U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: Training Employees And Managing Mail Via Satellite

Glen Hubbel was there from the beginning. As the distance learning coordinator at the National Center for Employee Development (NCED), a national training facility in Norman, OK, he helped launch and grow for nearly 20 years a satellite training network that now reaches approximately 300,000 people a year.

T he 35-year-old center provides more than 260 different training programs—both classrooms and distance learning—to more than 36,000 students annually. Courses can range anywhere from two hours to six weeks but typically run between five and seven days. All courses are provided throughout the year and taught in various environments, like seminars or small, hands-on workshops. On average, NCED offers more than 2,700 courses each year.

What is unique about this training center is that the U.S. Postal Service owns its 72-acre main campus. The main center, which is 293,000 square-feet, contains about 45 classrooms, 23 labs and three satellite broadcast studios for distance learning. Another 60,000-square-foot facility built this year is dedicated to training programs addressing the Postal Service’s automated package processing system.

Although the Postal Service is NCED’s largest customer, the facility also delivers training courses to other public organizations on a wide range of topics, such as computer software, business and management skills, and environmental safety.

An estimated 600 postal and contract staff members support the center’s operation. Eleven are responsible for delivering nearly 30 different distance learning courses via the organization’s Postal Satellite Training Network (PSTN) to any or all of the 700,000 postal employees. Throughout the past several years, its live programs have reached about 13,400 workers annually.

Hubbel says PSTN has been built on intelligence resulting from trial and error and seat-of-the-pants learning. It evolved into a sophisticated network composed of 400 television sites with nearly 500 additional accessible sites in the Southeast. Considering it delivered 266 shows just last year, satellite distance learning courses have become almost as essential and routine for the Postal Service as delivering the mail. Either way, the expectations are the same: Delivery must be timely, efficient and accurate.

Early Days

Back in the 1980s, the NCED was training at full capacity. At the same time, the technology-driven Postal Service was becoming more automated and began deploying new equipment that required its staff to be trained on operation and repair. Up until then, NCED would typically hire more trainers, then shrink back to its normal staff after the training was completed.

But this time around was different, recalls Hubbel. “We perceived this to be a fairly long-term push,” he says. “We didn’t want to meet the training demand that way. The head [thought] there should be some new technology out there that would help us meet this sharp increase in training demand.”

To meet the Postal Service’s huge demand and deliver training in a timely manner, Hubbel says the facility used a telephone bridge, speakerphones, 35 millimeter slides in a random access slide projector and a training video, which was mailed to different postal locations.

The training program consisted of trainers and employees talking back and forth over speakerphones while glancing at slides for illustration. The video demonstrated people repairing equipment.

After just a few training sessions, he recalls that everyone was pretty confident in distance learning’s ability to pick up NCED’s additional training load.

Throughout the next several years, the facility still used speakerphones but introduced computers and interactive graphics into the mix. After postal employees logged on, NCED remotely controlled their computers, ensuring that everyone would simultaneously see the same photos, diagrams and graphics on their screens. Employees could also write questions on their screen, which could be seen along with the instructor’s written responses by everyone in the class.

But in the 1990s, everything changed. NCED began delivering one-way satellite programs with two-way audio for the Postal Service. Since then, satellite uplinks have broadcast live televised courses to downlinks at local post offices around the country.

Employees now can see instructors running lab equipment and troubleshooting demonstrations while interacting with them over a teleconferencing bridge.

They also complete learning activity packets, prepared by their instructor and perform troubleshooting exercises on their local operating equipment. Oftentimes, they are assisted by a local on-the-job trainer who sometimes places bugs in equipment, oversees lab exercises and administers troubleshooting tests.

Nearly every satellite distance learning course also requires on-site training facilitators who spend an average of one and one-half hours preparing the classroom, laying out materials and administering written tests.

Growing Pains

Although the majority of NCED’s satellite distance learning programs target postal technicians or maintenance employees and support staff, there have been a handful of mandatory courses, such as those covering sexual harassment, that reach everyone.

NCED’s typical Postal Service satellite training program resembles many of the evening talk shows on television, with just a few minor exceptions. Besides talking heads and maybe some visuals from PowerPoint or roll-in videos, employees remain on the phone throughout the program and can direct questions to the instructor or comment on other participants’ observations.

Not surprisingly, registration for satellite distance learning courses has become automated. NCED has since written software for an online enrollment system. But most employees cannot log online and register. Designated individuals at each facility who are authorized to spend their facility’s training dollars are in charge of registration.

At this point, the programs are still held in dedicated training spaces or sites. “Programs can range anywhere from one hour to as long as nine days,” says Hubbel, explaining that lengthy programs combine a variety of learning techniques. For example, postal employees may watch a TV program in the morning, try their hands at repairing equipment in the early afternoon, then return to the class site for an audio segment to share what they have accomplished and determine if they have met their goals for the day.

Other differences: Years ago, instructors would check off the names of postal employees—who were listed on a postcard—that they spoke to during class, ensuring that everyone had the chance to ask questions or voice opinions.

