CLEVELAND - When W. David Outlaw of molder Precise Technology Inc. was considering creating his plant's first distance learning training program, he conjured the words of a long-suffering fan of the local baseball team.
That anonymous follower of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team more accustomed to losing than a donkey at a horse race, once wrote: ``If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style.''
Outlaw, plant manager of Precise's St. Petersburg, Fla., plant, had witnessed good workers leaving the company and unwilling to sit through training that amounted to endless hours of dull charts and lectures. Meanwhile, they were stuck in the same mode of failure, unable to get ahead with the company.
``We needed to train them a little differently,'' said Outlaw, who spoke June 21 in Cleveland at Plastics Encounter. ``Our work force was very inefficient. And our policy stated that workers were only promoted by their tenure. The relative go-getters we had who wanted to learn were discouraged by that.''
Something had to give, as the plant kept bleeding employees. With some timely financial help from the state of Florida and a new training regimen from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., the company readjusted its attitude and removed those advancement bars.
This spring, the Florida facility trained 60 people - 20 of them from other area molders - in injection molding basics. The employees, now certified through Washington-based SPI's training program, took courses through a satellite feed that was beamed into the plant.
State grants picked up the costs of the 28-hour training program, estimated to run about $700 per student, Outlaw said.
``The satellite dish had to be right here in the workplace,'' Outlaw said. ``No one wanted to interrupt their living by going somewhere else. We tried to run it through the local junior college, but no one had interest.''
Distance learning, or the beaming of training courses directly to a worker's facility or cubicle, has been made easier by the evolution of satellite transmissions and the Internet. SPI trained about 300 molding workers in Florida this spring by satellite and expects to add another 350 people at 16 sites in the state this fall, said Gary Moore, SPI director of work-force development.
Meanwhile, resin companies such as Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics are using the Internet to educate customers on new products, design ideas and material applications.
GE Plastics runs about 50 e-seminars a month - up from one or two per month last year - over a Web site that includes a PowerPoint presentation and an interactive, open-question period done through electronic mail sent to the moderator.
About 5,000 people will have taken a Web seminar at GE by the end of the year, said Sam Stiller, GE Plastics e-marketing programs manager.
``Clearly for us, it's an efficient method of reaching customers effectively and intimately,'' Stiller said. ``It's a tool to reach a lot of customers with a variety of messages. And from a cost standpoint, it makes sense.''
>From a time standpoint, GE's new approach is welcomed, too. The resin supplier used to roll out an 18-wheel, 70-foot-long truck across North America. The moving conference center, called Vector, would drive to different cities for on-site training on new applications and design tools.
``Customers really didn't have time to spend the whole day with us,'' said Stiller, part of the Vector team. ``Some never got to participate. We can still deliver in a live format now, but many others can attend.''
Each GE course runs about an hour in length, enough time to explore a targeted subject in- depth but not lose audience interest, Stiller said. The cost depends on the topic and number of people involved but generally can run under $100 a session.
Sometimes, the courses are targeted to a single company, primarily product end users. At other times they can reach a broader engineering community. GE field representatives still continue their work at customer offices, using the Internet courses as a base to build upon.
SPI prefers the satellite method to the Internet feed. ``When you're dealing with production workers in particular, you prefer live, full-motion visuals where you can show things and answer questions,'' Moore said. ``You just can't do full video and animated graphics on the Internet.''
SPI uses trainers from Charlotte, N.C.-based Polymers Center of Excellence for many of its certification training courses. It also has a higher-level, troubleshooting course starting this fall beamed from Chester, Conn.-based Paulson Training Programs Inc.
In Florida, unlike most states, if employees pass the certification test, the company gets back the course costs. Setting up the satellite dish can cost another $3,000-5,000 for a company but can pay for itself in productivity improvements from trained workers, Moore said.
Kentucky also is setting up a matching grant program, Moore said. And while Massachusetts and New Hampshire do not offer funding, companies there have paid the cost of the long-distance training, he said.
At Precise, the training lasted two hours each day, twice a week for seven weeks. Testing was then done through SPI's National Certification in Plastics program. If Precise, based in North Versailles, Pa., develops leaders through the program, the satellite hookup will be worth the time and expense, Outlaw said.
``The theory is that we can keep training from becoming a cure for insomnia,'' Outlaw said. ``We mix a few hours of training with practice in the plant, and that keeps people challenged instead of having them fall behind.''