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On-the-job training: How to build an effective program for the future

To gain its full value, L&D leaders must be open to challenging assumptions about how they approach on-the-job training.
on-the-job training
Credit: Blake Cale

On-the-job training (OJT) has been time-tested and, when conducted effectively, delivers significant benefits to employees and employers alike. The benefits of on-the-job training include: a faster ramp-up time for new hires, more effective learning retention through the rapid application of new skills, higher engagement by employees who understand expectations, and a return on investment due to lower training costs, rapid productivity, and higher employee retention.

However, the working world has undergone a seismic shift over the past few years, with even more significant changes ahead. A critical question for any employer is whether its approach to on-the-job training has shifted with it. Consider the following:

  • Whether it’s called the Great Resignation or the Great Reshuffling, a reassessment by the working population regarding what they wanted and needed from their employment experience occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In 2021, more than 47 million U.S. workers quit their jobs voluntarily, which was 13% more voluntary quits compared to the previous high in 2019.
  • The demographics of the workforce are changing due to older workers retiring and Gen Z looking to make up 31% of the workforce by 2025.
  • The continuing tight labor market has many employers scrambling to find and recruit workers while doing everything possible to retain their most valuable employees.
  • Gen Z and millennials have very different views of the working world from their predecessors. Their expectations (and willingness to quickly change jobs) means employers must continuously explore the most impactful ways to train and retain workers simultaneously.
  • Rapidly changing technology requires continuous learning — and relearning. Having grown up with technology, Gen Z and millennials perhaps have a head start, but upskilling is becoming a key to success for everyone.
  • With the proliferation of remote work and geographically dispersed employees, organizations can no longer rely solely on approaches that require regular, in-person training and feedback. However, the need to provide timely, engaging, and effective learning is no less crucial.

To compete for talent in this environment, an organization must quickly demonstrate to new employees why they made the right choice. One of the first and most impactful ways to do this is through on-the-job training. However, to gain its full value, L&D leaders must be open to challenging assumptions about how they approach OJT and how they can best prepare employees for success.

Reimagining methods for on-the-job training

The essence of on-the-job training is learning by doing. Traditionally, an OJT plan might consist of the following elements:

  • A written or otherwise clearly communicated description of the skills and capabilities that will be the focus of on-the-job training, as well as the methods to be employed.
  • Assignment of a trained instructor or coach who connects with the employee immediately after orientation to guide the learning process.
  • Job shadowing which allows an employee to observe a high performer in action.
  • Real-world, hands-on experience with prompt and relevant feedback.

If done well, the above approach lays a solid foundation for an employee’s transition into the new job. However, with today’s increasingly remote workforce that’s not shy about pursuing other opportunities, it is incomplete.

How might on-the-job training be reimagined to meet the needs of today’s workforce? As a start, it’s helpful to examine methods that have worked well in the past. Then consider what can be added, expanded, or reworked to meet the needs of a changing talent pool.

Traditional types of on-the-job training

On-the-job training has been most frequently associated with people newly entering the workforce or those preparing for a job that demands new skills. This training process lays the foundation for an employee’s satisfaction with and perceived fit within the organization.

The five most common on-the-job training methods are:

1. Orientation 

In many cases, orientation is the first in-depth introduction an employee has to the broader organization. They gain insight into the organization’s culture and values, overall expectations, and business objectives. It’s also where an employee starts to learn the systems, practices, and “rules of the road” they will incorporate into their day-to-day functioning. 

Ideally, orientation incorporates real-time interaction between the instructor and employee, supplemented in some cases by relevant online learning. While orientation isn’t necessarily a make-or-break moment for most employees, it can be a lost opportunity for an employer that considers the process merely an HR requirement and not a critical first step in building employee engagement.

2. Internship

Internships can be an excellent way to source employees about to enter the workforce. In fact, recent research shows that 70% of interns are offered a position at the same organization they intern for, and only 20% decline. From a training perspective, that means the intern has already benefited from several months of on-the-job training and can ideally hit the ground running as a new hire.

3. Apprenticeship

Historically, an apprenticeship was a means for a novice to learn an art, trade, or profession from an expert practitioner. While the approach to, and popularity of, apprenticeships has varied over time, it’s currently getting a fresh look. Young people are reassessing their education options, and opportunities to “work and learn” are in greater demand. 

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At the same time, the current worker shortages require organizations to reevaluate their thinking not only about how, who, and where they recruit, but also the investment to make in incorporating “non-traditional” hires into the employee mix. 

While not typical, something else to consider is whether experienced employees facing substantive new skill requirements due to business demands might also be candidates for an apprenticeship approach to reskilling.

4. Job rotation

Job rotation can be an excellent learning approach for any employee when carefully structured. For new employees, it can be a way to gain experience in a variety of positions while developing more extensive relationships and acquiring a broader understanding of how the organization operates. 

For more experienced employees, it can inspire new interest and motivation. It may also serve as a stepping stone to take on higher levels of responsibility. In all cases, there should be a mutual understanding of the purpose and objectives of the rotations, as well as the support mechanisms available.

5. Mentoring and coaching

The importance of mentoring and coaching employees at all stages of their careers — but particularly those new to the organization — cannot be overstated. The development of strong social connections and a sense of belonging can be critical for an employee’s decision to stay or move on.