Not anymore. Although instructors still refer to a class roster and check off employee names, they cannot verbally interact with all participants since some classes contain up to 300 students. “But we have some information we have to deliver when it comes to Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration (OSHA), where hundreds of people have to get this particular kind of training this year. In this case, it becomes more of a talking [heads] program and less of an interactive program. [However, this saves time],” says Hubbel.

Value-Added Technology

When addressing the benefits of satellite distance learning, people usually point to cost-savings.

Back in 1996, NCED commissioned independent researchers and requested its own internal evaluation department to conduct studies that compared its distance learning courses with traditional classroom programs. The results indicated that satellite distance learning saved the Postal Service between $800 and $1,000 per student for a typical one-week course.

Nearly a decade later, Hubbel still suspects the savings are around $1,000 per Postal Service employee, citing the avoidance of travel-related costs as the main reason.

While savings ranks high on the list of benefits, there are other advantages that have since been uncovered. For example, when employees must be quickly trained, Hubbel says distance learning is the most efficient way to deliver HR-mandated training programs like those introducing new safety standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Furterhmore, NCED now receives broader feedback about its courses. While each of its classroom programs trains approximately 14 people, the number of participants in a satellite distance learning class can easily climb past 100, Hubbel explains, adding that employees who represent multiple sites throughout the country often share a wide variety of experiences.

“We get a whole lot more feedback from the entire class about what the problems might be, what the possible decisions are and how things are working for a particular individual,” he says.

Unlike a traditional classroom, satellite distance learning also keeps employees more focused on what they need to learn or what the instructor wants them to see, says Hubbel. The eye of the camera directs what they see and can show unusual or rare images, like the inside of a machine.

Satellite distance learning even produced an unexpected bonus: it has encouraged in-house communication between executives and staff at the Postal Service. Hubbel says senior executives are now creating more programs that update employees on the organization’s direction, activities and goals. As examples, he points to the chief operating officer who hosts a program every other month and a vice president who broadcasts a marketplace program each quarter.

“They’re not training but informative broadcasts,” he says. “We see more people at that [executive] level communicating with employees.”

About the only area where satellite distance learning falls short when compared to traditional classroom training is eye contact between the instructor and postal employees or students. Hubbel says many people are convinced that if instructors cannot see their students—to determine if they are fidgety, confused or keeping up with them—they cannot be effective teachers.

Not necessarily so. When instructors switch to distance learning, he says they must compensate for this drawback by structuring their training program differently. For instance, he says they need to listen and concentrate more on the type of feedback they receive from postal employees and schedule time to ask them questions.

Still, adds Hubbel, many employees prefer learning in a comfortable or familiar environment like their workplace instead of traveling to another site where they are away from family and friends.

Perhaps the best way for any organization to determine if satellite distance learning is equally as effective as classroom training is to evaluate the performance of its staff, or in this case, the Postal Service’s technicians. Can they troubleshoot problems? Are they repairing equipment? Are they passing written exams?

“If the people couldn’t repair the equipment, then we’d be looking at the training to see what’s wrong with it,” says Hubbel, adding that there have been no complaints regarding equipment repair. “We couldn’t see any difference in the quality of training students received or in how prepared students were to do their job.”

Keeping Pace

Although Hubbel and his staff are accustomed to satellite distance learning by now, he says adapting to new technology is constantly at the top of their to-do list. In 1996, for example, they replaced their equipment with digital technology.

“TV equipment ages at about the same pace as computers do, so that’s always a challenge for us. It keeps getting better and evolving,” he says.

Early on, he says they learned several valuable lessons that still hold true today. The first one focuses on the audio component of a distance learning course. Sometimes if technology is not properly adjusted, he says it will clip off the ends of words. Postal employees or participants then cannot hear the instructor’s full message, which can lead to misunderstandings or missed information that may be critical to their job, and they quickly grow frustrated.

“It’s important to remember that audio is all important,” he says. “You have to use good quality audio—you can’t skimp there.”

But Hubbel says some people go overboard, getting lost in the technology and neglecting the overall message that is being delivered. He says no matter how ‘tricked up’ a program is, the message must always be worthwhile or necessary, or the satellite training will not be effective.

Likewise, he says it is more important for the person on camera to be a subject matter expert than a TV personality. He believes many people can learn to make TV presentations, but not everyone has the knowledge that may be needed for a particular course. He says nothing kills a class quite like someone who may look good and sound good but who does not know “what he’s talking about.”

So far, nearly all of the satellite distance learning courses delivered by NCED for the Postal Service have not been converted to classroom programs, Hubbel says. The only change he expects in the near future is to replace VHS tapes with DVDs.

Looking back, he says NCED’s entrance into distance learning had nothing to do with the reason why most people initially consider it—to save money. “Distance learning is an effective training tool,” he says. “It was a way for us to meet the sudden growth in training demand and get training done in a timely manner.”

As a result, the Postal Service is among the largest employers in the country that relies on satellite broadcasts to train its workforce. Hubbel says NCED will continue using this technology because—just like the Postal Service—it consistently delivers, improving the efficiency and performance of postal employees.

Carol Patton is a freelance business writer in Las Vegas, NV. She frequently covers human resource trends and issues for Satellite Business Solutions and other national magazines.

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