On-the-job training, often referred to as OJT, occurs whenever more experienced employees teach less experienced employees how to do one or more of the tasks of a job. It is practical, hands on, and found in all organizations at almost every level. On-the-job training is the single most commonly used training method in organizations today. The most common applications of OJT are in training new workers in manual tasks. Typically, new employees are assigned to work alongside more senior employees, who show the novices how to do required tasks and oversee their work. All employees undergo some OJT, typically in cases where how-to knowledge is company specific and only one or two employees are learning at a time (e.g., administrative tasks such as time accounting or business-expense claims). Coaching and mentoring, especially at managerial levels, are also forms of OJT.
According to some studies, employees who receive more hours of OJT programs may start at lower wage levels; all studies report higher wage and productivity growth rates in firms with extensive OJT programs. The more educated the employees, the higher the rates of return for OJT; in fact, the return rate is more than 80 percent for college-educated employees. Studies have also shown that much OJT learning is portable across employers and even across industries. With today’s boundaryless career model, OJT learning seems a wise investment.
Historically, all training was OJT. Children learned from their parents and extended family members. Medieval guilds established formal apprenticeship programs that many craft unions still use today, albeit with formalized courses of instruction and skill testing to determine task mastery. For example, the United Association’s five-year program to train plumbers and pipe-fitters includes 1,700 to 2,000 hours of OJT each year.
OJT is highly cost effective, particularly in small companies where few employees require training at any given time. Companies normally spend three to six times as much on OJT as they do on formal training. The return on organizational investment is higher, since OJT includes no external trainer costs and materials fees. In addition, fewer employees are unproductive during OJT than during formal training, so productivity drops less—a particularly important benefit in smaller companies.
Learning is focused and usually faster, since both the trainer and the trainee generally engage in actual production during the training period. The training utilizes the actual equipment and materials from the live job, so no adaptation or retraining is required following the training period. Furthermore, no latency period follows OJT that allows the new skills to be forgotten. Hence, OJT is an excellent way for established employees to enhance their skills and learn new ones. OJT uncovers learning and ability problems quickly and allows them to be addressed within the departmental unit. In addition, since the trainer is usually a peer or supervisor, OJT can help build relationships with new employees.
Although OJT is very effective, it is not perfect. Most OJT trainers have received little or no instruction in teaching methods. Trainers are usually chosen because they are good at their jobs, rather than because they can explain those jobs. They may not be productive when their training styles do not match the learning styles of their trainees.
Because on-the-job training rarely has specific goals other than a simple how-to, learning goals and training plans with predetermined content are usually absent. The training process may be haphazard, and trainees often learn by rote, with little understanding of why tasks are performed. Hence, OJT is highly unsuitable for training in theoretical situations.
The implementation problems of OJT can be largely overcome through careful planning. Job instruction training, or JIT, was developed to teach manufacturing during World War II; it is still acknowledged as the best approach today. JIT has four overall stages: prepare, present, try out, and follow up.
The prepare stage is actually the most complex and difficult, and it is the one most commonly left out. The job supervisor needs to break down all the steps of the job, seeing the job through the eyes of a total novice. From the steps comes an instruction plan that can be tailored to individual trainees. The final part of this stage—putting the trainee at ease—is critical to provide motivation and set the stage for success.
The present stage has four steps: tell, show, demonstrate, and explain. First, the trainer gives the trainee an overview of the task while pointing out the equipment, materials, and so on that are involved, following the main steps listed in the training document prepared in Stage1. The trainer runs through the job once to communicate the overview and convey the gist of the job, showing the sequence of steps and their rhythm. Next, the trainer demonstrates each step in detail, actually doing the steps of the task and explaining each step, one at a time, while the trainee watches. The steps may not be demonstrated in the sequence of actual operation; often it is better to demonstrate simple tasks first to build confidence. Showing finished products at each appropriate step helps the learner understand what is required. While demonstrating, the trainer explains why each step is done in the way it is done.
The third or try-out stage involves direct trainee participation. First, the trainee talks through what has been learned, then instructs the supervisor on the steps of the job. Once the trainee and supervisor are comfortable that the trainee is ready, the trainee does the job steps under supervision. The trainer provides both positive and corrective feedback. Finally, the trainee practices, with clearly defined targets for performance measurement.
During the Stage 4 follow-up, the trainer monitors progress, offering feedback and pointers where needed and when asked. This ongoing involvement gradually tapers off as the trainee masters the tasks.
In office environments, OJT has advanced dramatically in the last few years with computer-based training (CBT). Many office workers learn most new skills at their desks with vendor-supplied, self-paced training materials. These materials can be as simple as texts and associated data files (enabling users to learn new computer applications quickly) or as elaborate as multimedia simulations with audio, video, and even virtual reality components. As expected, the training complexity tends to increase with the sophistication of the job to be learned.
Corporate intranets are the latest delivery mechanism for OJT. Such nets enable nearly all employees to participate in general educational programs (e.g., ethics, diversity, and sexual harassment) that require feedback and/or assessment; these nets also deliver training on company-wide systems. This simple, user-controlled distribution system, coupled with a tracking mechanism to ensure training delivery and mastery, delivers considerable bottom line benefit.
On-the-job training has been and continues to be the most widely used job-training method. Computer delivery of OJT incorporates many of the JIT steps; it offers the potential to improve OJT and increase its already proven benefits. As careers become even less structured, employers’ training requirements increase, and technology supports more interactive and realistic user interfaces, OJT will become even more pervasive and more effective.
- Blanchard, P. N. and Thacker, J. W. 1999. Effective Training: Systems, Strategies and Practices. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Gold, L. 1981. “Job Instruction: Four Steps to Success.” Training and Development Journal 35(9):28-32.
- Groot, W. and Mekkelholt, E. 1995. “The Rate of Return to Investments in On-the-Job Training.” Applied Economics 27:173-181.
- Rothwell, W. J. and Kazanas, H. C. 1990. “Planned OJT is Productive OJT.” Training and Development Journal 44(10):53-56.