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Special Report: Education Featured

10:07am EDT July 22, 2002

Brent Emmert was an equipment operator. When he signed on with Performance Site Management two years ago, he thought he’d continue to run backhoes and bulldozers as long as he worked in construction. But in February he became a foreman. He’s logged few hours on equipment since. Thanks in part to Performance’s employee-learning program, Emmert has rethought his career.

“I took the site-manager class this year,” Emmert says. “It gave me the understanding of what the superintendents and site managers had to do and how it compares with the work we do out in the field. [It] made me realize more what they need and the communication that goes on with the superintendent and site manager.”

Each year Performance offers classes in basic and technical job skills, life skills and leadership development. The program began in 1994 after the company started a total quality management program and created work teams among its employees to measure performance against goals. Management didn’t like what it saw.

The Columbus-based company has grown quickly, from 25 employees and revenues of $4 million in its first year, 1988, to more than 300 employees and $44 million in revenues today. But in 1994, it was faltering.

“We weren’t doing as well as we wanted to,” says President Dan Lorenz. “We hadn’t hired a lot of people, and the people we hired, we didn’t do a good job of training.”

“In 1994, we probably spent as much in rework as we made in profit,” adds learning coordinator Byron Miesse. “We created what we call a learning-design team—people from all across the company, from the field and the office and the shop—and said, OK, what do we need to do to help you in your area learn the tasks and skills that are required to do the job?” The team created a model for a learning program that utilizes the expertise of the best and brightest from within.

That first year, Performance halted operations in its Columbus office on 12 consecutive winter Fridays and called in its field workers—half in the morning, half in the afternoon—for classes. That worked fine while the weather was bleak. “In March, they were getting pretty antsy,” Miesse says, “because the sun was shining and the ground was dry.”

The following year, the shutdowns were cut back to nine weeks and remained at that length until this year, when the course was adjusted to six weeks’ classroom time and an additional 20 field hours.

“We said, OK, the learning and the classes that take place in here are a good foundation,” Miesse explains, “but the real learning takes place in the field. For example, we bought a new paver this winter. In a normal situation, if you bought a new machine, it would be delivered to your job or wherever, and maybe the superintendent and foreman would meet with the sales rep and go all through that machine so they’d understand the lubrication points, where you check this, how you adjust this, and so forth.

“Because of the natural work team, when they brought that new paver in, the whole crew was in the shop, and the whole crew spent four hours with the dealer rep going through the paver. Some of the crew members won’t actually work on the paver, but they’ll be working around it.”

Learners help evaluate the classes, which evolve each year, though some of the topics—such as math, blueprinting and grading—are perennials.

“I learn something new in math and blueprint every year,” Emmert says. “My superintendent can give me a blueprint now, and he can give me a week’s worth of work and I can stay on that blueprint and take care of the job. Two years ago, if he was to give me a blueprint and say, ‘There’s the job site,’ I might as well get in my truck and go home.”

“Because of our growth, we find it’s necessary to continue to teach the basics,” Miesse says. On the other hand, classes must be constantly updated. “What if someone’s taken these twice? What do we have to offer them?”

No one is required to participate in the learning program, but attendance is high. This year, 210 of the company’s 325 employees took classes. Lorenz himself sometimes sits in.

“My whole philosophy in business is, these people don’t work for me, they work with me,” he says. “We need to stick together. They’ve got to do their part, and I have to do my part.”

That helps explain the timing of the classes. Performance lays off a third of its field people each winter, when construction is slow, and employees who return for classes receive half their hourly wage. Half, Miesse says, because the company wants each learner to feel as if he’s paying partial tuition. “If he knows he’s investing at least something, he’ll take a little more interest.” The company budgets 4 percent to 6 percent of annual revenues for the program, with most of it going for wages.

Occasionally an instructor is brought in from outside—attorneys taught a class in arbitration a couple of years ago, for example—but most of the instructors are culled from the field, paid their full hourly wage to pass on their expertise. Site manager Russ Keller is one of them. After taking a number of classes that helped him work his way through the company himself, Keller became an instructor. He has taught laborers’ ground-skill classes for the past two years.

“Teaching classes and setting classes up, I learned a lot of things that I thought I knew,” Keller says. “I’d say I learned more from teaching the classes than I would have had I been in the class.”

The learning program fosters good working relationships, too, Miesse says. “When they come in for the winter learning, it’s a relaxed atmosphere and a lot of camaraderie with guys they don’t see that often during the year. Administrative office people really get to know field people better, and vice versa.

“Obviously, the more skills a person has, the better the team works,” he adds. And Performance is retaining more team members. Two years ago, the company turned over 53 to 54 percent of its employees. Last year, turnover was down to 40 percent. The goal is to take it down to 30 percent.

Rework costs, too, have decreased. In 1993, they ate up 1.9 percent of gross sales. By 1997, it was down to 0.89 percent of gross sales, which more than tripled during the same time period. The goal for this year is to keep rework to 0.6 percent of sales.

“Like the wheels of justice, it goes slowly,” Miesse says. “Obviously, we’d like to have things happen faster, but they don’t always. There has to be a definite commitment from the top. If you don’t have that commitment from the very top, it won’t work. It has to be both financial and a part of the learning process itself.”

Performance Site Management is firm in that commitment.

“If we invest money in these people,” Lorenz says, “it’s going to pay off for us in the long run.”

Jan Leibovitz Alloy is a Columbus-based free-lance writer.