Top 10 Employee Training Tools: Designer Training


Top 10 Employee Training Tools: Designer Training

Best practices for training and mentoring designers.

Oftentimes, component manufacturers (CMs) may describe the flow of work through a plant as if it relates to an hourglass. They picture sales as the top of the hourglass, production as the bottom, and that slim funnel in the center as the design team. A pivotal part of the operation and the segment of the business that can become the choke point of throughput, the design department needs to operate at its peak efficiency. That said, this article will provide some best practices to put into action that might help CMs open up that slim funnel of productivity, or increase the skill level of component designers. 

Assessment & Hiring

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that effective component designer training is one of the most challenging and important aspects of the component manufacturing business. A great deal of the value CMs provide to their customers relies upon the strength and creativity of their design work. Effective training, and the continued professional development of component designers, is therefore a key to any CM’s business. There are several aspects of the success of today’s component designers: their understanding of framing in the field, their understanding of plans and specifications, their knowledge of truss design, and their comprehension of the inner workings and capabilities of today’s component design software. Since the conversion of component design software from DOS to Windows, the industry has seen incredible software developments that can, in some cases, far exceed the skill set of some designers. 

One clear way to get ahead of the game is through effective training, and it starts in many cases with how members of a CM’s design team are hired. Hiring the right individuals to do component design is the first step. Some companies might use a math or geometry test to assess skills, but one of the best ways to really measure future success is by using SBCA’s Technical Assessment Test Online (TATO). Developed by SBCA with help from a number of CMs across the country, this test asks the right questions to give an employer a good idea of the aptitude and understanding of the prospective candidate. Once an individual is properly assessed and then hired, the real training begins.

Mentoring & Initial Skills Training

A good best practice for a new hire is to pair them with one of your best designers, or someone who has been with the company for several years and can effectively communicate the company’s expectations, culture and approach to design. It might also be good for these two to be located close to each other during this initial training stage to encourage greater communication. As a side note: one of the growing trends in today’s offices outside the components industry is to have offices where there are no cubicles and no walls, just shared work spaces. In that type of environment, it would be easier to have a trainee directly across from or adjacent to your lead designer, much like what is possible in the production area. This approach can also help make sure your new designer is able to quickly get answers to questions and stay on task.

Another important part of a designer’s initial training is to have them go through Level I of SBCA’s Truss Technician Training (TTT). Since TTT can be taken online, and is relatively intuitive, new designers easily use this training to fill in breaks in the action, or during a designated training period. Level I of TTT is an introduction for wood component design technicians developed to help these individuals understand the design and engineering fundamentals of metal plate connected trusses. During the training, trainees perform calculations, solve problems, review presentations, and respond to interactive quiz questions interspersed throughout the sections (see sidebar for TTT Level I sections).

Also developed by SBCA with the help of numerous CMs, TTT Level I covers important industry design standards and factors affecting truss fabrication, from design to installation, and is an effective way to prepare designers for the Level I Certification Exam. It’s important to note there is also a slimmer version of Level I called Truss Basics. Truss Basics has less technical and time-intensive math and load development sections. This makes it ideal for estimators, salespeople and anyone else who needs to understand truss design procedures but will not be performing truss design.

Upon completing TTT Level I, the designer will have a stronger understanding of the truss design and manufacturing process, the application of trusses, basic math, trigonometry and load development as it relates to truss design. It’s a good idea to have the Level I exam taken shortly after the course is completed so material is fresh in the designer’s mind. Not only will the designer then have a certificate to frame on the wall, but they can get a “TTT Level I Certified” seal to use on placement drawings, which can be one effective way to communicate to customers a company’s commitment to training.

Again, there is a twofold process in having a new individual work with a lead designer, one is the training aspect, and the other is mentorship in the company’s culture and the expectations of customers. This can be very important in establishing a long-term, committed relationship with each new designer.

