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There may exist as many versions of this fable as people who tell it.

One individual — say a company CFO — points out a particularly noticeable line item in the budget. “Hey, Boss, look at the cost of educating the employees! What happens if these employees leave?” says the CFO, in a version of the story told by Stephen Little, CEO of Claro Pool Services, in Palm Desert, Calif.

The CEO counters with food for thought: “What happens if they don’t train and they stay?”

While some in the service sector of the industry may continue to grapple with this conundrum, others have developed fully formed training programs that not only incorporate education offered by associations and vendors, but include structured in-house training taking place over the first weeks and months of a new hire's term, then continuing on an ongoing basis.

While company owners see industry education improving, it’s not enough to rely exclusively on association and vendor programs. It’s through in-house training that your company concocts its secret sauce. Besides learning the basics of water balance, techs need to learn your company’s specific way of doing things and what sets it apart in terms of technical processes and soft skills such as interpersonal communication.

“There’s a lot more that goes into being a high-quality service technician — and a company — than just knowing how to do it,” says Dan Lenz, vice president of All Seasons Pools, Spas & Outdoor Living, in Orland Park, Ill.

This becomes especially crucial as companies seek to grow. A structured training plan helps standardize procedures. For those who hire inexperienced individuals and train from scratch — whether by choice or necessity — a well-planned training program is crucial for getting them up to speed.

For those still wondering if the investment pays off, Little has personally found a direct and proportional relationship between the education he offers and his company’s success.

“The very best indicator of success in this industry is the layers and layers of training over and over again,” he says. “It is easy to become complacent, but there are literally dozens of opportunities to ward off mediocrity, but we must stand up and boldly take advantage of these opportunities.”

In this series, we will cover the various elements that go into a solid service-training program. Here, we begin with some general rules to apply.

▶Set goals and expectations for each position

Take a realistic look at what each technician will do — and not just the maintenance and repair tasks.

Some companies want their technicians to take advantage of any upselling opportunity that comes along. If that’s the case, they’ll need information about the products you sell, as well as their benefits and drawbacks.

You may want service professionals to detect if a pool falls out of compliance with laws, codes and industry standards,both to safeguard customers and propose repairs. In that case, they will need to know local and state codes, as well as industry standards.

Also ask yourself how in-depth their knowledge needs to be, especially when they start with the company. While a tech ideally could answer any question, you may not think you need that. Little, for instance, wants his entry-level techs to know the routine process inside and out, but he doesn’t need them to know the whys of every part of the process.

Overwhelming newer technicians with too much information can set them up for failure, he believes.

For his company, “the goal is not to have a pool cleaner who can explain the potential of hydrogen or what the best method to sanitize the pool may be,” Little says. “The goal and result of our training is that the pool cleaning employee can clearly explain what tests they are performing, what the expected result is and how to have an impact on any test.”

▶Develop a clear training and promotion structure

Establish a structured plan outlining what education will take place, as well as incentives and promotions given to each employee as they complete each stage. Not only does this help your company cement its training program, but it serves as a motivator for employees to continually evolve.

At All Season’s, service techs begin as apprentices before advancing to Junior Technician and entering a new pay tier. “Our tiered level of pay offers clear, written incentives for advancement when specific objectives are achieved by the employee,” Lenz says.

After they’ve gone through each stage of the Junior Technician tier, they become Senior Technicians and enter a new tier. Not only do they earn greater income, but they now help train apprentices and junior techs.

“We have an employee agreement for technicians that spells out how they can get from walking in with no pool knowledge to making a six-plus-figure income in a six- to 10-year time frame,” Lenz says. “And we’re delving deeper to be more specific as to the various tasks a tech needs to be proficient at.” Right now, that includes a 10-page document listing the procedures techs must be able to perform in the field.

The plan should specify how long new techs need to work in their current positions before being considered for promotion. Gohlke Pools, for instance, requires technicians to clean pools for at least one summer before they’re assessed as potential repair trainees.

