Why On-The-Job Training Matters (and How to Get it Right)

Anna Roberts

Oct 2016 ⋅ 7 min read

"Why should we waste money on training?"

During your career, you've probably met plenty of senior managers with that attitude.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many still view training as a cost rather than an investment in employees.

This attitude is grounded in their own experiences of unsuccessful or flawed training programs.

Perhaps employees partake in the training program but leave the company shortly afterwards.

Or maybe the issue is that employees aren't putting what they've learnt into practice.

Of course, if you encounter either of these problems you can work towards correcting them by tackling retention or improving the quality of specific training elements - but many senior managers instead give up with training and scale back or withdraw the programs completely, citing cost as the main reason for their decision.

What Does Your Training Program Look Like?

man writing on whiteboard during training session

If you currently have some form of standard training program for new and/or established employees, review it.

  • What's the purpose of the training program, and how does each element contribute to this goal?
  • What feedback have you gained from past participants?
  • Are there any materials, courses or resources that need updating?
  • Are your chosen training providers still the best choices?
  • Do you think every element is effective?

Merely taking the time to assess your current training offerings can be incredibly enlightening. For example, maybe you've been using the same training provider for a decade, and haven't even considered seeing if you could find a better deal elsewhere.

One aspect of training that is often overlooked, rushed, or not used to its full potential is on-the-job training.

Here's why it matters.

The Benefits of On-the-Job Training

hard hats for training

On-the-job training has its problems, but its many benefits mean it can't be ignored.

  • Cost-effective. Off-the-job training such as courses and seminars are often only worthwhile if you have large numbers of employees who require training on one specific subject. Smaller companies may find that on-the-job training has a significantly lower cost.
  • Foster teamwork. By assigning new employees a mentor who they'll work alongside on a daily basis, you'll start building connections and teams at the earliest opportunity.
  • Improve recruitment. In-house, on-the-job training can be used as a selling point on job descriptions and your careers site, helping you attract more candidates. Additionally, if you struggle to find candidates with the right skills, a strong in-house training program can help you fill in any skills gaps.
  • Practical. Reading something in a book can only prepare you so much for the real thing! On-the-job training is built around passing on practical skills and understanding, allowing the employee to directly learn how to complete critical tasks.
  • Increase understanding of roles. By learning from other employees, staff better understand the contributions of their colleagues and team members - which is undoubtedly good for team unity!
  • Creates a culture of learning. If training frequently happens in-house, staff will see that your company believes it's important for employees to be given the opportunities to learn and develop as individuals.

Specific benefits vary between businesses and the nature of the skills staff in each role need to learn.

What Are the Drawbacks?

All those advantages sound awesome, but before you break-up with your training providers and cancel all scheduled external training sessions, there are some drawbacks to relying chiefly on on-the-job training:
  • Bad habits can be passed along. If your staff are occasionally guilty of cutting corners or have some bad work habits, they'll be passed on to the employees they train.
  • Success is almost solely dependent on the quality of the mentor/trainer. If you don't have enough employees who can act as effective mentors, the entire program becomes less effective.
  • Lack of time significantly reduces effectiveness. Your mentors must feel that they have the time to dedicate to training. If they're constantly pulled away by other commitments, the quality of training will suffer. Similarly, if you're unsure if you can afford to spend staff time on in-house training, don't compromise. Choose a different training approach instead.
  • Some individuals won't learn well in this environment. As with any type of training, on-the-job training will be more effective for some employees than others.

These disadvantages don't necessarily mean you should ditch on-the-job training entirely and rely on the alternatives, but instead reduce its scope and concentrate on a few important training areas.

Creating an On-the-Job Training Program From Scratch

brainstorming ideas for an on the job training program

Design & Plan

First of all, step back and ask what your training program should achieve.

Do you want to onboard new hires more quickly?

How about helping employees through a significant company restructuring or upheaval?

Or would you rather use it to teach employees about new company policies or processes?

If you want training that covers all three, start separate plans for each goal.

