Blog: Cross-training makes good business sense

By Jack Keough

One of the lessons I learned as a manager long ago was the importance of cross-training employees. And it came as the result of a near disaster for my company.

I was the editor of a magazine and had an employee whose title was production editor, meaning that she was involved in the editing, trafficking of copy, design, and layout of our magazine. It required a great deal of technical skills.

Then she went out on medical leave. No one else on the staff had the knowledge and expertise for the position. Fortunately, I was able to have someone from another magazine to fill in, but at an overtime cost.

This was the same type of problem a distributor friend of mine faced when an inside salesperson went on leave. He had to have one of his outside salespeople come off the road in to fill the gap. But, he told me, it didn’t work out very well and sales suffered both inside and outside.

Last October in his column for tED magazine, NAED President and CEO Tom Naber pointed out the need to cross-train workers. Cross-training teaches employees job functions not typically included in their current job descriptions.

He mentioned a study done by the Society of Human Resources Management which revealed that just 38% of companies cross-train their employees to develop skills not directly associated with their jobs. This, noted Naber, is a 5% drop from 2011 and a nearly 20% drop from 2008.

That is surprising—very surprising. In the past few years because of the down economy, employers, particularly small business owners, have had to more with less. I believed the days of an employee saying “that’s not my job” are long over.

So why cross-train?

Companies that use cross-training say it prevents stagnation, improves employee morale and helps each person in a company understand the problems and difficulties their peers face in doing specific tasks. It also helps avoid burn-out for an employee who has been in one job for many years.

Also, employees are re-energized when they have new tasks to perform. Every employee should understand how their job fits into the overall scheme of how a company operates. A major benefit is that it allows a “new” employee to possibly bring newer ideas to a position, which may lead to increased job productivity.

Not to mention, if you have an employee who calls in sick or is on vacation, you have a back-up right away if you engage in cross-training. With that back-up plan in place, production, shipping and other functions will not be affected.

I know some distributors who have employees from a number of disciplines attend sales training within their companies to improve on their listening skills and understanding of customer needs. (Every employee within your organization, whether they know it or not, is involved in the selling process.)

Many companies, like Ferguson Enterprises, a large plumbing heating and industrial supplier, has new employees learn the operation from the ground up, beginning in the warehouse, front counter, and all the way through the company. If you were to take a look at some of the top executives in major electrical companies, you would find that many of them advanced from truck drivers, warehouse workers, and even administrative roles. They understood how all those roles fit into the total operation of the company.

No one in a company today exists in a vacuum. Each part of a company should operate in tandem with the other. Cross-training is a valuable, but often unused tool within a company. Instituting such a plan makes good business sense.

Jack Keough was the editor of Industrial Distribution magazine for more than 26 years. He often speaks at many industry events and seminars. He can be reached at or

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