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Skills assessment: what training do your foundry workers need?

Just like other key foundry variables, you can't fix employee skill deficiencies until you've properly assessed the situation.

Seeing that your workforce is well-trained is easier said than done. Besides having to inventory the educational backgrounds, jobs and job requirements of a large pool of workers, there are a tiring supply of other hurdles. Egos can be harmed, production schedules must be disrupted, and the simple sound of the word "training" will provoke resistance from some quarters. Further, you must design training curriculums, locate training sources, free up dollars (and use them wisely) and then tirelessly measure whether the training was effective.

With employees lacking the basic skills needed to perform the job, foundries have no choice but to provide basic skills - as well as technical training - if they wish to groom and retain workers who can perform adequately.

But before you can put together a training and development program for any worker, you must know what kind of hand you've been dealt. That's where assessment comes in. It's one of the preliminary rungs in the long ladder that will guide your foundry to a capable, well-rounded workforce capable of increased learning.

To put it simply, said Chuck Smith, Waubonsee Community College, Aurora, Illinois, a 38-year Caterpillar veteran who also worked at the East Peoria foundry: "First, you need to decide what the worker needs to know. Second, assess where he/she is on those skills. And that will lead you to what you're trying to accomplish - filling the gap."

But there's more "science" to it than one might expect. Jumping into training without doing an assessment is kind of like making a decision to replace the engine of a brokendown car without ever lifting the hood. It can be an expensive assumption, and can very likely be the wrong one.

As C. Smith said, "If you haven't done the assessment, there's no way for you to determine what the skills gap is." In that light, foundries must apply the same energy to finding where employees' skills are lacking as they do in methodically solving technical problems.

Why Assess?

"Most manufacturers aren't assessing the workforce to the degree that they should," added C. Smith, who's assessed the workforce at Aurora Metals, a nonferrous foundry in Montgomery, Illinois. "We expect that people will come to work and we can just show them what to do. Yesterday, maybe you could put a guy on the shakeout line or give him a rammer, show him what to do and how not to get hurt and that was it. If he failed, there was an attitude of 'we'll just get rid of him and try someone else.'

"But today, so much of manufacturing uses computers - to operate equipment or enter production data - as well as unprecedented documentation. Many high school graduates can't do basic shop math or read. And with unemployment being as low as it is, manufacturers usually get the worst of the worst applying for jobs."

Effective training, say foundry HR managers, will have a direct, positive impact on a firm's competitiveness. But even those who are proactive in training can stumble due to a lack of proper assessment. Wheland Foundry's Jack Matens recalled a manufacturer that decided statistical process control was needed due to an opportunity to increase productivity. After purchasing expensive materials and hiring an outside training firm, the firm discovered midway through its training that 33% of its workforce was functionally illiterate. The company had to stop the training, assess the workers, and offer remedial courses before it could continue with the SPC training. "Much time, money and effort was wasted," he said. "It's a major mistake to try to teach anything without conducting a full assessment."

Added Dalton Foundries' Manager-Human Resource Development Darryl Smith: "Some will point to foundry workers and say 'you, you and you - show up for this class.' Training can be a very positive tool if it's done properly, but it can also have a highly negative impact if it's not."

C. Smith reiterated this importance, saying it's unproductive if people are "spinning their wheels" in the classroom. The value of the assessment, he said, is to "match people and backgrounds into the right training experiences."

Starting Off

When beginning an assessment process, there are two options: to go outside and seek assessment assistance or tackle it in-house. According to C. Smith, a basic skills assessment for a group of 15 employees might cost $2000, although grants may be available.

While it may be best to outsource that function, C. Smith cautions that if you do so, it's important to determine up front if the assessors understand manufacturing. "You don't want an academic viewpoint of your workers' skills - it must be practical," he said. "A good assessment will take into consideration what the needs of the job are."

When he works with a firm, he gives employees standardized tests for basic reading, writing and shop math. By comparing their results against what is needed for operations, he can develop a skill standard for each job that must be surpassed for the company to operate effectively.

For those handling assessment in-house, he noted that a number of standardized tests can be obtained from textbooks. The Wonderlic Co., he said, has a wide range of tests available, including some in Spanish.

