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Staff Training Guidelines for Newbies and the Importance of Proper Cross Training for Workers
Pallet recycling gurus share their insights on staff training, including the importance of cross training and strategies to effectively prepare new workers.

By Clarence Leising and Dick Burns
Date Posted: 9/6/2011

The first thing that anybody who is new to a pallet shop has to realize is that it is HARD WORK. But you can make good money if you hustle and remain productive. Hard work equals good pay.

Having run a number of pallet recycling operations, we know what it takes to train newbies. The first thing you do is give them a full exposure to the plant. Hand the worker a pair of eye glasses and take them out to see everything. Sawdust in the air, lift truck whizzing around, guys using crow bars to remove boards, everyone in a general state of hustling to get the job done. With this as your backdrop, consider asking something like this, You sure that you are up to this job?”

From the start, drive home the importance of staying alert and safety on the job. We used to say, “There are lots of things out here that can hurt you. Be safe! Before you turn around and walk, turn around and look, then move.”

Don’t be surprised if a lot of new workers quit very early in the process. The job is just tougher than they thought. Out of every ten people that we hired, at least two would quit before the first lunch break. It is generally best to start new hires in the middle of the week. Start people on a Thursday so that they work two days and then have the weekend to recover. This provides some time to help the worker get acclimated to the physical pace of the pallet business.

One of the things you don’t want to do is to put a new hire on an upcut saw or give that person a nail gun. You are just asking for somebody to get hurt because many accidents happen in the first week.

When you came into our facility as a new employee, you typically want to work on a saw cutting boards. In recycling, somebody is going to have to cut stringers. It is something that almost anybody can do after about a five minute crash course on the machine. You spend a few minutes learning how to use the machine, and then you go right to work. It usually has some kind of base pay with some piece work incentive to help you get accustomed to working at high rates of production.

Training on repairing or building pallets, combo pallets, crates or mats usually happens when orders pick up, people get sick or staff take vacations. You pull up a guy that you figure is going to be with you for a while and you give him an opportunity to train on more complex duties. You teach him one of the more important duties so that every time somebody is absent off the GMA line, this employee will get a taste for it and will see the opportunity he has to grow at the company.

It is important to be fair and communicate that the employee will make more money on the GMA line. But this is only true once a worker gets good at making or repairing pallets. You have to learn this job. It isn’t like the elementary position that you took when you first came to work here.

Some employees get accustomed to their job and hate to be moved. This is where you have to convince them to try. Sell the upside of learning the new skill and the opportunity for advancement in the future. You may need to say, “Look, just try it, and I will make sure that you don’t lose any money while you try this new job. Whatever you would have made on the saw this week, I will make sure you get. But if you work hard on the GMA line and earn more, I will make sure that you receive the difference.”

After a while the worker gets used to a different part of the plant, and gets used to working around new people. The employee may be a good fit to take over a valuable spot if someone leaves or gets hurt. Quite simply you cross train staff as much as possible to ensure that you never have a key position that goes undone or is handled by somebody who is not at least somewhat proficient at the task.

We even brought forklift drivers into build or repair pallets when possible to ensure that as many employees as possible know how to do a wide variety of tasks. The pallet repair and nailing lines have to run to keep products flowing smoothly. Some of the other functions are less critical.

A lot of our GMA builders started out on the saws, worked their way up to be forklift drivers and eventually joined the repair or nailing lines. Sometimes they may want a day to go back to driving the forklift to have a less strenuous task for a while. This allows the opportunity to cross train some other employee.

This tip may seem counter intuitive, but we wouldn’t spend lots of money on training. By this we mean that we wouldn’t pay a worker to watch a guy for a week to learn how to make or repair pallets. We would work the employee into the job slowly when there was an opening. That way the company may lose some of the production compared to the old pro at the job. But at least it isn’t a total loss because the worker is only watching somebody else work.

We are not big believers of the watch another guy type of training. People have to learn how to make and repair pallets by doing the job. They may all do it a bit differently, which can be OK as long as they safely meet production goals. Sure, there are some things you need to train, such as nail gun safety or other basic practices. But when it comes to figuring out their own unique rhythm to making or repairing pallets, the best way to learn is to do the task after a minimal amount of instruction.

It may work best to train a worker on a new duty in spurts so that the employee doesn’t tire out too quickly and get discouraged. Some of these jobs are tougher than they look and can be very physically taxing.

Give employees tasks they can do so that they are productive and effective from the start. Slowly work them into new jobs as openings pop up. Cross train as many employees as possible, and give newbies a fighting chance by starting them on a Thursday so that they can recover over the weekend. These tips may help you break in new hires the right way and ensure that they stick around for a while.

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