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Blog: The Value of Cross-Training Employees

By Bridget McCrea

In the fitness world, cross-training is defined as sports conditioning that’s undertaken with the goal of improving overall performance. By taking advantage of each training method’s effectiveness, everyone from the occasional exerciser to the elite athlete can combine several modes of training to develop a specific fitness component. A slalom skier may hit the gym to develop quadriceps strength on the squat rack, for example, or a bodybuilder may take to the road for a 3-mile run in order to improve cardiovascular fitness.

Cross-training has also found its way into the distribution environment – where employees are polishing their skills across various job functions rather than just focusing on a single capability. For example, delivery personnel are being shown the ropes of warehouse logistics while inside customer service agents are getting a taste of what it’s like to manage outside sales. Whether they prepping themselves to step into their expanded roles on a temporary basis, vying for future promotions, or simply expanding their skill sets, employees that are properly cross-trained serve as valuable components of any distributor’s workforce.

At Warshauer Electric Supply Co., in Tinton Falls, N.J., Jim Dunn, executive vice president of sales and marketing, says the 120-employee distributorship believes in the value of the cross-training. About 10 years ago the company developed a management trainee program that focused on helping to develop recent engineering graduates and other interested parties into future managers and leaders for Warshauer Electric’s five branches. “We bring them through every aspect of electrical wholesaling from the ground up,” Dunn explains.

Program participants typically avoid the long road from the warehouse to the executive ranks by spending just a few months learning every position. “They get exposure to all of our departments, including the warehouse to counter sales to inside sales and beyond,” says Dunn. “At the end of the program – which takes about 12-18 months – we sit down and ask them what they see themselves doing as their first tour of duty with Warshauer.”

Thanks to the program’s cross-training component, Dunn says graduates “come out with an entire breadth of experience and skill sets” across all company departments and are well braced to tap the opportunities that lie in front of them. The distributor also wins from the experience, according to Dunn. “The more cross-training you provide the more opportunities employees will be exposed to,” he explains. “We’ve had some excellent, long-term employees come out of this program.”

Filling a Need
Warshauer Electric is one of many companies that find value not in training employees for specific jobs, but in spreading knowledge of various roles across as many workers as possible. More efficient than recruiting, hiring, and training brand new workers, cross-training provides a human resources platform that electrical distributors can build on for years to come, cultivate regularly, and hone according to their individual needs.

The benefits of cross-training run in both directions. Staff members appreciate it because it not only allows them to broaden their skills and improve their position in the job market, but cross-training also helps ensure job security during times of tight corporate budgets. Dunn says the strategy also proves valuable when the distributor is “super short-handed in a particular department or branch,” and in need of someone to fill in and help out.

“We have a whole stable of employees who have been cross-trained to handle different jobs,” Dunn adds. “They can slide into new positions for a week or two – or even a month – for whatever reason. That’s a huge plus for us as a company.”

Step-by-Step
To distributors looking to launch their first cross-training initiative or improve upon an existing program, HR consultant Roberta Matuson says a good first step would be to assess the individual worker’s background (both education and work), current job, and interests before creating any cross-training opportunities for that person.

“You may very well have a driver who is already interacting with customers and interested in learning about sales,” says Matuson, CEO of Brookline, Mass.-based Matuson Consulting and author of The Magnetic Workplace: How to Hire Top Talent that will Stick Around. “Or, you may have a warehouse worker who holds an MBA and who was once in sales and interested in getting into management. You never really know until you talk to your employees and ask them.”

Next, make sure any cross-training initiative is mutual, and that it’s not just thrown upon employees who aren’t interested in expanding their repertoires. “If you have someone who loves driving a truck, the last thing he or she may want is to work in the warehouse,” says Matuson, who advises distributors to focus on creating interesting, engaging work opportunities across their entire workforces. Look for your employees’ natural aptitudes, she adds, and realize that “just because someone is detail-oriented and orderly in the warehouse doesn’t mean they can follow a map as a driver.”

Editor’s note: Come back to tedmag.com Friday for 12 employer benefits of cross-training.

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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