Public Release: 

Technical training: What it means depends on who you ask

Penn State

U.S. industries spend enormous sums of money on technical training every year in order to remain competititive in the global markeplace. Two researchers have found, however, that not everyone agrees on the definition of technical training, and this may have serious consequences for training program efficiency.

At first glance, the phrase "techical training" seems to be easily understood. But Penn State human resources specialist Dr. William J. Rothwell and Joseph A. Benkowski, associate dean for workforce development at the University of Wisconsin, have found otherwise, as they point out in their new book "Building Effective Technical Training: How to Develop Hard Skills Within Organizations," published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

After examining what has been written about technical training around the world over the last 20 years, Rothwell and Benkowski concluded that technical training actually has three different meanings. "Use the phrase with factory workers or engineers, and they think you are talking about training on what they do," says Rothwell, professor of workforce education and development. This traditional use of the term also links it to the "blue-collar" work performed by craftspeople as plumbers, carpenters, machinists and electricians.

"Say technical training to workers in the still-red-hot field of Information Technology (IT), and they think you are talking about training for people who work in IT," Rothwell adds. This emerging meaning of the term links it to the "gold collar" work performed by a key growth segment of the U.S. economy. For managers or clerical workers, technical training means instruction to help them use the personal computers on which they are increasingly dependent to get their daily work done. With these two groups--so-called "white collar" and "pink collar" workers--technical training centers around the application of computers to their daily work. How did these differences in meaning come about? Rothwell explains: "I think the confusion centers around the 'tech' in the word 'technical.' Some people associate that with technology. Others understand technical to mean 'specialized terminology' or knowledge that is unique to one occupation. I think everyone sees the world based on where they sit in their organizations. Managers see one world; IT people see another; and, union workers or skilled tradesworkers see another."

"It is important that we know what we are talking about," says Rothwell. "If we can't be clear about what groups benefit most from technical training, we cannot establish good government policy about it -- and cannot make informed management decisions about it in companies."

According to the research conducted by Rothwell and Benkowski, technical training is key to international competitiveness for U.S. industries and economic development for localities. They found numerous economic studies that showed that technical training is critical, sometimes spelling a difference in profitability for companies and international competitiveness for nations. It has been important enough to capture the attention of the Committee on the Education and the Workforce of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In order to assess the value of technical training for workers, Rothwell and Benkowski surveyed 300 randomly-selected past participants in a Technical Instructor Institute held by the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The survey results, analyzed in February, revealed four key reasons for supporting technical training.

The first reason cited was to help organizations "remain competitive." Technical training gives workers the skills they need to improve production and meet or exceed customer expectations. Technical training is the easiest of all training to justify because it is tied directly to the work that people do, and its results can be observed almost immediately after training in improved productivity. The second reason cited was to "reduce downtime." Training may make workers more productive and thus less prone to lose valuable time on their jobs.

The third reason mentioned was to "increase the skills of workers." When based on the work that people do, technical training builds individual skills, where skills mean know-how. The fourth reason cited was to "improve productivity." Not surprisingly, managers and other training stakeholders expect training to provide an ample, and often measurable, return on investment. It helps workers increase their work output.

Other reasons to support technical training also ranked and included "reducing waste," "increasing the performance of workers" and "multi-skilling." "Our research results came as no surprise to us," Rothwell said. "It just makes sense that, when government and private industry invest in technical training, they will realize benefits from a workforce with up-to-date knowledge and skills and improved ability to adapt to technological and technical change."

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