Donsco

Three years ago, Donsco, a large iron casting producer and machining source in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, used its local vocational technical institute to conduct an assessment as part of its Training Education and Development (TED) program for its machine shop employees. Donsco's objective with the TED program is "to obtain a competitive advantage by doing things that meet, exceed and anticipate employee needs."

One of the very first questions that arose in management's minds was: "To what extent do employees have competencies (knowledge, skill and ability) to meet Donsco's future strategies?"

"Incidentally," said Fred Ihrig, director of human resources, "the employees came to us asking for training. With our 'pay for skills' structure, they knew they could earn more with higher skill levels." This type of participation and desire can mean a lot to the success of any training program.

After interviewing employees, Donsco built job descriptions. Donsco then commissioned testing duties to Vo-Tech, its local trade school. After reviewing Donsco's operations and goals, Vo-Tech recommended that the Tests of Applied Literacy Skills (TALS) be given. This test focuses on three areas:

* Prose - Covering basic reading comprehension, it reveals how well employees understand and use information in written procedures, work instructions, technical journals and related materials.

* Quantitative - Quantitative (or basic math) literacy is displayed in graphs or other numerical formats using whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percentages and time units.

* Document - This section requires employees to locate and use information in tables, schedules, charts, graphs and forms.

Vo-Tech subsequently took all the machine shop employees (either before or after a shift) to a nearby church to conduct the 3.5 hr TALS test. After administering the test, Vo-Tech compiled the results and met one on one with employees to explain each person's strengths and limitations.

"Vo-Tech gave us a complete report on our workforce," Ihrig said, "and followed up by conducting task analyses of their own. They interviewed employees and collected all job-related paperwork. After completing the task analyses, the TALS scoring scale was used to link literacy difficulty to the materials used by employees. For the document literacy, for instance, internal documents were evaluated by complexity and the test scores show how well equipped employees were to use them." This approach, said Ihrig, demonstrates an "on the job" perspective to literacy, which can be seen and related to tests results and training.

Following those efforts, Vo-Tech and Donsco developed a training matrix based on current workforce skills. Deficiencies exposed were reading comprehension ("We were surprised to find that a prose literacy need existed for a significant portion of the workforce," said Ihrig.), basic, intermediate and advanced math, problem solving and employee communications.

Since the assessment three years ago, Donsco has been hard at work training and developing skill standards, and Ihrig said there are plans to do the same kind of in-depth assessment in the foundry.

Proud of the program's success, Ihrig said: "The assessment is important because it gives you a road map for continual training."

Dalton Foundries

When asked about Dalton Foundries' training program, Darryl Smith is quick to point out: "Calling it a training program is actually a misnomer. In actuality, it's a performance improvement program.

"Training isn't the objective, performance improvement is, and the fix isn't necessarily more training. We improve other things while also looking at training needs. Some level of training is usually needed, but only after some other improvements have been made."

D. Smith said that the needs assessment must be designed to provide a starting point for pretraining activities, training curriculum and post-training follow-up. The post-training follow-up, he said, are those steps that measure whether training knowledge and skills are being transferred back to the job.

D. Smith described his approach to assessing Dalton's workforce:

1. Understand corporate objectives - The key issues of the firm, and its strategies for dealing with them, must be clear. As one example, if the company will be hiring a significant number of Spanish-speaking employees, that is something that should be addressed in training.

2. Align these strategies with training in mind - If you don't do this, you can spend a lot of dollars training people, but also miss the mark. Also, you don't want to force people into training they don't need - it can hurt morale and force turnover.

3. Define the scope and goals of the assessment.

4. Conduct employee research - Using questionnaires and interviews, collect opinions from people at all levels within the company. Among other topics, supervisors should be asked how they typically train employees while workers should be asked about how they were trained. It's important to have a solid idea of what is currently in place.

5. Develop an action plan that analyzes performance level influences - Internal items include skills, knowledge and attitude. External items are policies, procedures, tools, equipment, job processes, materials, task organization, work environment, incentives and customers.

6. Develop tools to use during the assessment - surveys, questionnaires, interview questions, observation checklists, knowledge tests and performance tests.

7. Find out what the major problems are - Determine each department's biggest concerns. Turnover, absenteeism, scrap, machine downtime and waste are all things that may tip off areas that need to be addressed.

8. Examine measurable data - Find out what the hard data says on what contributed to a problem. See if the measured results are consistent with what employees are saying.