Mentoring and coaching can take a variety of forms throughout someone’s tenure. For example, a new hire could be assigned a “buddy” colleague to help them navigate their early days, introduce them to colleagues, etc. Meanwhile, an experienced mentor can provide more in-depth guidance around job requirements, offer insight into the larger organization, and help navigate rough patches. For experienced employees, a mentor can be an advocate, as well as a safe sounding board for airing concerns and seeking out career guidance.

On-the-job training for a 21st-century workforce

Understanding and striving to meet the needs of a demanding, diverse workforce while remaining competitive is especially challenging during this time. It’s doubtful things will “go back to the way they were” anytime soon — if ever — and perhaps that will be a positive outcome as both employers and employees are forced to challenge their approaches to work. The vital importance of on-the-job training makes it an excellent process to re-assess.

Below are some changes worth exploring that seem to be having a broad impact.

  • Gen Z has made no secret of its expectations for the workplace. In addition to what it considers adequate compensation, this cohort group also wants opportunities to grow and be recognized for what they have to offer. They want to understand the organization’s mission and have input into better ways of doing things. They also expect people in the organization to not just talk about values but live them. 

    Mentoring and coaching are critical on-the-job training elements most likely to appeal to this population. One-to-one interaction and guidance can provide the individual support and recognition they desire, as well as demonstrate the extent to which the organization “walks the talk.” Formal or informal apprenticeship opportunities are also likely to attract Gen Z as alternatives or complements to traditional higher education.
  • Remote and hybrid work are here to stay. How will on-the-job training need to change to provide both remote and hybrid employees with the training they need, and the means to develop the relationships and organizational connection so critical to retention? This latter point deserves particular attention, as turning to some form of technology often seems to be the path of least resistance. 

    For remote workers, regular one-to-one connection with a supervisor, mentor, or coach can help lessen the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. However, a major pitfall with remote work is that those employees can be overlooked for the full breadth of training, skill development, and team building. 

    How might creative approaches to on-the-job training address that challenge? Consider options such as: assigning a team of remote workers to collaborate on a business problem designed to help build their skills, supported by a coach; scheduling periodic virtual work sessions that include small breakout groups to foster inclusion; and incorporating one-to-one or small group discussions among employees from different parts of the business.
  • On-the-job training should strive to keep an eye on the future. In a 2023 LinkedIn study, leadership and management were high on employers’ lists of capabilities they desired in their workforce. Assuming the organization recruits and hires with an eye toward potential, the OJT process will need to help set new hire expectations and provide initial learning experiences that incorporate them.

    That process begins with orientation, where the desired capabilities are not only discussed but employees are given examples of how they can quickly demonstrate them. Building on that foundation, opportunities for employees to observe best practices and develop their skills should be incorporated into their learning plans.

Incorporating these challenges into an already demanding on-the-job training process requires innovation in developing and implementing solutions. Every organization will need to address them differently, but the suggestions below offer a strong starting point.

5 critical elements of successful on-the-job training

Moving a re-imagined OJT from concept to reality will require time, investment, a clear focus on desired outcomes, and commitment from every level of the organization. Below are ideas to help establish a strong foundation for change.

1) Senior leadership support and alignment with L&D

A pitfall for both business and L&D leaders can be misalignment when the business or talent pool is changing rapidly, and the on-the-job training approach hasn’t kept pace. Part of the solution is to incorporate a periodic, mandatory, joint assessment of business objectives, related training requirements, and workforce configuration. Delineate targeted OJT outcomes with oversight shared by a designated business leader in partnership with L&D.

2) An innovation mindset

Actively challenge “the way we’ve always done things” in OJT content and process. As one example, if teamwork and communication skills are important, how are those being developed in a real-world setting, even with a remote worker? Ideally, all levels of the organization should have the means and opportunity to offer ideas for consideration. Support from the organization to encourage, identify, and implement innovative approaches will be critical.

3) Highly skilled and motivated trainers

It can be easy to assume a high performer will be a good instructor or coach, but that is not a safe assumption to make. Successful on-the-job training is dependent on the quality and motivation of its instructors, role models, and coaches, who are expected to demonstrate the relevant skills and embody the culture of the organization. First, identify the breadth of capabilities needed for OJT support roles and assess a broad spectrum of the workforce for candidates. Then develop a comprehensive training, evaluation, and reward system for those selected for these critical roles.

4) Clearly demonstrated purpose and values

It takes little time for a new hire to decide whether an organization feels like the right fit. On-the-job training, in a way, is the “opening bid” for an employer to demonstrate why that hire made the right choice. Identify the critical priorities and values the organization considers part of its brand (for example, outstanding customer service). Then explore the different touch points through which the employee can see those demonstrated and reinforced.

5) Rigorous and ongoing evaluation

While seemingly obvious, evaluation can often take a back seat to other demanding priorities. With on-the-job training, it can also be tempting to focus on job skills that are easily measured. A truly comprehensive OJT evaluation process should assess the full range of targeted capabilities, the effectiveness of the training processes and support structure, and the outcomes for both employees and the organization as a whole. Time and budget are certainly considerations as to the evaluation processes that are chosen, but the results will be critical for guiding future improvements.

Final thoughts

Highly successful organizations understand their employees are the most critical differentiating factor they possess. That differentiation relies on a sustained investment in talent development, with outstanding on-the-job training serving as an essential foundation. But change and challenge are ongoing and will affect every aspect of the organization. Thus, an all-hands-on-deck mindset will be required — with senior leadership and L&D professionals at the forefront.

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