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Building Up Employee Skill Sets (Part 1)

Avoid turnover by challenging high-achieving team members

CHICAGO — While some workers are happy with the status quo, satisfied with their current position and skill set, many high-achieving employees want to be challenged and learn new skills. For these team members, the opportunity for growth is attractive and will keep them loyal to their employer — a trait dry cleaners should encourage during a difficult labor market.

So, how can a leader challenge their team to achieve more and become an increasingly flexible workforce? 

Leading the Charge

Sasha Ablitt, owner of Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners & Taylors in Santa Barbara, California, believes it’s crucial for a business to continue building up each employee’s skill set. 

“The quality of our product is dependent upon the quality of our workforce, and that goes for customer service as well, which I also consider a product,” she says. “You have to have people who are well-trained in dealing with the public, which seems to be getting harder and harder.”

Brian Johnson, director of training for the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI), agrees that a business can only benefit by increasing its team’s skills.

“An increase in knowledge can easily lead to an increase in productivity, efficiency, and quality of service,” he says, “and that can ultimately create better profits and better leaders within the company. By training your employees in entirely new areas, you can leverage your existing workforce to survive the current job market crisis.”

For Ablitt, training employees for more than one role is “baked” into her business model. 

“We have always cross-trained our employees,” she says. “That’s nothing new for us. And we always try to incorporate things that bring our customer service into the back of the plant and bring the production folks up to the front so they can understand each others’ worlds. It’s always paid off in higher productivity, as well as low turnover.”

Getting Off to a Good Start

Before secondary skills can be taught, however, the onboarding process sets the tone for what an employee can expect from the company and its leadership. 

“You have to set the expectations,” Ablitt says. “Communication is probably the most important thing. There should be a lot of one-on-one communication when you first hire someone. They need to have trust in you and trust that they can ask questions. If they don’t know something, we want them to ask questions and not just guess what the right answer is.”

A big part of this communication should be letting the new hire know what is expected of them, as well. 

“When onboarding, management also should have to be clear about their expectations,” Johnson says, “whether it’s discussing which tasks they will be performing, or how many pieces per hour are expected. This should all be done up front. Communication is crucial.”

Be sure to factor in patience for a smooth onboarding process.

“The first couple days in the cleaners are overwhelming for most people,” Ablitt says. “It’s a lot of information — it’s your point-of-sale system, meeting your customers, and just memorizing things about the business. Then, customers are always asking different questions, and then you have the cleaning process — it’s just a lot. So, you have to be patient with them and not overwhelm them too much. Have them focus on one small area at a time until they get it.”

Communication doesn’t need to constantly come from top leadership, Ablitt says. A more-experienced peer can often provide the best guidance in certain situations. 

“We set up a buddy system,” she says. “You want them to have someone who they feel comfortable with besides just their manager. In the beginning, the manager will probably be checking in with them every hour. But we’ll put them with a buddy, who is like their mentor — it’s usually the lead at the department that they’ve been starting in.”

“Having a mentor will help new hires feel more comfortable and connect with current team members,” Johnson agrees. “Having a go-to person whom they can ask questions helps to ease some of that anxiety of starting at a new company. That’s my preferred method.”

This allows new hires to feel more in control of the process, which is key in avoiding the feeling of becoming overwhelmed.

“Getting overwhelmed can really shut somebody down, especially in the beginning,” Ablitt says. “At that point, they won’t be asking questions, because every second is a question, and they get discouraged.”

Come back Tuesday for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll take a look at cross-training, as well as the benefits of both on- and off-site training.

Building Up Employee Skill Sets

(Photo: © londondeposit/Depositphotos)

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].