Design Software Training

Another very important aspect of training is with the design software. A CM’s design software supplier is the best resource to handle this kind of training. After an individual has been hired and partnered with a mentor, another important early step is to contact the supplier and schedule a time for their field technical software trainer to be onsite to provide training. Many times, companies fail to do this until a few weeks after the designer is hired, and it is a scramble to schedule the field technical trainer. 

It’s not a bad idea for CMs to give their software supplier a heads up as soon as they know they are in the final stages of hiring a designer. While an initial training is very important, it shouldn’t stop there. Software suppliers can provide regular training sessions online and in local group sessions, and CMs will find it well worth the time investment to take advantage of these continuing education opportunities. 

In addition, many of the software suppliers also provide online training modules, offering possibly the fastest path for turning a new hire into a productive designer. This kind of orientation takes the designer-in-training approach through a sequenced series of modules replicating the most efficient process through the software for creating a job, designing the structure, creating an accurate cost estimate, and sending the correct files to production. Truss manufacturers may even enhance their estimating and design process by using these learning modules to help their designers take full advantage of their software supplier’s latest and greatest versions.

Needless to say, this approach even applies to experienced designers. The refresher is never a bad thing, and who knows what little tip or trick anyone might pick up. There is a lot of information in the design software programs, and no two designers are going to know every aspect of the program.

Advanced Training

So what is the logical progression of training after these first few steps? It can depend heavily on the company and what they want to accomplish with a particular designer. However, once a designer has reached Level I certification, and has shown proficiency in basic truss design concepts, moving on to Level II of TTT is usually warranted (this typically happens between six months to a year after hire). 

Level II covers advanced concepts for math and load development for live, dead, snow, rain and wind loads. Designers review component industry referenced standards like ANSI/TPI 1, ASCE-7 Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures, and the National Design Specification (NDS) for Wood Construction. During Level II, designers are asked to perform calculations, solve problems, review presentations and respond to interactive quiz questions interspersed throughout the sections (see sidebar above for TTT Level II sections). Developed by SBCA with the guidance of several CMs from around the U.S., the purpose of Level II is to advance designers’ knowledge base and understanding of advanced design formulas, load development and building code compliance, all while increasing their familiarity with current industry technical resources.

Finally, for advanced designers and structural engineers, there is Level III of TTT. Level III provides discussion and background of current technical issues. Each presentation is developed by a different industry professional and examines specific technical design considerations. Level III participants are given the opportunity to elevate their understanding of this highly specialized industry and receive answers to unresolved technical questions. Topics cover fundamental/theoretical design considerations and then how to apply these in the real world, the business risk associated with designing trusses, serviceability issues, and understanding and applying the building code to expand business growth opportunities (see sidebar above for TTT Level III sections).

Training Beyond the Trainer

For all three TTT certification programs, there is an annual recertification program that allows a designer to stay up-to-date on his or her certification. To aid in this recertification, one best practice is to have less experienced designers go out with a lead designer (or a sales manager/sales rep or production manager) and help give a Component Technology Workshop (CTW) to a local group of framers, building officials or specifiers. SBCA has developed numerous CTW presentations covering a broad array of topics. Participating in these presentations can be a great way to further train designers and expose them to marketplace issues, while also giving them an opportunity to present material they have already learned.

Another good best practice for some companies is to have a design team meeting once a week that focuses on providing brief training opportunities. These trainings can sometimes be hosted by other suppliers such as EWP or hanger companies, or maybe cover some aspect of the code that needs to be discussed. Sometimes new terminology or expectations are coming out of the architect/engineering community that need to be reviewed by the whole design team. Technical articles from SBC Magazine can also be a good source for training when they shed light on changes occurring within the industry. 

The Bottom Line

Designer training should never stop. Between reading blueprints, staying abreast of new terminology from architects and engineers, staying on top of changes in software programs, and back checking the work product of other designers, there is a constant stream of opportunities to learn and grow. Every CM should want their design team to stay abreast of this learning so they can provide the customer with the engineering value upon which our industry depends and thrives.

Ben Hershey is a Past President of SBCA and Owner of 4Ward Consulting Group - Experts in Lean Management & Manufacturing. Sales Training will be covered in the May issue.