Do you train your own techs, or are you looking for that “Instant Tech in a Box”?

The first novel I ever read was “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls. If you have read this inspiring tale, you’ll remember Billy Coleman’s overwhelming desire to have his very own raccoon hounds. In the story, Billy worked hard for two years or so to save up enough coin to procure Old Dan and Little Ann. After sending off payment via U.S. post, he waited weeks for a reply. Finally, the much-anticipated letter appeared, telling him when the pups would be delivered.

These days, he’d just hustle down to Pet Smart to pick out his pups. While there, he’d grab a shock collar, and a DVD title like “Instant Raccoon Hound Training.” He’d make his purchase with an RF-enabled credit card. But by the time the pups were old enough to jump over a log, he would have discovered the “World of Warcraft” game on the Internet and his raccoon hunting days would be over. But in “Where the Red Fern Grows,” patience and determination brought a reward worth striving for.

There’s much to admire about Billy’s patience as he worked and saved, dreaming of glorious hunts with his soul mates. Considering the pace and technology of the times, you might think that he really didn’t have much choice but to be patient. If money was scarce, which it was, and the dog breeders were far away from his area, which they were, his only choice was to wait until he had the cash in hand.

But he didn’t have to delay his gratification. As he waited, he had plenty of opportunities to spend that hard-earned money on a broad selection of tempting, instantly gratifying distractions. Even in his rural area, the price of a couple of hounds could have easily been frittered away, nickels at a time, on candy, comics and fishing gear, just to name a few distractions. But Billy stayed focused on his prize and, as we read in the story, he reaped the rewards of his commitment. As I think about it, had he not been so committed, I suppose we’d never have had such a powerful tale. Who wants to read about a kid buying penny candy?

These days, we’ve all but forgotten about the rewards of delayed gratification. We want trade professionals who can be productive the day we hire them. We want marketing programs that work like vending machines. And when it’s time to retire, we’re hoping that someone with a checkbook will be ready to buy us out. As trade professionals, we can choose to invest, and wait, for some of the more important successes of our future or we can squander our limited resources on “penny candy.”

Consider how long it takes to learn our trades. Some programs spell out apprenticeships that last four to five years. And that doesn’t even count the role experience plays in becoming a craftsman. Yet our microwave mentality drives us to hire an “Instant Tech in the Box” because we want to expand production right now.

Change Your Thinking About Training

One of the most challenging tasks we can tackle is to change the way we think. Doing things the way they have always been done has fettered our dreams. For example, it seems that the big companies have always been entrusted with the training of trade professionals. In my own case, much of my plumbing apprenticeship was spent with a mechanical contractor on hospital and school projects. When I finally earned my journeyman card, it was a huge milestone - but for the mentors who had trained me in the field, it was simply the loss of an experienced apprentice. They had to start over with another pup, like I once was, that didn’t know which end of a tape measure to hold.

When the building boom took an inevitable breather, such as we’re experiencing right now, the senior journeymen had jobs and the low-cost apprentices had jobs but there wasn’t enough work to keep a green plumber on board. Like so many others, I ended up on the market, eventually landing at a smaller company that needed “instant” plumbers without having to invest in training one from scratch.

The smaller company wasn’t as nice to work for as the bigger company, so when the building boom fired up again, I returned to the larger company. The little guys were once again in need of a journeyman. This cycle repeats countless times because that’s just the way things are done.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I could have stayed at the smaller company, gained more experience, growing more valuable over time, only to find that at some point I would peak out in both earnings and responsibility, simply because the next rung up the ladder was the boss’ office and he wasn’t about to give that up. In order to get out of the field, I would have had to open my own shop and start recruiting “instant” plumbers.

I have visited with enough plumbers over the years to know that this process of letting the big guys do the training is not just a local anomaly. The smaller shops leave the heavy lifting to the larger shops but ultimately, the smaller shops pay the price for taking the easy, instant gratification route.

A real surprise would be to see smaller companies break the cycle and take on the challenge of recruiting and training new professionals. This may sound like editorializing but, in reality, there is a long-term benefit to long-term thinking. A homegrown professional training program insulates your company from the transient nature of professionals who are trained elsewhere. Yes, it becomes a challenge to keep your company attractive enough to retain these professionals, but if you keep your eye on the goal, as young Billy Coleman did, you could reap the greater reward of stability as well as a monetary return on investment for your business.

Making the decision to recruit and train is not simple. One complication is determining how to deal with the inefficiency of having a green recruit working with a seasoned professional. Short-term thinking, the way it’s always been done, is to dispatch a lone tech for those “one-man” jobs. If you budget for the inefficiency, you can earn an immediate profit on the investment by including the trainee in your overhead.

Begin budgeting for training several months before hiring your first trainee. It may take that long to recruit a worthy candidate, but while you’re searching you should build up a cash reserve (in current economic conditions, Billy’s K.C. Baking Powder can might be just as safe as a bank). The cash reserve serves as a cushion against inefficiencies as your green trainee learns the ropes. It is worth noting that budgeting for training will result in higher overhead cost, requiring a higher selling price.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple? Add a trainee, make more money. But a training program requires infrastructure. A trainee will require formal training, but what about the trainer? Remember, we’re attempting to break the cycle of instant gratification in order to achieve a greater reward. The trainer, which may be you or someone in your crew, is not likely to have had any formal training, so you’ll need to fill in this gap as well.

Training is a critical part of breaking the instant gratification cycle because it creates a ladder of promotions that your employees can climb. Have you thought so far ahead as to train someone who can replace you? Are you willing to dream beyond getting the next job done?

The idyllic tale of Old Dan and Little Ann was anything but carefree. Billy worked hard and long to gain the opportunity to work even harder and longer. He fulfilled his dream, a very big dream, by being willing to take the hard road. Are you thinking long-term or will you continue to be part of the instant gratification culture?