The moment of truth for millennials

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What’s the matter with kids these days?

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Cabinetmakers and furniture builders with a few miles on us love to complain about the disgraceful state of American education. Our biggest beef is the functional illiteracy of the high school graduates whom we have to train. There’s a little bit of truth in that: kids don’t revere books as we used to, but they sure make up for it with adept computer and technical skills. The way they learn has changed a bit, too.

“It’s more visual, more hands-on,” says Dr. Meg English, a consultant to school districts who has taught extensively at both the high school and college levels. “Computers allow kids to manipulate the text in ways that are impossible with books. The learning model is no longer rote: it’s interactive. And woodshop owners are in an especially strong situation to take advantage of that. Cabinetmaking doesn’t come from books. It’s visual and tactile … always has been. Those values play to the strengths of modern kids.

“Educators talk about an element of learning called the ‘hidden curriculum.’ It’s essentially what the kids bring to the classroom, rather than what the school district provides. The same is absolutely true for young people in training on the job. A young man or woman learning how to build casework for the first time is more likely to do a little independent research themselves today than their parents were. But rather than visit the library, they’ll go online and watch YouTube videos or visit specific sites that address whatever activity they are engaged in.

“They are also more likely to reach out to a social network, a group of peers or other form of community when learning. So a shop manager establishing a training regimen might want to add some element from outside the confines of the shop. For example, it might be a good idea to provide an opportunity where new (and experienced) workers can spend an hour watching a webinar from a manufacturer on installing the newest under-mount drawer glides, rather than having a shop supervisor visit with the manufacturer’s representative and then, in turn, train people individually. Recognizing that the kids will get just as much from the on-screen experience as they will from a personal demonstration actually saves the supervisor some time. Plus, the trainees can replay the video to reinforce something they didn’t quite get the first time through.”

The bottom line here is that learning has changed. One very obvious aspect of this is that young people often prefer to forge ahead and solve problems, rather than wait for detailed instructions that they feel are in part irrelevant. That impatience is nothing new among younger workers. But their ability to succeed has improved, in large part because they are not as intimidated as we were. Things don’t seem as irreversible as they once did. Remember making a mistake on a typewriter and having to redo the whole page?

Divide and conquer

The key to learning has always been to break down the process into manageable units. What has changed is that we used to isolate those sectors, train an employee in one small regimen and then build upon learned skills.

Traditionally, a woodshop would have new employees sweep the floor, sand, stock inventory and so on. Then they would graduate to assembling parts that other, more experienced workers had machined. After installing a whole lot of handles and drawer slides, they would eventually be allowed to approach a table saw. The concept was that their proficiency and confidence would grow as their ability increased.

Now, it seems to work better if the trainee has a more global appreciation. In fact, a lot of shops start new trainees on a CNC and show them how to sand later. This is in part possible because automation has reduced some of the more dangerous aspects of woodworking. But it’s also because people who grew up with the Internet tend to react better to opportunity than regimen and that affords them a certain degree of pragmatism.

Since grade school, they have been able to research all by themselves and find answers to everything instantly. So they are more likely to search out a solution than to ask for one. Understanding this is critical in modern training. (Of course, a shop manager still needs to impress upon employees that while he welcomes their suggestions, they need his permission to implement them.)

Something else has changed, too. The strong, silent type is a thing of the past. Kids still like to succeed on an individual basis, but they often seem more concerned that the whole shop succeeds and they’re not shy about saying so. It’s not unusual for a guy with just a few weeks under his belt to contribute a suggestion that the shop should change the way something has been done for decades. They have grown up in a world where opinions are no longer kept to oneself. A trainer needs to recognize that what is being offered is a suggestion rather than impertinence and, by taking it seriously — even if only for a few seconds — one validates the student’s self-worth and encourages further participation. And, yes, they might even be right.

In other words, while the top-down command structure in any business must obviously be kept intact, the way to develop good employees who are team members has shifted a little. There’s more give and take than their used to be. People expect to be included in more decision-making. And bosses who teach by decree rather than involvement will often discover that the employees simply won’t tolerate a one-way conversation any more. The kid will just use the Internet to find a different job.

Where to start?

While they are admittedly more likely to emerge from childhood not knowing one end of a hammer from the other, today’s young people are definitely hungry to learn. The downside is that, when training a brand-new employee, a shop manager can no longer assume that the trainee has a basic grasp of traditional essentials. For example, virtually nobody under 30 has ever changed a flat tire, let alone the oil in a car. Even farm kids, with their wonderful ability to fix anything with nothing, are disappearing fast.

Our young people are unfamiliar with basic tools. But they are not unfamiliar with visual learning. They are used to using their heads and not their hands. So it’s incumbent on a shop manager to do likewise. Rather than assuming that every employee needs to follow the same training regimen, it makes more sense to try people at lots of different tasks and discover their strengths. Slotting them into the process at points where they are both needed and adroit means that they can get comfortable with the tasks to which they have a natural affinity and build upon that to learn other aspects of the business. The kid you hired to help with installations might have a better knack for spraying finishes and the one driving the forklift could be your next CAD designer.

Evaluating trainees is not only about how well they are performing assigned tasks, but should also include noting their apparent strengths and weaknesses. Any meaningful training regimen needs to include periodic meetings between managers and the experienced cabinetmakers or furniture builders who are actually doing the training on the shop floor.

Once those conversations have taken place, the views expressed should be shared with the trainee in a non-critical fashion. The worker might not even be aware of his or her own gifts. Like many young people, they might assume there is nothing particularly special about a certain physical or mental ability. A flexible working environment that allows people to train in different aspects of production can provide a means for both management and workers to discover where people fit best.

Beyond the shop floor

We don’t just train builders and installers. Promoting management from within is an essential part of growing a company and developing a cohesive team. Having a training regimen for potential supervisors, managers and sales professionals is just as important as training somebody on a sliding table saw. The Cabinet Makers’ Association (www.cabinetmakers.org) recognizes this, and offers a number of training classes online for shop managers and owners. According to executive director Dave Grulke, the CMA records about one new webinar a month.

“These events can be experienced live as they happen,” Grulke says, “or we also make them available as recordings on the resources page of our website. Most of them can be viewed for as little as $9.95 for CMA members or $19.95 for non-members. These are primarily woodshop management classes that cover such diverse topics as commercial estimating, Obamacare’s effect on a woodshop, typical marketing mistakes and even how to complete a smooth, efficient installation. The instructors are nationally known experts in their fields and there is unlimited access to each webinar, so it can be reviewed as needed.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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