by Dennis Reardon (staff writer)

Fred Engle knows all too well the importance of cross training workers.

While running a carpet and rug business in Lancaster County in the 1980s, one of Engle’s most valuable employees decided to quit. The company struggled to replace the worker because none of its staff had previously been properly  trained to anticipate the unexpected, Engle said.

“I learned the hard way,” said Engle, now business counselor at The Community First Fund’s` York office. The Lancaster-based nonprofit provides financial and technical assistance to small businesses. “That estimator was a really skilled, key person in the company. There’s no question that I really suffered business wise. It really took a long time to get the new guy up to speed. It cost us some customer loyalty. The experience played a role in my decision to begin cross training my workers. I never again want to be in a position where I only have one person to do the job.”

Cross Training Teamwork Success Performance Solutions

Central Pennsylvania companies have been offering cross training and multitasking training for years, workforce consultants said. however, the trend has grown of late, they said, as more businesses look harder at increasing their productivity during this economic slowdown.

Cross training is most important in the manufacturing industry because of its constantly fluctuating market demands, said John W. Kerlish, president of Human Resources Management Associates Inc., a Lancaster consulting firm. The more jobs that production workers know how to do, the easier is to shift them around when their co-workers need help, he said. Multitasking is usually seen at fast-paced working environments such as sales offices, Kerlish said.

“People who cross train need to be rewarded with compensation, promotion or verbal praise,” Kerlish said.” That reward system should be made clear upfront, and it should be based on performance.”

In addition of taking care of its workers, companies must do two more things to establish successful cross training  or multitasking programs, Kerlish said. They have to clearly explain what they expect of their employees, and they must get workers fully involved, he said.

“It’s not just training the workers but getting them thinking about why they’re doing it (being trained),” Kerlish said. ” Get them thinking about their importance to the overall company, so they see the bigger picture, encourage them to contribute ideas. When you’re expecting people to be versatile and perform at the highest levels, you need to get them to buy into why they’re working harder than usual. Otherwise, they will be part of the status quo.”

In January, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania introduced a cross-training system at its workplaces statewide, said Mark Chepke, the utility’s construction services manager. The goal is to create a more skilled and flexible work force, he said. “In the past, we had service employees who just worked on customers` homes and field workers who just worked on piping in the streets,” Chepke said. “Now we’re training our street crews to also handle customer’s needs, and vice-versa. The new system allows us to maximize the use of our work force.”

Columbia Gas has about 82,000 customers in York County: it does not serve Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster or Lebanon counties.

Success Performance Solutions, a consulting firm in Lancaster County, helps companies create cross-training programs. The business also practices what it preaches.

In March, Success Performance Solutions was looking to fill two jobs: an administrative assistant and a marketing specialist. In the past, the firm would have hired two workers, said Ira S Wolfe, the company’s founder and president.

Instead, the company hired someone specialized in Internet marketing., Wolfe said. The new employee was trained on the job to handle his administrative responsibilities., he said.

Though Wolfe spoke glowingly of the benefits of cross training, he understands that not everyone likes the idea.

“Some people don’t like change,” Wolfe said. “Some say `Why do we need to learn that? That’s not my job. Am I going to get paid more?` Most people, though, want to learn more and become more promote-able.”

Some companies are also reluctant to cross train their workers because it usually means they have to pay those employees more, Wolfe said. If training organizations are needed to teach the workers how to cross train, that costs money, too, he said. Businesses should overlook those expenses because of the shortage of skilled workers, he said.

“The real cost comes if the job doesn’t get done,” Wolfe said. “If Mary goes on maternity leave or Joe goes on vacation, it’s not the cost of the training; it’s the cost of not having the job done, even for a week or two.”

For some companies, though, it`s not a question of money, but rather, time.

Rettew Associates Inc., an engineering consulting firm, has fielded requests over the past two years from employees who want cross training, said Lisa Horst, the company`s human resources manager.

The Manor Township, Lancaster County-based firm has been unable to oblige, she said.

“Over the next several years, we`ll look at cross training to leverage our work force,” she said. “For now, it`s on the back burner. The clients have to come first. We`re always too busy to do the cross training.”

Central Penn Business Journal, August 16, 2002