9. Review customer issues - Review customer surveys and interview customer service staff. These may be things like castings arriving with rust, concerns about poor foundry housekeeping, bad delivery rates, poor post-delivery service, improper packaging, etc.

10. Observe performance in problem areas - Observe how the job is being performed compared to procedures on a day to day basis.

11. Question discrepancies - Ask why a worker veered from procedures. If he's not performing a job in the proper sequence, it may not be due to an inability to follow written instructions; it could be that they were improperly designed.

12. Report areas of concern - From both data analysis and collection of opinion. report problems and make recommendations.

13. Analyze data in reference to your scope and goals - Then, develop your training proposal, recommending necessary improvements and interventions.

Throughout this process, D. Smith stresses the importance of collecting and using objective information to make decisions. "It's important to understand what was occurring just prior to the problem surfacing as well as following corrective action in a timely fashion to see if it has been effective," he said.

At Dalton, departmental teams are being implemented to analyze and develop the training process for each respective department. These teams meet with D. Smith to design training programs. Also, as a result of the training needs assessments, he and the teams develop critical elements for each job classification. They also closely monitor employee training records.

Dalton assesses basic skills in departments through a variety of devices. Programs are then developed and delivered internally and through providers such as IvyTech State College and Indiana Univ./Purdue Univ. - Ft. Wayne.

"We've determined critical training for each job - iron pourers, mold line technicians, melt dept. technicians, etc. For each job classification, that individual will have completed a designated training program."

Wheland Foundry

It's critical, said Matens, that the assessments be valid (measuring what they're supposed to) and reliable. Wheland uses the Univ. of Tennessee-Chattanooga for some of its assessments, and Matens feels that an outside party can receive good results due to its neutrality. Employees are more comfortable in such arrangements.

Wheland Foundry recently implemented two assessment processes. At its Chattanooga foundry, all new employees are assessed via the ABLE (Adult Basic Learning Exam - published by The Psychological Corp.) It provides percentile, stanile, raw and grade equivalent scores for reading comprehension and problem solving skills. "Other more objective assessments are done during our bid process for jobs," he said. "This is a formal check-off list of competencies. Reading comprehension, problem solving and job knowledge is evaluated."

At the Warrenton facility, Developmental Dimensions International (DDI) designed an extensive hiring process that includes reading, math, behavioral interviewing and teamwork simulations. Matens described it as a sophisticated process that evaluates reading comprehension, problem solving and the ability to work in teams that all potential hourly employees must undergo prior to being hired.

Assessments aren't only for the floor level either, said Matens. Wheland's top management officials also completed an extensive 12-hour assessment process at the DDI Assessment Center in Pittsburgh. "It was the most challenging and thorough assessment of leadership and management skills I've ever seen," he said.

His advice to other foundries is to use local universities and state economic development agencies for assistance with assessments. He also said ready-made tests, gleaned from books such as Workplace Testing: An Employer's Guide to Policies and Practices, can help a foundry get started.

Regardless of the assessment used, Matens said the most important thing to do is to respond. "We roll out the results to supervisors so that they can explain what's going on to the employees. We don't focus on individuals, but the workforce in general. Then, we start by going after the low-hanging fruit first - what we can achieve now.

"We show them that we're serious about training - that we're going to do something about it. But we also let them know that it will be slow, steady and an ongoing process. It's not an overnight thing."

Start Out Right

Again, assessment is only one rung in a long ladder toward achieving your training goals. By taking the time to build this one properly, you'll form the foundation to ensure that the steps that follow - like devising proper curriculums - are aligned with your needs.

You often hear foundry technical people say, "you can't fix what you don't measure." The same holds true for skills assessment, which deserves similar, continuous attention. This means that if it's been a while since you're last assessment, you're probably due for one.

"Assessments must be ongoing," said Matens. "If you've changed any of your systems, policies or procedures, it's time for another assessment. You must be certain that the employees understand all of the changes you've made."

Matens also notes that there are certain red flags that will indicate you have some training problems, like decreasing profits and increased turnover. But what every organization should foster, he said, "is an open atmosphere, where employees will come to you and let you know what they need in the way of training."
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Foundry Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Training & Education
Author:Lessiter, Michael J.
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Words:2618
Previous Article:Buying business?
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