Marshall Atkinson explains how to design and build a measurable training programme for your staff that will profit them, your business and your customers

Sadly, employee training is one of the most overlooked aspects of running a modern decorated apparel business. It is also the easiest predictor for success. Shops that have a great employee training programme have the greatest customer satisfaction in the industry, and happy customers always equal a healthier bottom line. So let’s break down what works, and the best practices you will need to adopt in your shop if you want to emulate this success.

Why you need it

Training is an investment in future success. That’s why chefs, airplane pilots, athletes, ninjas, military personnel, police and surgeons take the time to hone their skills and keep up to date on best practices. Even if you know how to do something, you can always get better at that task.

Yet, there are other reasons too. Having trained back-ups allows your other crew members to go on vacation or call in sick without being a detriment to how your shop functions. Plus, more skill and knowledge in different areas of the shop will elevate the overall speed and even the craftsmanship of your work.

The Rule of Three

One idea that will help you organise your thoughts on where to begin is the simple idea of training back-ups for all of your shop’s core tasks. There are thousands of tasks handled every day in your shop, but let’s break down the core tasks for training into a few ideas:

  • Quoting and order entry
  • Purchasing
  • Art creation and separations
  • Embroidery digitising
  • Screen prep and imaging
  • Print production
  • Embroidery production
  • Digital production
  • Heat press production
  • Sublimation production
  • Ink mixing
  • Post production
  • Shipping
  • Invoicing

Ideally, depending on the size of your business, you would have at least three people in your shop that are competent enough to handle these tasks proficiently and with quality.

Why three?

For starters, if one person is your key employee in that area, sooner or later they are going to be out. That’s when the back-up comes in to help. But what happens when that back-up isn’t available either?

That’s why you need the Rule of Three to be implemented into your training regimen. Having three competent people trained in each of your core functions is a good insurance policy for the unexpected.

Getting started

One easy way to begin the process is to organise a skills inventory for each employee. This is a simple idea where you rate their level of understanding of all the core tasks associated with any skill on a scale of zero to 10, where zero means a complete lack of knowledge and 10 represents expert understanding. Measure each employee on what they know.

Have each department head jot down the top 10 to 20 things they would teach a new person to their team. Those are the ‘basic skills’.

Next, after a person has been working for a few years, what are the more ‘advanced skills’ they should know?

Finally, what are the ‘elite skills’ that only a few of your team members have or that you would like them to have?

The skills inventory is a living document that is built on a spreadsheet. If you use a Google Sheet you can share it with each department head, which makes it easier to communicate and share ideas. On the left hand side of a worksheet, broken up by departments, are all of the core skills everyone should know. Going across the top of the worksheet as column headers are all of your employees’ names. Record the numerical rating score where they intersect on the worksheet.

What skill gaps do you see? Some will be surprising. A veteran embroidery staff member may only know how to sew flat goods and not hats. Your screen room manager may not know how to use the auto-coater that well. Your customer service and sales staff lack production and inventory training.

Giving your staff time and experience in different facets of the tasks in the shop makes them more valuable and better contributors to your company.

You measure what you care about

You’ve read that before, right? In this context, rating the level of employee skills allows you to make good personnel decisions that will affect your business.

A skills inventory will allow you to adjust the sails for the company with recruiting. During any hiring phases, you can recruit not only for the job you are hiring for, but other secondary skills too.

Maybe someone has applied for a position as a screen printer. During the interview you learn that they also have solid experience in the screen room, and in mixing ink too. It is the secondary skills that will help you make the right decision in hiring.

Plan for the future

Let’s not forget that there are always new advances in technology and techniques in this industry. When skills need to be upgraded, putting a plan together is the first step towards launching that initiative.

Knowing what is needed allows your shop to be able to plan the time and cost requirements to introduce and push new, innovative ideas.

One of the most commonly asked questions I receive is: “Help! I need a new press operator and can’t find one. What should I do?” That this question is being asked is a sign that the shop doesn’t have much of a training programme.

Future planning is predicated on having the right people trained to take over one day. This includes all levels of employees in the shop. Do you have your next manager or press operator already working for you? How is your bench strength?

Get your programme built

Once you have the skills inventory under your belt, it’s time to build the training programme. One thing to remember is that all training activities cost money and time.

Most shops are busy and chaotic commercial environments. Training activities work best when they are planned in advance.

Thirty to forty-five minutes for each session usually works best. Schedule these on a calendar and let everyone know well in advance what the expectations for the training sessions should be. If you have multiple learners on the same subject, bring everyone together at once.

It is also good to have clear expectations of what training success looks like.

“After the training, Mary will know how to ship internationally.”

“After the training, Bill will be able to quote embroidery orders.”

“After the training, Mario will be able to use capillary film to make screens for high-density print jobs.”

While everyone learns differently, the best training is hands-on, doing the work.

Mistakes may be made as the students will be learning. You have to acknowledge that and ease any tension beforehand.

To mitigate the challenges, try to limit the number of real orders that are being used for learning.

Ask employees

While core functions for an employee’s job must be part of their training, be sure to ask what other areas they may be interested in learning. The screen room guy wants to learn to print. The catcher for a screen printing crew wants to learn to run an embroidery machine.

You’ll never know these points unless you constantly ask: an employee’s performance review offers an ideal opportunity; however, a casual conversation while they are working is fine too.

Add to skills training

There are other areas that you may want to include in your training programme, not just the obvious skills such as learning to mix ink or rethread an embroidery machine. Employees need better communication skills, to learn how to actively listen, maybe they even need to be shown the proper way to write an email, or talk about the shop to a stranger. These types of soft skills can go a long way to elevating the professionalism of your company.

Managers need training too – in how to motivate people, what to do in challenging situations, how to schedule effectively, even how to interview and hire employees. Providing your executive team with these skills may mean sending them to classes or having them participate in webinars.

Measure your results

Of course you’ll be able to see improvement with your skills inventory worksheet, but the best way to know if your training programme is working is to ask your employees.

Ask for their feedback by using a survey. Ask your team if they are getting the skills they need. How are they using what they learned in their job? Do they like how your shop is setting up the opportunity for them to learn new skills? What would they improve?

Employee training works best when it is an on-going routine effort. Work it in so it is part of the week’s activities, just like producing an order.

Above all, try to make it fun.

Once you have traction with this, you’ll be on your way to establishing a learning culture in your shop. That’s where the real growth and opportunity shines!

Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and effi ciency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. Marshall focuses on operational effi ciency, continuous improvement and workfl ow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. He is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.