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Improving the Effectiveness of ServSafe Training

The ServSafe food safety training and certification program from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) is the best known program of its type in the U.S.. Just over a year ago, the Foundation established a new position—vice president of instructor quality—and hired Terrence Donahue to fill it. In the new role, he has the responsibility of supporting the extensive netowrk of registered ServSafe instructors and exam proctors that have awarded over three million ServeSafe Food Protection Manager certifications.

Donahue has an extensive background as a trainer, including nine years as senior vice president of the world’s largest Train-the-Trainer company, with clients ranging from McDonald’s to Nike, Citibank and Chick-Fil-A.

We recently visited the NRAEF offices in Chicago to interview Donahue to get his thoughts on how onsite operators might more effectively manage their own in-house food safety training programs...

What exactly is your mission as vice president of instructor quality?

DONAH UE: The NRAEF created this position after several years of focus group research with our instructors— it found there was a missing link, someone who was the voice of the instructors to the NRAEF and the voice of the NRAEF to the instructors.

Everyone has a product: you produce food, or training materials, or magazines! My product is the job performance of our ServSafe instructors and exam proctors.

My objective is to create common practices based on best practices. I want my product—instructors—to have the same kind of consistent performance you’d expect from any high quality, branded product.

Consistency is a core ingredient of any organization’s brand or service. When our customers attend a ServSafe training program, they have an expectation that they will be receiving the highest quality of instruction—from their instructor and from the ServSafe materials we’ve created for them.

You’ve been on the job just over a year. What have you yourself learned?

DONAH UE: One thing is that there are a lot of challenges instructors face when training that have nothing to do with food safety. For example, students are often sent to the program with no idea of why they have been sent—they may just be told they have to get certified if they want to keep their jobs. They are often not prepared to be as receptive as they could be.

Diversity can be a challenge: in a single class you can have some students coming back for re-certification, others who are hearing the concepts for the first time. For some, English is a second language. Literacy can be an issue even when English is the primary language. Exam anxiety is often a problem. For some it may have been 15 years or more since they’ve taken a test and we have to prepare them for the test-taking experience. Some may have never seen a bubble sheet form before.

One of my first initiatives has been to develop materials and strategies to help the organizations sending learners to our classes address such issues before they arrive for training. For example, the ServSafe Examinee Handbook explains the value of certification, what learners should expect when they get to the class, what the exam will look like, how exam answers will be entered and tabulated.

What about preparing the trainers?

DONAH UE: Ultimately we are concerned about the quality of results, and a trainer’s performance has a major impact on the performance of his or her learners. Even trainers with many years of experience can improve their own performance, knowing that the performance of their learners depends so much on their own.

If you ask trainers the question I brought up before—what is your product?—they will say, “the course that I teach.” But that is really only a means of production. The real product we want them to produce is a high-performing learner, one who as a result will implement high performance food safety practices back at work.

A lot of our efforts are also focused on ensuring that our trainers share this perspective and continuously work at improving their ability to deliver on it.

When you look at improving food safety training generally, what is the biggest impediment?

DONAH UE: The time it takes to effectively deliver it to learners. Consider it from a business’s point of view: it may struggle with the idea of just letting an employee go off site for a single day for this purpose.

People often say the biggest impediment is the cost of training. In one of my former training development roles I was frequently asked, “What if we invest the money to train them, and then they leave us?”

I used to respond that the more important question was, “What if you fail to invest the time and money in their training, and they stay?”

It is the difference between looking at training as an expense or as an investment. Another aspect of this I am particularly concerned about is posed by the question, “What is the cost of training that has been done, but is not being effectively used on the job?”

That gets to the whole issue of making training stick, of retention, of effectively transferring knowledge to employees, of avoiding relapses to former bad behaviors and practices. This is a very large issue we discuss frequently and is one that your readers— foodservice directors—should devote some thought to.

When you look at food safety training that way, the most important stage of it may not take place in the classroom at all, but as soon as the learners get back to work. That’s when they have a chance to apply the newly acquired knowledge and skills.

The goal is to move training from an “event” to a process. That means there are things to be done before and after the training, not just during the training.

When learners do return to the workplace, what should the manager or director do to ensure that the training sticks?

DONAH UE: The manager should immediately schedule specific tasks for them to do that are related to the training they received. This is a very important component of the training process and is key to ensuring that the knowledge and skills are effectively transferred. It is simply a “Use it or Lose it” proposition.

Let’s say you are sending a lead cook out for food safety training. You as a manager would want to conduct a pre-training briefing. This might only take a few minutes, but what a great investment of your time!

It is your chance to communicate what the training is, why that person has been selected to receive it, the kind of knowledge and skills it will provide him or her with, and most importantly, what you will expect from that person when they return from training.

In training our trainers, an analogy I like to use is that there are three types of people who attend training programs: Prisoners, Vacationers and Explorers.

You know who the prisoners are—the 10-year employees who are wondering, “Why am I here?” They are just told to show up and they are unhappy about being there. You know them immediately when you greet them at the door on the way in.

You’ve got vacationers. These are people who are glad to be anywhere else at all but at work. They’re easy to recognize, too.

Then you have the explorers. These are the people who are excited to be in the class and about taking the knowlege they will gain and applying it to be more successful on the job.

The reason I share this is that if a manager takes the five minutes required to conduct a pre-training briefing with each prospective learner, he or she has the chance to convert some of those vacationers and prisoners into explorers before they get to the training room. As a manager, you have much more power to do this than the trainer does.

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