The Blue-Collar Experience

When you design training, it really boils down to knowing your audience. Try to know more than their job titles—what physical, time, or environmental constraints are they facing?

My first experience with a “blue-collar” audience was when I worked for a management consulting firm just before the turn-of-the-millennium. At the time, my job was developing and delivering SAP training for different companies, which was in great demand at the time due to the potential horrors of the Y2K bug. This job led me to teach classes for railway mechanics and electricians with large telecom companies.

An experience I had when I was very new to the job astonished me. I was auditing a class of railway mechanics who were learning how to use work orders in SAP. By the end of the first day, they were extremely angry. The implementation team had heavily customized the system, and it was overly complicated. In addition to the many steps to remember, some participants had a difficult time trying to maneuver around the system. Confusion reared its ugly head. And they weren’t alone. What they were trying to learn was new to me, too—I was just as confused.

The instructor didn’t help matters; he wasn’t sympathetic to these challenges and escalated the situation by blaming the participants for their “failure to concentrate.” Not surprising, the tone of the room became increasingly hostile. The situation eventually was resolved, but I will never forget the intense feeling of frustration and anger that day.

For much of my career since that training session 18 years ago, my audience has been primarily blue collar: mechanics, steel workers, miners, and heavy equipment operators. Today, such training is focused on online safety and compliance training tools for the North American transportation industry, and there are some essential differences to keep in mind when designing for this audience.

Blue Collar versus White Collar: The Technology

In my experience, how people use technology in a blue-collar environment is quite different from how it’s used in a typical office setting. Computers often are primarily used for essential asset management or work scheduling systems, so software (including browsers) may be locked down and only changed by a central IT department. Sometimes, the only browser available is an ancient version of Internet Explorer and you have to design for that limitation, which means no large audio, video, or other presentation files! Proprietary software or players that need to be downloaded to each computer also can be problematic.

We always consider network bandwidth because this can be a major issue when the majority of the company’s network is used for other systems. For example, years ago when designing a suite of online courses for a network of gas stations, we found that while some had great bandwidth, others were using a satellite connection and could barely call up any Webpage, let alone run a course. This meant a great deal of testing before we could go live with any training. Today though, we’re able to reduce the footprint of our current courses, so courses now can be completed over mobile devices, including those used in heavy trucks, or on a shared computer on the shop floor.

The Environment

In a blue-collar environment, many people don’t have their own computers since their workspace is mostly the equipment they work with. What I have seen is usually general access to a central, shared computer in a training room. But even when they have that access, there can be many interruptions and time limitations, especially when there are labor union requirements, as well.

In these situations, being able to bookmark your place in an online course is essential, especially if the course is going to take some time. Going back to the beginning is a waste of time and can be frustrating for users. In that case, people will avoid doing the training altogether. Even when you are permitted to download a player, it is frustrating when you only have 15 minutes and then you have to get back to the pump assembly you’re repairing. A “click-and-play” model works well for this audience, and access to good end-user support is essential for a positive outcome.

The Learners

Part of the reason many of the people in that training class were so frustrated was simply because they were older and weren’t used to using computers. Small text was most likely an issue, as well. At the time, I didn’t have the experience of “older eyes,” but looking back (now that I can’t easily read small print either), I realize many of the participants in the class were probably struggling with that challenge. My audience today is primarily older workers, and we avoid using small text, hard-to-read fonts and red/green color combinations. Don’t forget, as many as 8 percent of men are color blind, so if you are using red and green as contrasting colors to make a point, it’s not going to be effective.

We also have learned that the language we use when writing a course makes a big difference in its effectiveness. In the field of construction, for example, many people are amazing at subtracting two-thirds of an inch from any other fraction you throw at them. However, they may not have the same skill with reading comprehension or the English language. To accommodate for this, we have found that writing in “active” rather than passive voice and adding interactive quizzes and relevant graphics works well. What’s more, we keep text to a minimum, and have it visible even when there is voiceover, so students can read, as well as listen. This helps address the variety of learning styles of this audience.

For me, much of the blue-collar training I’ve designed also involves regulations, which are sometimes notoriously difficult to interpret. Even though it is tempting to slap those regulations on a page and call it training, if you don’t understand them, neither will your audience. This is where my network of subject matter experts (SMEs) has been invaluable with their guidance and insight. They help provide the big picture and how those regulations translate into real life. Keep in mind, this audience is skeptical of following processes until they see how it’s done and have proof of the benefits.

Remember that classroom of mechanics? Their frustration was warranted because no one had considered those constraints, strengths, or weaknesses. The system designers and their management team failed them. Ultimately, the instructor failed them, as well.

When you design training, it boils down to knowing your audience and adapting your material to them. Try to know more than their job titles—what physical, time, or environmental constraints are they facing? What skills and background knowledge are typical strengths? How can you support their weaknesses? By addressing these factors, you can make training easier to access and overall a more enjoyable, valuable experience.

Jane Jazrawy is CEO of CarriersEdge. The company provides online safety and compliance training tools for the North American transportation industry. Jazrawy has been a leader in education and performance improvement for more than 25 years.

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