What I Learned While Training During a Pandemic

Columns - Tech Talk

Plunkett’s Pest Control Training Coordinator Caroline Kirby reflects on some positives resulting from Plunkett’s shifting its “very hands-on, in-person training program to one that was entirely virtual.”

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Innovation defined our industry during 2020. In all aspects of our profession, we needed to examine prior processes and procedures and adapt to the challenges that faced us. As essential workers, our industry was tasked with figuring out how to operate safely in unprecedented times. As a training coordinator, I was tasked with quickly shifting our very hands-on, in-person training program to one that was entirely virtual.

Luckily, our new hire training had been moved to mostly online prior to COVID-19. More difficult to replicate online, however, were the hands-on activities and specimen IDs. To reproduce the problem-solving skills that are developed during those hands-on activities, I scheduled virtual check-ins several times a day with new hires. During those calls, I shared pest pictures for technicians to identify and posed pest scenarios to solve, based on what they had learned that day.

I found these regular, one-on-one check-ins allowed me to connect with our individual trainees in a different way than I had connected when training in person. Speaking with each technician individually helped me get a clearer gauge of their progress throughout training. I encourage collaboration when training in person, but found that new hires were able to relax and learn at their own pace during virtual training because they were not comparing their progress to their classmates.

Furthermore, knowing that I was planning to call and pose scenarios kept the new hires on their toes and encouraged them to make sure they fully understood the material before moving on. I plan to continue this practice of more intentional check-ins with new hires, even after we return to in-person training.

CEUs. Our continuing education program required a little more work to become virtual. Pre-pandemic, Plunkett’s provided continuing education to technicians by hosting in-person, monthly area meetings during the winter. It was common to have technicians learn through demonstrations, games, scenarios, quizzes, worksheets and other interactive means. In our new normal, we shifted to short, virtual meetings done in small groups, coupled with online assignments to be done prior to their meeting. This change allowed technicians flexibility to finish their pre-meeting work and reduced “Zoom-fatigue.” It also allowed us to provide a basis to check what technicians were understanding and make adjustments in the training materials if comprehension was not to the level we were seeking.

Last year, I wrote an article for PCT titled “Telling Ain’t Training.” In it, I described how important it is that a training program or training component have an active element to it. This is because adult learners remember better when they synthesize the information given to them. It is not retained when it is simply told to them. In a world of Zoom meetings, this made for a new challenge.

Because it was difficult to send materials needed for the types of interactive learning we used pre-pandemic, we shifted to more discussion-based exercises. This proved very successful with technicians saying they had learned more during the recent meetings than ever before.

This feedback left me examining why this new way of learning was so successful. I believe it was because technicians were able to spread out their learning. Trying to pack a month’s worth of training into one day most likely left technicians feeling surfeited by new information, unable to retain more than a portion of it.

Furthermore, smaller-sized meetings made the sessions more engaging, with everyone more involved in the learning process. 

Finally, the most important change was that technicians were able to learn from each other. No amount of scripted learning can surpass the experiences learned in the field. During roundtable discussions, technicians can ask questions that are pertinent to their route and share relevant information with others in their area. Sharing experiences between coworkers has led to higher technician confidence levels and has fostered a deeper feeling of teamwork.

While this new training program required a culture shift, I hope it is one that continues in the future. Assigning pre-meeting work has enabled us to remove some short, FYI-type topics from our virtual meetings and has opened the door for a deeper discussion on other topics that were introduced in pre-meeting work. I also hope that the shift to more regular online learning will springboard recurring training so that we can assign online training throughout the year and not just during our slower season.

 

Building and supporting relationships is vital to the success of a business and COVID- 19 pushed us to do this like never before. Through innovation around training, we have been able to provide those connections to technicians around the country with great success.

Caroline Kirby is an associate certified entomologist and holds a master’s degree in adult education from the University of Minnesota. She is the training coordinator for Plunkett’s Pest Control in Fridley, Minn. Plunkett’s is a member of the Copesan network of local service providers.


Copesan is an alliance of pest management companies with locations throughout North America. To learn more, visit www.copesan.com.