Why a Trainee’s Prior Education Matters

In 2010 an exam was given to 470,000 students from around the world.  All were 15 years old and represented their countries in a study designed to evaluate the effectiveness of primary and secondary educational systems.  The results actually have an impact on training that I didn’t consider at first.

In the test results, the United States placed 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.  Out of 34 countries.  That means the US beat 20 countries in reading, only 17 in science, and a miserable 9 in math.  Why does this matter to trainers?  Let me share a personal story:

Years ago I managed a retail store and required my staff to count change back to customers.  When I started, most new hires came in with prior knowledge of how to do that.  But as time went by, less and less knew how.  That became a major training component for new people.  Today, I can think of one time in the past 5 years that I had change counted back to me (and it was done wrong by the way.)  It has become a lost art.

Or how about the new young secretary that is hired but only knows how to write messages 140 characters or less?  Without clear training in business writing and communication, that secretary is lost.

So what is the application here?

It is critical that new hires have their breadth of skills analyzed.  There are many ways to assess that:

  1. Analysis of their education
  2. Measuring their prior experience (a successful former writer at a newspaper clearly will know how to turn a phrase well)
  3. Ask during reference checks and verify their answers
  4. Have the new hire do basic tasks under supervision to assess their ability (these tasks would very by job and industry – in retail it could be counting change or answering phones, a secretary might get approval on early emails and letters, a roofer might have their first row of shingles verified before continuing)
  5. Worst case, create a basic skills test and have new hires pass it before other training
Someone missing a critical skill isn’t necessarily a lost cause.  Anything can be taught.  But it is best to know early what knowledge gaps exist so they can be addressed.  Also, consider some of these assessments as part of your hiring process.  All things being equal, the deciding factor between two candidates just might be what knowledge gaps they have coming in.  If the company has to spend more money training one vs. the other, clear monetary return exists in hiring the more knowledgeable.
Have you found other ways to assess key skills?
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