[Technician Training] Create Training Activities That Work (part 2)

Features - Business Strategy

Your employees need training, and now it’s a matter of execution. Here are some ways to ensure that the time and effort you’ll spend on new training will be worth your while.

August 31, 2012
Jay Bruesch

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part piece. Part 1 appeared in the July issue of PCT. Now that you’ve made sure there is a real need for training, focused your thoughts, and zeroed in on desired end results, you’re ready for the fun part: the content. Let’s pick up where we left off…

5. Content. A good formula to follow for any training activity should look like this: Introduction of Content --> Practice --> Evaluation.

In other words, you present a little content, which might just be a review of the stuff you asked your participants to study prior to coming to the session, or it could be a lecture or a demonstration. Then you practice, practice, practice with the knowledge, perhaps applying it to an actual skill. Finally, you tie everything together by means of some final evaluation — a quiz, a project or an actual work assignment. Here’s an example of how this fits together:

Our company puts on an annual Turf and Ornamental pest management seminar because we want our technicians to do mole and gopher control in lawns. This requires a Turf and Ornamental certification. Getting that certification involves knowing a great deal of information our technicians will never use, since we don’t do lawn or tree pest work. They only need the certification in order to have the right to control moles and pocket gophers. How should they learn that other stuff — tree blights, lawn diseases and the rest?

It all starts with a business need statement: “We need our technicians to be able to apply pesticides and use traps in order to control moles and pocket gophers as part of the services we offer to our clients. A Turf and Ornamental license is required in order for them to do this. Specialized knowledge is required in order to pass the Turf and Ornamental category exams and seminar, and our technicians do not possess this knowledge. A short course of home study and a day-long seminar, followed by the state Turf & Ornamental category exam, would solve this problem and ensure that our technicians are able to safely, effectively and legally perform mole and gopher control for our clients.”

So we create the following learning objectives:

  • Given a description, picture or actual specimen of diseased turf or tree leaves, the learner will provide the name of the disease.
  • Given a picture or actual specimen of a plant pest, the learner will tell what kind of organism it is and what kind of damage it causes.
  • Given the name or a picture of an insect that preys on turf or ornamentals, the learner will describe its life cycle and tell which stage of the life cycle causes the damage.
  • Given the phrases “annual,” “biennial” and “perennial,” the learner will describe the characteristics of the various weed life cycles, and will explain how a particular weed’s life cycle pertains to effective control strategies.
  • Given the name of a weed, its picture or a specimen, the learner will tell whether it is a dicot or monocot weed, and will define what is meant by monocot and dicot.
  • Using the product label as a guide, the learner will explain and demonstrate how to use decoy “worm” baits to control moles in lawns.
  • Given one of several types of mole and gopher traps, the user will demonstrate how to set them so they will effectively trap the target species.

We prepare our learners by sending them a study manual on the test requirements for a Turf and Ornamental certification, along with a study worksheet that asks for key information from the individual reading chapters. This is tough, since the material is about as dry as can be, and involves a dizzying variety of turf and tree diseases, all of which seem to blur together after a few hundred pages of reading.

Our participants arrive at the Turf & Ornamental seminar, certain they are doomed to fail the exam. But their instructor assures them that everyone is going to pass the certification test.

We begin with a pre-test quiz of questions based on material they read and studied, and then score it as a class. Everyone flunks.

Then we break the material into chunks, and practice with it.

Learning aids are distributed, organizing the various turf diseases, tree blights and pest insects into matrix-format study guides listing the appearance, symptoms, causes and treatments for each disease. There are a few short PowerPoint lectures explaining relevant information. We play games with the information: one based on “Jeopardy!”, one similar to Trivial Pursuit, even one based on Pictionary. This is foolish, but kind of fun — and it gets people running through the awful compendium of fact-based drudgery in an enjoyable and competitive context. Soon, the group can recite the symptoms of fairy ring or pink snow mold almost as easily as they can quote the pitching statistics of their favorite baseball heroes.

From there, everyone heads to the Department of Agriculture to take the exam. Everyone passes. By the next day, everyone has forgotten the stuff they don’t need, but remembers the stuff they are going to use. Just as it should be.

6. Practicing with Content. There are many ways of presenting content. You can do this by way of a classroom lecture, a reading assignment, an online learning module, a live demonstration, a video, you name it. PowerPoint is a dirty word only if it’s the only thing you use.

