Learning to Crawl

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A lot of my last 25 years in the industry have been spent on training rental and staging techs. I still don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I have noticed a few things that have seemed to ring true through the years, and I thought I’d discuss them this month, because many of you that I correspond with seem to be going through a long-awaited increase in business for the spring season, and have written to me about how you find and acquire field personnel.

First, for this month, let’s talk about the three systems that have traditionally been used in our industry to train new people.

The first is the most common:

Sink or Swim:

When I got started in the ‘80s, we were dealing with a lot of new technology bursting on the scene at once, such as computer and video projection. As a result, many of these manufacturers were startled to even hear that their products were being rented, so very few had any kind of decent information available. So training went like this:

“Hi, New Person. This is a portable projection system. It hooks up like this. Sorry, but I have to run. Here are the keys to a van, and a customer order. Go there and set this up. Remember to have them sign the invoice when you are done, then get back here, because I need you to set up a sound system this afternoon.”

Sink or swim, besides being dangerous to the sanity of you, New Person, and the client, DID have an advantage. It was extremely Darwinian in nature. If New Person survived, they were a keeper. If they screwed it up, you apologized to the client by firing them.

The second major system of training, and the one which is, in my experience, the most used in the industry, is:

Old Person, New Person:

It goes something like this “Old Person, this is New Person. I want you to take New Person out on the road with you for the next three days (we usually say a week, but it almost never lasts that long) and teach him everything you know.”

There are some advantages to this, since New Person won’t be alone with your clients. But there are some real gotchas involved in it, too.

First of all, does Old Person really know as much as you think they do? In my experience, Old Person can be the source of as much “mythology” about how things work as they can real data. To give an example, I once worked at a firm where all of my new technicians were taught that all microphones in a multi-mic system needed to be rubbed with a Bounce towellette before the show to prevent static buildup. Seriously. Instead of proper electrical grounding, (or maybe in addition to it) we were teaching laundry products. I only found out about it when I found them repeatedly on expense reports.

The second gotcha: Does Old Person really WANT to teach New Person? Or does Old Person, getting older, potentially see New Person as a threat? I’ve seen the results of this where for a week New Person seems to have only learned to push road cases and lift heavy objects for Old Person.

But the third, and biggest, gotcha is this: Can Old Person teach? Teaching somebody from the ground up is usually not the job for Old Person. He or she has been through the slings and arrows, coming up from the ranks, and really is very good at the job. But they didn’t learn it in a systematic manner, and are not prepared with a systematic manner of teaching it to somebody else. The result, more often than not, is a confused and discouraged New Person, and shortly Old Person sidles up to you and says, “Hey, boss, I don’t think this kid’s going to make it.”

The third (and least used method) is to have a real training course for new people. This is INCREDIBLY hard for most busy rental and staging companies to do. As an employee, it was the thing I groused about the most: “We need a real training course. Nobody should go out on the road until they’ve had the equivalent of a Master’s degree in classroom time.” Then, as I moved up the ranks, I both saw how difficult that would be, and then was put in charge of training at several places. Even as the president of an AV company, my first love has always been training.

But it CAN be done. With a good outline, the help of an employee or two who DO enjoy teaching (which is really the first requirement) and the assistance of your manufacturers, distributors, and industry associations, it can be done. But that’s not to say that all of what is available to you is either good, or appropriate. So, next month, we’ll talk about how to evaluate manufacturer training courses for inclusion in your new employees training.

In the meantime, make sure the road cases New Person is moving for Old Person meet safety requirements…

rAVe Rental [and Staging] contributor Joel R. Rollins, CTS-R, is General Manager of Everett Hall Associates, Inc. and is well known throughout the professional AV industry for his contributions to industry training and his extensive background in AV rental, staging and installation. Joel can be reached at joelrollins@mac.com