Next, follow these steps:

  1. Make a note of every process and all information that you'd like the specific group of employees to learn.
  2. Get feedback from managers, mentors and employees about previous training programs that covered these processes, where applicable - including cost information.
  3. Consider which elements of training can and should be carried out on-the-job, and which might be more suited to other forms of training such as courses.

Now, taking the on-the-job elements of the plan forwards...

Implementation & Practicalities

At this point you know what you what you want to teach employees, and whether or not you'll carry out this training on-the-job.

Now it's time to consider how you'll implement your plans.

  1. Calculate the man hours required for each part of your training plan.
  2. Detail the resources - software, office space, documents, and equipment - that are required, and determine any shortages.
  3. Speak to potential mentors or coaches and find out if they're a good fit.
  4. Draft a timetable for training sessions and seek feedback from all involved.
  5. Test the program on a relatively small group of employees.
  6. Get plenty of feedback and make changes to the program based on it.
  7. Implement the scheme and keep gathering feedback.

Pitfalls & Challenges

literal pitfall

Even if you spend months meticulously planning your on-the-job training program, there's no guarantee of its success.

You'll face plenty of obstacles during planning and implementation, but if you anticipate them in advance, you should be able to avoid them.

These generally fall into three areas:

  • Training content
  • Training delivery
  • Long term motivation and program administration

When it comes to the content of on-the-job training programs, the most frequent complaints tend to be around training including elements that aren't actually relevant. For example, offering a management training session to a new hire whose role doesn't involve management.

You should also ensure the content is relevant, up-to-date, and personalised based on each employee's skills, where possible. Training sessions should be challenging but not so difficult that participants get left behind.

In addition, ensure any documents feature plenty of photos, diagrams, gifs and videos. Keeping the content varied will stop staff falling to sleep during training sessions!

Content delivery is just as important as the content itself. Just imagine the actors in your favourite film being switched out for actors you can't stand. Or your boss attempting to perform a Pink Floyd album.

It wouldn't work.

In terms of training, content delivery is largely reliant on the ability of the mentor - but also the length and type of sessions you choose to use, as well as when the training is delivered.

Staff will be less inclined to pay attention if they've had to attend a training session in their free time, or if the sessions are long lectures with no breaks.

The cheapest forms of content delivery are likely to be amongst the least effective, so be prepared to compromise on cost.

If you have a training coordinator, they should clearly explain content delivery expectations with mentors to ensure that all employees receive the best training experience.

Finally, long term issues often hamper the success of a training program. Once the initial enthusiasm has faded, coordinators must work hard to maintain the training program. Senior managers may tire of losing staff time to the training scheme or may start to doubt its value.

Mentors may also struggle to maintain their enthusiasm, particularly when they've already carried out their portion of the training program multiple times.

By continually reviewing on-the-job training programs you can keep them relevant and interesting to teach.

To keep senior staff happy, it's always wise to measure the success of on-the-job training. Point to staff retention rates, feedback from employees or productivity stats.

Share impressive stats about your training program at your next meeting with senior management to keep your program intact in the long term!

Final Thoughts

On-the-job training is often more cost-effective than sending employees out of the office on courses or buying textbooks or access to online courses. It has the potential to quickly teach new hires all the quirks of their job role, as well as setting the foundation for further employee development.

Most importantly, a formal on-the-job training program embeds learning and development in your company's culture. It tells new and experienced employees alike that you want them to keep learning - and you'll cater for this at work.

However, even though on-the-job training sounds perfect on paper, the practicalities associated with implementing and maintaining such a program can be overwhelming to the point where the effectiveness of the training program is significantly reduced.

Take the time to plan your training program thoroughly, considering your budget, scope, available resources (office space, staff and software), and goals. Don't forget to consider the long-term future of your training scheme either. What will happen if the coordinator leaves the company? Which metrics will you use to measure success and justify the scheme? How will you deal with poor mentors or bored students?

If you can answer those questions confidently, you're in a good position to launch an on-the-job training program.

We want to hear your thoughts.

How do you approach training at your company?