Still short-staffed?

While there are signs of economic improvement as we begin 2012, many companies are still reluctant to begin hiring again. If your plans for 2012 do not include replacing workers lost over the past few years, you will likely need to implement or expand your employee cross training plans.

Even in good times, cross training is necessary for grooming existing employees to take on new tasks for someone going on long-term leave, or possibly for an employee who is retiring or being promoted.

But when staffs are reduced, cross training takes on the role of ensuring that your business can still provide the same level of expertise and service with fewer people.

Cross training can help you do more with less by expanding the number of positions and skill sets that can be covered with the same workforce. It can also be a way of providing a “backup” for someone who may have an illness or go on disability leave, or simply takes a vacation.

Before formally beginning a cross training initiative, there are a number of things to consider.

Voluntary or Involuntary?

In some cases, cross training is essential to the life of your business and will be a condition of the employee keeping his or her job. Even in these circumstances, it’s important to present cross training in a positive light.

Providing such training, at no cost to the employees except perhaps some time, encourages their career development and helps them play a more vital role in the success of your business.

If the decision to be cross trained is on the employee, some of the previously mentioned “selling” may still be beneficial. Most employees will readily welcome the opportunity to expand their skill sets or take on new challenges as a way of fighting boredom at work.

But not all employees will be as open to such challenges. Some workers are more comfortable sticking to what they know, and do not like having to learn new things.

Carefully select employees to be cross trained. Don’t just use age or experience in your decisions, but take some time to talk to the employees themselves.

Horizontal or Vertical?

In some situations, cross training is used to help employees fill additional roles and skill sets within the same department. This is horizontal expansion. For example, your chassis technician may need to learn powertrain diagnostics.

Horizontal expansion can also mean acquiring skills for a position in another department, but on the same level of the company hierarchy.

Vertical expansion involves cross training to learn the role of a higher position in the company.

For example, one of your high-level service technicians may learn some tasks that a shop foreman or service manager performs, such as properly writing work orders. This can be valuable when the manager or foreman is away or engaged in higher priority tasks.

Implementation Method

Set goals for how many employees and/or how many new skill sets need to be learned in the coming year. Then, determine how the skills and knowledge will be transferred.

Much cross training is on-the-job, with an existing employee acting as coach or mentor.

This method usually works, but is more effective if you can put some structure around it.

Reference materials, training leader guides and job aids will enhance the learning experience and make it more consistent from learner to learner. Computer-based tutorials may be appropriate, depending on the new work being learned.

If formal classroom and/or hands-on sessions are required, keep in mind that these delivery methods often require longer lead times to design training materials, develop presentations and/or schedule trainers and facilitators.

Recognition Suggestions

When an employee becomes a trainee for a different role, it usually requires additional time, effort and stress. It’s important to recognize the employee’s dedication to improving.

Monetary rewards, such as bonuses or salary increases, are not always possible. If these are not, consider reasonable gifts, or simply present a plaque with a presentation at a company lunch.

And don’t forget to also recognize the employees who act as coaches or mentors.

Stephen Howe is employed as a field trainer by United Rentals, the world’s largest equipment rental company, with approximately 600 locations in North America and an a rental fleet worth more than $3.5 billion. He is a past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council - a global non-profit organization dedicated to sharing best practices and recognizing outstanding training in the automotive and heavy vehicle industries.