You can ask a subject-matter expert to demonstrate the skill or field of knowledge in front of a group or on camera. Using a subject-matter expert from among your group of technicians is an excellent idea for another reason: peer-to-peer instruction is more engaging than so-called “instructor-led” learning.

Importantly, once a small amount of content has been delivered, you have to provide some kind of interaction, which is an opportunity for your learners to practice with the information or skills you want to impart. Here are some kinds of interaction that have worked well for me:

Learning Check. Whether as part of a written piece or during a live or online learning experience, insert short quiz questions periodically to check whether your learners are understanding. It breaks up the monotony of the instruction, and it ensures that everyone is keeping up with the instruction. Learning checks provide the opportunity to give positive feedback to those who understand the material, and corrective feedback to someone who might not get the idea just yet.

An enjoyable variation on the learning check is to have competing teams make up questions to ask each other, based on the content presented. Award points for correctly answering questions or for stumping the other team.

Roundtable. Talk about the content you just presented and ask the group to supply examples from their own experience about how they would handle particular situations. Encourage group members to describe problems they are having and encourage members to share real-world examples of how they applied the principles of what you are presenting and practicing.

Surveys from our company’s training events show that a favorite training activity of technicians is roundtable sharing and discussion. So let this be a way of reinforcing your training.

Case Study. Describe a situation whose solution requires applying the skills or knowledge you just presented, and allow individuals to discuss and solve the problem, while applying and practicing the skills or knowledge contained in your training session.

Role Play. This works especially well with interpersonal skills, like handling client complaints, worried clients or sales skills. Create and write down roles for participants to play, and have them practice how they would handle the situation.

Then, as a group, discuss what the role players did right, and how they could improve. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to take part in a training session with Purdue University’s Fred Whitford knows about the value of role playing. Within our company, we like to practice our sales skills using role playing activities.

First, we present the steps of conducting a sales interview. Then we practice the responses through mimicry and memorization, very much like a beginning foreign-language class. Then we assign roles. One person becomes a prospective client and another plays a technician out prospecting for new clients. Eventually, everyone gains more knowledge of sales calls.

Games. You can create a game from any learning objective. As mentioned, a game styled after “Jeopardy!” is useful for information that must be memorized. Our company also uses a game that works like Pictionary, and another based on poker for learning audit standards of food-safety inspection agencies.

A game can be as simple as asking questions of alternating sides of the room, based on content that has just been presented or that has been studied as a part of a pre-event study assignment. (Editor’s note: See July issue for more on training games.)

Demonstrations. Demonstrations can be useful training tools, as long as they are accompanied by some practice and interaction. For instance, a demonstration would be useful in showing employees how to use a bulb duster. Put some baby powder in a duster and allow everyone in the room to practice the skill of getting a little bit of dust into the duster’s tip, squeezing to get air blowing across the dust in the tip, and creating a nice, fine cloud of dust.

Video. Video, the old warhorse of training, can be useful if used properly. Many useful training videos are available on a variety of topics, including pest biology, pesticides, label comprehension, safety, sales, client relations and many others.

A video by itself will be forgotten minutes after the projector is turned off. A video used as a springboard for live practice or discussion will stay with learners long after the video is over. For example, if a training video is on ladder safety, you’d better have some ladders handy for people to practice. If a video is on a proper lifting technique, prepare some boxes and other objects on which each member of your training group will be invited to practice how to correctly lift, carry and set down a heavy object.

Pest Identification. Every pest control company has a collection of pest specimens for teaching new and experienced technicians to identify pests. Break these up into categories for initial training, or practice with a hodge-podge of pest types during group training exercises for experienced technicians.

PMPs encounter the same dozen or so pests every day, but there are another 50 or so they’ll need to be able to identify when they see them on occasion. It’s a good idea to incorporate some kind of pest identification activity into every training meeting. My colleague, Dr. Colleen Cannon, has a favorite trick of combining pest identification quizzes with opportunities to list the types of conditions in which one would expect to find the pests to be identified. The group is then encouraged to roundtable on ways they would go about solving problems with the identified pests. This creates an opportunity for technicians to bring up the challenges they are having trouble with, and there is plenty of peer-to-peer interaction as others in the group offer advice from their own experience. And, as a bonus, pest identification skills are reinforced.


Jay Bruesch, BCE, is technical director at Plunkett’s Pest Control in Fridley, Minn. He can be reached at jbruesch@giemedia.com.