McCadden: On-the-Job Training Should Complement Formal Training

by Kyle Clapham

Due to the lack of formal training available for trade workers, most field workers in remodeling today learn their skills through on-the-job training, or OJT for short. OJT can be valuable and effective when used to complement the technical training essential to becoming an expert at any specific trade.

Unfortunately, all too often today, OJT lacks the technical training side. As a result, both the employee and the company get cheated out of the potential value of training.

On-the-job training refers to arrangements where an employee is trained for a role by the employer while paying them for their work. The idea being the employee gains experience and learns how to handle real-life work scenarios. There are two key considerations in that definition I want to stress. The first is the employee should be trained for a specific role.

Second, the training should expose and prepare the employee for real-life work scenarios. Creating the future workforce your business will need as it grows, and current experienced employees age out, will not happen if the OJT at your company doesn’t do both.

Which Roles Will You Need to Fill?

Installing baseboard is not a role, it’s an activity. If your OJT is limited to individual task training, your business will end up with a lot of subordinate workers but will lack the experienced managers and leaders needed to help grow the business. Without skilled and experienced people in management, an owner may never be able to delegate day-to-day activities to create the time needed to plan and manage for profitable growth.

So, in addition to real-life training and trade skills needed today, consider future roles your business needs to fill to get it ready for future growth and opportunities. For example, will your business need lead carpenters who can manage the job, the schedule, the subs as well as the client, so you or someone else no longer needs to micromanage everything and everyone?

Do your current lead carpenters have the skills and ability needed to train those working under them, so when they eventually retire someone else can step into their roles? Preparing employees to be successful in these roles takes time, so it’s best to plan ahead, so they will be ready when needed. If you don’t create these managers and leaders from within, you will need to find them elsewhere—if you can—and then retrain them to how you do business.

Training for Real-Life Scenarios

Using the lead carpenter role as an example, it’s important to prepare the employee for the day-to-day real-life scenarios and challenges he or she will be faced with. Examples include pre-staging the project in advance of commencement, confirming trade contractors and material orders, and conducting the pre-construction and pre-completion meetings with the client.

Real-life scenarios can also include things like managing an upset client or a toxic fellow worker and working out schedule and quality control issues with subcontractors, as well as meeting and negotiating with a building inspector or architect. For these considerations, OJT will need to include mentoring of the trainee by someone who has already achieved a history of proven success with such scenarios through their own experience.

This mentoring, sometimes referred to as observational learning, works well because if given the opportunity, learners can imitate the tactics and behaviors they observe of their mentor while at the same time the mentor can observe and critique the trainee, sharing their own personal challenges and successes to the benefit of the employee being trained.

Who Trained the Trainers?

Be careful before you assume your current employees are properly experienced and prepared to train and mentor their subordinates. Well-trained and skilled employees will also likely need off-the-job training. Most workers on the job today only received on-the-job training without any organized technical training required to master the roles a remodeling business needs.

This includes the knowledge of building codes, understanding how to use the information in a project estimate to schedule a job, how to read blueprints and even things as simple as reading the grain on a piece of wood before passing a plane over it, and how to properly install step-and-kickout flashings on a vertical wall to prevent water damage.

An additional consideration regarding the effectiveness of OJT is the fact that because the lack of formal training has persisted for so long, those doing the on-the-job training were trained by others lacking technical training, who were trained on the job by others who only had on-the-job training.

This reality has led to too many workers who can only perform a task if directed and likely have no idea why they need to do it in a certain way or can identify scenarios when the ways they were taught are inappropriate.

Long-Term Considerations

When I was a young carpenter, my dad shared something with me that really made an impression and stuck with me the rest of my career. He shared that if you know how to do the work, you’ll always have a job; however, if you know why work is done a certain way, you’ll likely become the boss.

That is why I always made sure my employees got the off-the-job training they needed. This advanced my business, and it also advanced their careers, compensation and their lives.

I believe the combination of OJT and formal training also had the huge benefit of helping attract and keep the great employees we had, many of whom are still there today, almost 20 years after I sold the business. QR

Shawn McCadden is a speaker, business trainer, columnist and award-winning remodeler with more than 35 years of experience. He can be reached at

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