Training a New Generation
My personal journey in line work started October 2, 1978, on a two-man line crew. It was just my foreman and me. He was an old, seasoned power lineman, gruff and to the point. When we met, he looked at me and asked, “Can you climb 30 poles a day?” Heck, it was all I could do to not turn around and walk out!
But I didn’t walk out, and he and I spent the next few years together setting poles and installing facilities in backyards and rights-of-way.
Fast-forward to 1982; that’s when I became a foreman. From 1990 to 2011, I supervised line crews in various areas. Then, from 2011 to 2016, I assisted the safety manager for the East Region of my company and learned the safety side of the business. I caught the eye of our new vice president in 2017, who asked me to come back to the operations side and work with him. My new job would be to train other workers. You see, at that time, over half of our telecom workforce had fewer than two years with the company. In my new role, I would focus on coaching, best practices, teaching at line schools and, yes, training the younger foremen and new hires, some in the classroom but mostly in the field.
One major focal point was to lower our OSHA recordable rate. It was very high years ago, but for the past few years it’s been in the range of 0.48 to 0.54. I believe wholeheartedly that the biggest reason for the lower rate is because of our company’s commitment to training, learning, believing, committing and coaching using programs we developed during some training done in Texas. One program of great value is the six-step safety coaching observation process. It involves observing, commenting, asking, agreeing, discussing and thanking. It’s a couple-hour class that I use to train supervisors and foremen about how to speak with and coach their crew members.
Another tool the company uses are lessons learned; when used properly, they’re a great way to help workers avoid mistakes by learning from those who have already made them. Lessons-learned documents contain detailed information about incidents that have occurred – including how and why they occurred – so that hopefully they never happen again.
We also continue to discover and implement best practices, or procedures that have been demonstrated through research and experience to produce the best results. These practices typically are developed through incidents, issues or ideas from men and women in the field who have been there, done that – many times the wrong way – and have realized there must be a better, safer way.
An Urgent Need
My point to all this is that there is an urgency for training because industries – including ours – are losing experienced workers. Retirement is rampant, along with people changing jobs or opting not to work, and the new generation entering the workforce will likely have fewer seasoned old-timers to lead and teach them by example.
There are a few methods I have found that will draw in new workers: word of mouth, recruiting from line schools, using good/smart advertising for your company, and encouraging employees who are parents to introduce their children to the career path. You’ll then need to work to keep the new employees there. That means managers must leave their offices to visit the field. Foremen must become better coaches. Supervisors must become safety experts. Safety representatives must ensure they understand operations. In essence, everyone must play more than one role in this new world of work, particularly if you want new and young employees to learn their trade, be safe at it and gain experience before longtime workers fade away.
I’ll leave you with one last thought. My first foreman, the one I wrote about earlier in this Tailgate, used to just stare at his work for the longest time before he would drive away from the site. One day I asked him why he did that. He looked at me straight in the eye and replied, “Boy, when we are long gone, what we did here is going to remain. I want it to be right!” He not only had great determination in terms of quality, but he also had a strong work ethic and pride in all he did. I can say with certainty that I learned more from him at the beginning of my career than from anyone else throughout my career.
About the Author: R. Neal Gracey is an operations training manager for Henkels & McCoy Inc., a MasTec company.