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In the Trenches: On-the-job training is an unequaled teaching tool

Here is a scenario that often occurs when new employees are hired and sent to the produce department.

Joe, the produce manager, welcomes Scott and Laura into his department as newly hired employees. Joe gives them a fast tour of the surroundings and explains a few of their duties.Produce-manager-training-new-employee-at-store-level

After a short 30-minute talk, Joe instructs them to go into the back room cooler and display peaches that are on sale. He explained that he was very busy and immediately went about his department work in an unsystematic manner.

Scott and Laura looked around in the cooler for the peaches. Suddenly, Scott pointed to some boxes and asked Laura, “Are these the peaches?” Laura responded, “I think so.”

After a guess, they wheeled out a cart full of nectarines and proudly loaded them on the peach display. Whoops!

Perhaps you shook your head or even chuckled at this inept development. It may sound absurd, but it happens many times in the produce world. The question is, why?

Is it the fault of Scott and Laura for not knowing a peach from a nectarine? Is it Joe’s fault? Yes, but partially. After all, the store manager introduced Scott and Laura to Joe and more or less said, “Here are two new employees for you.” That’s it? What about training?

In this situation, the company is primarily at fault. Instead of assigning Scott and Laura to an experienced co-worker, Joe just set them free to learn at their own pace. Obviously, no training program existed in this company.

According to surveys, close to 40 percent of employees quit their jobs as a result of no training. How long would Scott and Laura last?

Has training gone by the wayside? Many company leaders feel less interested in investing the money in training programs. Too often training falls into the “cut and chop” barrel and withers away. Other times senior management would slash training in the budget, assuming nobody would oppose it.

Senior management feels adverse on produce training programs because they sound too sophisticated and costly. They visualize the employees travelling to some distant location, sitting in a classroom, watching videos and listening to a trainer read out of a book. To management, this sounds like a lot of money.

We’re talking about supermarket produce departments where the new employees will be handling product, preparing it, rotating it, displaying it, and maintaining its freshness. You just don’t learn all that from a textbook or listening to lectures.

I always felt that the best method in educating new produce employees is good old on-the-job training. Working in the produce trenches alongside an experienced associate and being overseen by the produce manager is always the best learning method of all. If new employees are going to work on the front lines, they should not be stuck in a classroom immobilized watching video clips and unable to literally handle the product.

My shelves are loaded with produce training manuals. In fact, I even helped write some of them. I admit that some are good for new employees to browse, as there are many worthwhile basics to use as references.

However, most of the textbook format methods eventually become stagnant and out of date. Working, handling and merchandising produce is different today. There are better techniques, newer items, improved equipment and easier ways to get the job done.

When you train new employees, try not to overdo it. Stay with the basics and focus on a few points at a time. Nothing can ruin the confidence of new employees by overwhelming them with too much material too fast.

Don’t hang your hat on false promises of expenditures for training programs by management. For best results, implement training by teaching it yourself directly in the trenches.