Setting Up a Training Area Could Give Your Crews a Hand in Solving Problems

A good in-house training facility can help ensure your employees run into fewer surprises out in the field.
Setting Up a Training Area Could Give Your Crews a Hand in Solving Problems
Even if you don’t have a lot of room, set up a wall with some fixtures attached for training purposes.

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When a Minnick’s plumber responds to a service call, odds are that the problem — and therefore the proper solution — will be pretty familiar. That’s because the company’s techs spend a lot of their training time back at the home office practicing the exact situations they’ll most likely encounter in the field.

“We know what we run into every day, so we set up our training just like that,” says Rob Minnick, part of the third generation of the family-run company operating in the Washington, D.C., area. “You set up the same scenarios that you run into 80 percent of the time.”

Setting up an in-house training facility can take many forms. It could be nothing more than a corner of your shop with a few water heaters and a setup of different faucets. Maybe you have enough space available to recreate multiple types of kitchen and bathroom configurations. Whatever your in-house training may look like, the benefit is clear.

“We’re setting our guys up for success because when they’re going out on a job, they’re not being trained in front of the customer and being concerned about doing something wrong in the customer’s house,” Minnick says. “They’re trained here in our training center and are able to show that they know how to do something before actually seeing it on a job for the first time.”

“It’s definitely something that I think is well worth the investment,” adds Randy Lorge, an instructor for the plumbing apprenticeship program at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin. “You want to send competent people out on jobs and you want them to feel confident when they’re out there. And the quicker they can problem-solve and fix the problem, the happier the customer is going to be. That’s repeat service plus word-of-mouth that’s going to spread.”

Do you want to do more with some in-house training but aren’t sure where to start? Here are some tips.

COVER THE BASICS

Minnick’s has a fairly extensive training center. Along with areas that cater to training on boiler and water heater service, and different kitchen and bathroom setups for simulating various scenarios, the company has an entire townhouse at its disposal.

“We do different trainings in there because we do a lot with home performance as well,” says Minnick. “So we’re able to crawl around the attic and basement and everything.”

But you don’t necessarily need an elaborate setup for effective in-house training, he says. That’s where the 80/20 rule that Minnick’s operates under comes into play — try to have training facilities that address 80 percent of the service calls you receive.

“You don’t do 100 percent, because then you need a huge training center, and you’re still not going to be able to cover everything. Plus, with the more complicated problems you may run into, it’s going to be different every time and you can’t really train for it,” Minnick says. “You just have to make sure you cover your most common, basic stuff.”

As a starting point, he recommends at least having bathroom and kitchen setups. Take into account the access you might have in an actual customer’s home and set up the areas in the same way.

“You don’t need to make it very big,” says Minnick. “You can make it 6 feet by 8 feet. Just build another platform over top of it, and that way you can have two setups for different scenarios.”
Also factor in the various toilets, sinks and fixtures you might come across.

“Look at your big players — your Deltas, your Kohlers,” Lorge says. “You can only have so many installed in your training area, so from there utilize the internet and run through different scenarios — here’s the faucet, here’s the situation. What part would I need to replace if this was acting up?”

Lorge agrees with the principle of applying an 80/20 rule.

“What are most of your calls about? If it’s a particular water heater or a particular faucet, have your guys well versed in those products and procedures. You’re always going to run into that odd one where you scratch your head and have to make a phone call or do some research, but at minimum it comes down to what are you mostly getting called out for,” Lorge says.

BEHIND THE SCENES

In Lorge’s role, he works with two major training facilities — Fox Valley Tech’s and a site in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, run by a local plumbers’ union. With the focus being on training apprentices, training areas are set up with a behind-the-scenes perspective in mind. There are water softeners that are clear so that students can better understand how they function and actually see the softener moving through the cycles. In the various kitchen and bath mockups, wall interiors are exposed so that all the drain and water piping can be seen. Lorge says it’s also a good approach to take for an in-house training area.

“Especially for newer people coming into the trade, they may not know what’s going on behind the wall. Focus on giving them the big picture of what’s going on when they walk into a job the best that you can,” Lorge says.

ASK YOUR VENDORS

One way to bolster your in-house training area is to get your vendors involved. That’s a method Minnick’s has used to add items for techs to practice on. “If you need something, all you have to do is ask,” he says. “They want to get their product out there and get their name shown to people.”

Adds Lorge, “Tell them what you’re doing, that you’re doing an in-house training and would love to have their product to show your guys. You try to sell your program to the people who are selling the products.”

START SOMEWHERE

Whatever vision you may have for an in-house training setup, just get started, advises Minnick.

“Something is better than nothing,” he says. “If you don’t have a lot of space, then work with what you’ve got. One scenario I was looking at until our current office space became available was to get a shed. Put the pipes in there and don’t worry about heating it. Maybe have it to where you can just hook up a hose to it. Just start and you’ll figure it out along the way. Don’t try to do too much at the very beginning.”

Between the two sites Lorge works with, training areas include everything from a restaurant kitchen setup with a soda dispenser and a commercial-grade dishwasher to a mockup of the type of stainless steel fixtures you’d find in an institutional environment.

“Of course, we’re able to have larger areas because we’re a training program for apprentices and we have hundreds of apprentices come through. We have to have ample space to spread them out,” Lorge says. “But I think you can make do with whatever it is you have. It’s going to be really individualized. If you’re a three-man shop, you might only have a little corner in the back.”



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