what you need to develop an SOJT program in two– there are two things you need. I can summarize it really easy. Doing them is really hard. So don’t sugar coat that part.

Brian Washburn: Sure.

Paul Smith: But in order to effectively do this you just sit back and you look at: what is the position that we want to do the training for? Okay. So, I used the example: we have the foreman program. So you say, “I want to do training for whatever this position is”. First thing you do is you sit down and say: what does someone in that role need to be able to do to be considered competent? You make this list and when you’re doing that list, it’s not things like, “Well, they need to be able to use Excel”. That’s not a competency. When we say someone needs to be able to use Excel usually there is a specific use of Excel. You know, and so there’s like a worksheet or a report or something that we expect them to do. That’s the competency. 

So the competency is they need to be able to complete such and such report. And that means they need to know where to go find the information and then put it into the report. And it just happens to be in Excel. Excel is just the tool, it’s not the focus.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Paul Smith: The focus is they need to be able to successfully complete this report. And so you go through and you make this list of all these specific competencies, trying to focus more on output of things, not theoretical job descriptive things. And so you do that – that’s step one. And then step two is: how are you going to validate that? You say, “Okay, you need to be competent completing this report in Excel. How are you going to check that?” Well, the obvious way is somebody reviews the reports and confirms that they’re done. That’s an easy one. Some things are a little tougher – you have to figure out how they’re going– and some things are verbal that you’re just testing knowledge.

Brian Washburn: Sure.

Paul Smith: And there is a reality of that. But for the most part, you focus on what can they demonstrate that somebody else can objectively evaluate that they have demonstrated competency? 

I said the healthcare industry has been doing SOJT stuff. You see the residents following around the veteran doctor. And they’re going around all the rooms to check– that’s exactly what they’re doing – they’re doing this SOJT. Because in that context it literally is life and death education. And so, those residents they have to demonstrate in the real world that they can do the stuff they have to do without killing somebody. I mean, I’m not even joking. That is what they’re doing.

Brian Washburn: Sure.

Paul Smith: And so it’s that same concept that you just apply into any other position that you’re trying to do.

Brian Washburn: And there’s so much more to this topic. Unfortunately we can’t cover it all here. You’re obviously doing a presentation at the conference and rumor has it there’s a book as well?

Advice for Designing a Structured On-The-Job Training Program


Paul Smith: Yeah. Yeah. And if we had any time I could tell you a story about that too. That’s funny because I didn’t set out to write it, but there it is. There is a book – Learning While Working: Structuring Your On-The-Job Training. It’s published by ATD press so you can find it on If you’re an ATD member, actually you get it cheaper there. You can also find on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, all of the book sellers. But the great thing about the book– well the ATD press folks have said this – that the great thing about the book is it’s written by somebody who’s a practitioner, who has actually done it. You know, I haven’t just worked with people who’ve done it or a consultant– I’m not a consultant. You know, there are people who write books, good books, that do that kind of stuff – writing about what other people are doing. In this case, what I’ve written about is from actual experience and actually having implemented these things. And the book is intended to really be a guide to help somebody from square one to develop their program, implement it, and then maintain it and keep it consistently going forward.

Get to Know Paul Smith

Brian Washburn: Perfect. Perfect. And then before we go, I have two speed round questions for you so people can get to know you – the author and the speaker, as well as that training director or Head of Training – I’m sorry – for Baker Construction Enterprises. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Paul Smith: The best piece of advice that I have received was that all feedback is a gift. Sometimes you think about gifts you get from relatives and things and you open it, you go, “Oh, isn’t this nice.”

Brian Washburn: (Chuckles) Right.

Paul Smith: You don’t really want it but there is some gem in there. No matter whether you like the feedback or not, there’s something that’s in there that is a gift for you if you really pay attention.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. Or you can put it on a shelf for a while, and then suddenly you’re looking at it one day and thinking, “Oh, Okay. Now I know how to use that!”

Paul Smith: Yep. And plus if you have that kind of mentality, then you’re less likely to be resistant to feedback, too.

Brian Washburn: And what should people be listening to or reading these days in the training field?

Paul Smith: I assume you mean other than your podcast?

Brian Washburn: Other than my podcast, other than our books – yes. (Laughing)

Paul Smith: (Laughing) The superstar celebrity that was on the big screen this morning before the general session. Yeah, that was a great interview. 

For me personally, I hate to admit it, but I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts. But I do try to read books every now and again. And again, all of us are busy on that stuff, too so the audio books are really helpful when that works out. But I do strongly recommend, we just heard Angela Duckworth talking this morning. And I’d already started to read her book. But her book Grit, which has a direct connection to my organization, however it’s good for anybody.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Paul Smith: Especially after the session we just heard this morning, some great stuff in there. And I would strongly recommend people to read that. 

And so another book that I’d recommend is from another author who’s actually here at the ATD conference as well. And that is Diana Damron and she has some material on civility, which I think is really important. And again, I work in the construction industry and we sometimes struggle with the concept of civility in that industry. And everyone defaults to crucial conversations, which is good and I like that. However, sometimes the issue isn’t: are you having the right crucial conversation? It’s: are you being civil before you even needed the crucial conversation? And so, that’s some other material that I’ve been reading that I think is very valuable. And I see direct applicability in my organization, but I think just like Angela Duckworth’s, it has applicability in a very broad sense, in a very positive way.

Brian Washburn: Excellent. Well, Paul Smith, Head of Training for Baker Construction Enterprises. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which is a weekly podcast that you can find on Spotify, Apple, iHeart Radio, wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, go ahead and share it with other people. That’s how they’ll find out about it as well. Until next time, happy training everyone.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

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