“That gives us enough time to evaluate their work ethic, communication skills and mechanical prowess,” says Nick Day, general manager of the Denton, Texas-based company. “That could be as little as six months, but probably more likely a year.”

These evaluations typically take place as winter approaches, so they can receive intensive training in the off season. If a tech isn’t ready for promotion at that time, he or she will continue in their maintenance role for the next season.

▶Take an active involvement in choosing employees’ outside education

Some companies want their techs to earn industry certifications quickly, so they require them in a given timeline.

Gohlke Pools has a Certified Pool Operator instructor on its staff, who teaches courses monthly for employees, commercial customers and others in the local pool, spa and aquatics industries. New service pros at the company must take the course offered soonest after their start date, then take the test.

Los Angeles-based Pure Swim lays out a sequence of four industry certifications that employees must take in the first six months. These include the CPO, as well as certifications from the National Plasterers Council, IPSSA, OSHA certification, and the Pool Chemistry Training Institute.

Additionally, as an ongoing part of their education, employees must attend two weeks of outside instruction each year, paid by the Pure Swim, says its CEO, Rich Gallo.

Upon sending employees to trade shows, some companies mandate that they attend a minimum number of classes or hours of instruction each day. Some managers will sit down with their charges to map out what classes they should attend to help them progress.

▶Build repetition and multiple points of view into your system

This helps for a number of reasons. Different points of view will help fill information gaps. And because each person’s brain processes new instruction differently, presenting it in a variety of formats will more likely reach everyone. Finally, we retain information better through repetition, so hearing the same thing in a variety of ways will reinforce it.

For instance, Gohlke Pools’ master electrician will teach the service department at least once a year. And during their ridealong period, techs at Aqua Pool & Patio in East Windsor, Conn. spend time with the plumbing crew on the construction side. “They learn a lot by seeing what’s underground,” says President Michael Giannamore.

Lenz has his new techs ride along with different staffers, including management and senior technicians, so they get different perspectives. In-office courses are generally taught by a team of at least two, for the same reason. A manager might better understand the theories and big picture, while somebody who works in the field knows better what the team will face day to day.

Look for more than one or two ways to teach. Of course, companies should combine classroom-type instruction with hands-on training. But Little says managers should go beyond that and look for every opportunity to educate.

“I order pizzas on Friday, so you get a paycheck and pizza,” he says. “Some education happens when you’re eating pizza and having a cold drink together. ”

▶Set up your mentors to succeed.

Not even the highest level of competence at maintaining and repairing pools will guarantee a knack for teaching and training. Lenz, who once studied to be a teacher, appreciates this more than anybody.

“Certain people shouldn’t be teachers,” he says. “We’ve all encountered them — I can read a Power Point, I don’t need you to read it to me.”

At All Seasons, Lenz generally chooses which senior staffers will instruct, based on temperament at least as much as subject matter expertise. His approach may seem counterintuitive to some: He looks for somebody who can listen and step back as well as they can articulate and demonstrate.

“We’ve had certain people who, no matter how much you try, will not allow a junior person to do the work,” he says. “They want [the junior tech] to learn by watching. But our industry does not learn by watching, they learn by doing. So [mentors and trainers] need a willingness to say, ‘I’ll be the one holding the flashlight for you, and you’ll do the work.’ We’re identifying those who are willing to let others do instead of making them watch.”

While managers and supervisors do the training in many companies, Gallo sees the job as an growth opportunity for those senior techs who have mastered the skills but have no desire to manage.

“Some [say], ‘I love my job. I don’t want to manage — I want to keep doing this.’ But they love to train and show new individuals what they love to do.”

To help mentors succeed, Gohlke Pools staff will provide support. Management will help assemble information and checklists to guide the instructor on the subject matter to cover. If a senior tech will present a class, another staffer may produce the Power Point presentation if the lead tech doesn’t have that skill.