Power of the people Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

For certain businesses, the right people make the difference between a service that’s just average or the kind that’s above and beyond industry standard. So why limit yourself to the types of people you can hire?

Smart Business spoke to Margaret Jones, vice president, corporate secretary at The Graham Company, about how training programs can allow a company to bring in the best and the brightest — regardless of their background.

Why implement a training program?

One consideration might be the ability to hire people from outside of your industry, especially when a lot of good people do not have industry-specific training. Some of the attributes that an employer might look for are things that you can’t really teach.

If you can hire people who have been really successful in their fields, with a strong work ethic and resourcefulness, you potentially have somebody with an aptitude for meeting client expectations. Once you identify the types of people you want for your business, the next step is to design a training program to teach them your industry.

When we started our program 22 years ago, it was almost unheard of for anybody to hire anyone outside of the insurance industry because there was so much technical knowledge required. What we decided was that we had the ability to train somebody in the technical part of the business. In our vision, it was those skills that were trainable. In our people, we looked for the intangible skills that were more innate.

What’s your advice for a business that wants to invest in training?

First and foremost, identify the types of people that you want to attract and determine what kind of training is going to be required for them to be successful.

In our business, we’ve created a three-year training program — six months of classroom training and two-and-a-half years of on-the-job training. Depending upon your business and the level of training required, you may not require this kind of commitment.

You also have to focus on what is the most important component of your business. If it’s your people, you have to invest in them. That’s really the main decision. If your business is such that your people are not your strength — it’s your technology or it’s your product — then extensive training may not make sense. When you’re a professional organization providing a professional service, then your training department is almost like what a research and development department might be for a manufacturer — that’s how we look at it.

Are there certain fields from which you’ve found excellent employees?

We have success in recruiting engineers and people with financial backgrounds, such as CPAs. We’ve also found that a lot of good hires are individuals who have attended military academies like West Point or Annapolis. They’re not really raw talent, because they have been successful in other fields, and they are going to be successful in whatever they do as long as they’re prepared for it. It’s our experience that the only way a business owner can attract these types of people is to not only assure them that they are going to be successful, but to demonstrate that you have invested in the resources to give them the training they need to achieve this success. Somebody like that is not going to change fields and industries without the assurance that they’re going to have the support to be trained.

Why don’t more companies invest in training?

Basically it’s a financial decision. It’s very hard for them to get the support of senior management because of the cost involved. In our agency, we have a ratio of one person in our technical development department that does training, continuing education and quality assurance for every 12 employees. That’s a huge investment. But we didn’t start off like that. We started our training initiative with one person 22 years ago when our company had 42 employees.

Anything else an owner should consider?

As a business owner, you can create a competitive advantage in the marketplace by having better trained, more knowledgeable employees than your competitors. Well-prepared, highly trained employees will make a difference for your clients and your business. Also, with an extensive training program, you’re able to determine whether or not somebody is qualified for the job during the training process, before they are on the front line servicing your customers or clients.

MARGARET JONES is vice president, corporate secretary at The Graham Company. Reach her at (215) 701-5264 or mjones@grahamco.com.