Teaching a new generation of millers

by Brandi Miller
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The foundational principles of grain milling have been the same for centuries. However, the technology used to support the industry has changed considerably in the last 50 years. Operators can now rely on technology to more quickly identify issues, take more reliable measurements and get real-time data during a mill run.

This technology has improved the milling industry and has also changed the way people are able to access information in general. Individuals now have access to information virtually any time of day. Early research is showing that the access to information is actually changing the way we learn and reducing attention span specifically in a classroom setting. This change in attention is being seen more with younger generations.

Why is this important to the milling industry? Because like many of the sectors of agriculture, the milling industry is seeing a shift in employee age. With many employees nearing retirement, there is a need to open positions to younger workers. According to 2014 Labor Force Statistics, almost 69% of the employees in agriculture are 45 or older.

Teaching old dogs new tricks

With the age variation of the population in the workforce, training produces new opportunities. In order to effectively train in the workplace, it is important to understand some fundamental differences of adult learners as a whole, disregarding age. The challenge with addressing adult learning is that there are vast opinions regarding learning later in the life. One opinion is based on the age old idiom: “You can’t teach an old dog a new trick.” Although biology does play an important role in learning, and the impact of learning on an aging brain is different than that of a younger brain, you can still indeed teach an old dog a new trick.

There is myriad data and research, including several different models that define adult learning at the cognitive level. Many of them are conflicting, but there seems to be a few common themes: adults have the capacity to accept many different viewpoints, even if they provide contradictory information, and many external factors influence what and how we think and include social, cultural and economic factors.

In addition to understanding cognitive learning, it is important to distinguish what is motivating a participant. Are they being driven by an internal or external motivator? Educators, regardless of the environment, should capitalize on the different motivators.

In addition to being lifelong learners, or interested in a topic, adults are more motivated by external factors than their younger peers. Training can lead to pay increases and more job opportunities either inside or outside of an organization. Some training is required by organizations in order to maintain certain licenses, and that can also be an external motivator.

By surveying employees before training, a trainer can better understand why employees are attending. If employees are intrinsically motivated, they will likely have a much greater interest in the information prior to the training. Their personal interest in a topic can drive engagement, and being aware of the interest only benefits a trainer.

Surveys can be conducted in several different ways. If you are providing training to external participants, a survey can be developed and given to participants before they arrive. This is the most ideal situation, because it allows trainers to have a firm grasp on what is driving individuals to participate in training. If the training format doesn’t allow for pre-surveys, it can be done quickly before training, either using a paper survey with a few short questions or through verbal communication with the group. Note that verbal communication might not provide the most accurate results, but would still allow a trainer to react based on the results.

Even with routine monthly training, a trainer would still benefit knowing what motivator is driving employees’ interest. Using the motivation as a framework prior to a program, a trainer can build the materials accordingly and leverage those that are truly interested in a topic. The enthusiasm adult learners possess when interested in a topic can be contagious.

After understanding motivation, the best combatant for training many generations in one setting is to just address it. By recognizing the challenges that training a diverse population can provide at the beginning of training will help dissolve some of the bias in the room. Recognize that everyone will bring different skills and experiences and that regardless, all will be important to the training.

Although younger employees may be more technically advanced because that is the world they grew up in, an experienced employee will bring the real-world examples that enrich discussions. It is also important as a trainer to dissolve your own individual bias. Just because an employee is younger doesn’t necessarily mean they will be more technology advanced, and vice versa. It also doesn’t mean that their personal experiences in the workplace are any less valuable to training discussions.

Diverse training methods

With diverse ages in a training setting, it is important to utilize several different training methods. This is actually true regardless of age, because everyone learns in different formats. Some individuals might be content with sitting and listening to a presentation, with little interaction, while others may prefer a more kinetic experience with the ability to physically interact with equipment or a product during training. If possible, provide several different avenues of training. A presentation could be accompanied by a video and a hands-on demonstration.

It is important to be aware that flashy and engaging training might be great for some but not for everyone. There is certainly a balance between engaging and outlandish. In lieu of over-the-top production, consider incorporating discussion time. If you are training a large audience, maybe this is done in smaller settings. If this is done in a facility, maybe teams can be tasked with a challenge, goal or outcome and could reconvene after they have completed the task. Again, not everyone is going to enjoy this type of training, but providing different avenues will engage everyone regardless of age.

When employing different methods, be consistent and repetitive across the methods. This ensures that everyone is hearing the same information regardless of the platform in which it is being shared.

Adult learners are complex, so by providing several different outlets for training, regardless of age, they will help them certainly gain the most out of their training. Another tool to utilize during training is through seeking feedback. This can be done informally just through a series of verbal questions or more formally through written or electronic feedback. It is important to ask when participants felt the most engaged in the training. This is great feedback for presenters as well. It is equally important to ask when they didn’t feel engaged or pulled into the training.

Finally, request feedback following the training. What went well? What needs improvement? If you have a multi-generational audience, pay attention to areas that can be improved upon for the next offering. Implement the feedback to continue to improve training and provide the best learning environments possible. When a trainer is able to provide quality trainer, regardless of the age of participant or the topic, everyone gains from the experience.