For many years, businesses and universities have drawn training techniques from those used in the military. Most often, these focus on leadership development. But as many companies are struggling to see real impact from their training programs in general, it makes sense to look at other parts of the military’s education – the nuts and bolts, unsexy, everyday system that keeps the machine going. For the U.S. Navy, that system is the Personnel Qualification Standards (PQS).
PQS essentially defines a structured on-the-job training method (SOJT) for all Naval skills development outside a classroom. Over decades of use, PQS has become deeply embedded in the Navy’s culture. And it’s extremely effective. The Navy routinely trains inexperienced recruits and young officers to operate and maintain submarines, aircraft, sophisticated communications, weapons systems and even nuclear power plants, under the most demanding conditions imaginable.
In the civilian world, few companies have implemented SOJT even though studies have shown that it outperforms unstructured OJT and some traditional courses for cost effectiveness and skills transfer. As a result, there are few examples of mature, field-tested programs out there. PQS is one. And it represents a proven blueprint for turning everyday job experience into a tool for better performance, higher learner engagement and stronger teams.
The Navy’s Training Environment
When it comes to training, the Navy has a tough job. They must train every person for their job, from painting to leadership. They don’t have the luxury of hiring for experience and skills. They train in and for a demanding and high-risk environment. They have high turnover; no one stays in one job for more than a few years. And they deal with constant changes in technology, safety regulations and political environment.
In order to operate and succeed under these conditions, the Navy must have a culture of continuous learning supported by all levels of leadership. As soon as sailors become proficient in their jobs, they begin training their replacements. But in order to make a training culture work, they need a system that keeps everyone on task while giving learners the flexibility to incorporate training into every day. That’s why they developed PQS starting in the 1970s.
What is PQS?
PQS is a set of learning standards. It consists of sets of well-defined skills required for a specific job, such as standing watch on the bridge of a ship or operating a piece of equipment. The skills are listed in paper booklets with signature lines for each. Sailors carry these booklets with them, looking for opportunities during the day to observe needed skills, practice them, and work with a mentor for help. When ready, they can ask a qualified supervisor or senior colleague to test them on the skill and sign it off. When all skills in a particular booklet are signed off, the sailor has earned that qualification and can be scheduled for that job.
Two skills from an actual Navy PQS booklet
Advantages of the PQS System
It works! The structure provides guidance so each learner is working toward a well-defined goal and has a clear path to get there. Learners take responsibility for their own training. It keeps learners and mentors accountable. It creates a detailed record of what everyone has learned, when they learned it, and who helped them learn it. It builds relationships between people and fosters teamwork. Sailors learn each other’s skills and strengths and get in the habit of helping each other grow, backing each other up and ensuring smooth transitions.
Disadvantages of PQS
The paper booklet system is cumbersome. It’s inconvenient to carry booklets around all the time – a booklet that is lost or damaged may require a complete restart. Records storage takes up a lot of space. It’s hard to find specific records because it’s all paper and pen. You can’t aggregate data to find trends. And it’s difficult for managers and supervisors to track, on a regular basis, what progress their team members are making towards their training goals. The Navy’s approach is very low-tech. They haven’t done much to make it exciting, competitive or engaging.
What can trainers learn from the Navy’s PQS system for their own non-traditional training efforts?
Structured OJT makes it possible to develop a consistent, standardized skillset across a very large organization. Skills must define clear, actionable objectives. Learners and mentors must be accountable for their participation and adherence to standards. Using Structured OJT in concert with classroom learning creates a culture highly focused on personal and team development.
Tips for business that want to start their own SOJT programs.
Start with a small, well-defined area of training, such as on-boarding. Use technology to help manage it. Excel spreadsheets, project management software, automated to-do lists or other tools can help make the process less cumbersome. Get started and adjust. Co-opting job experience as a training tool will break new ground for most companies, so don’t try to get it perfect immediately. Build in feedback and revision loops for continuous improvement.
Most businesses do not have to operate a submarine with nuclear missiles and sophisticated communications systems, but they still need a well-trained, collaborative workforce. Maybe the Navy’s got some good ideas about how to do that.
About PQS and Pract.us
We experienced the value and effectiveness of PQS first-hand, so we built Pract.us from the ground up as a modern version of PQS. Pract.us uses mobile and cloud technology to improve upon PQS’ advantages while solving its problems. It also blends current best practices, such as micro-learning, gamification, social networks, and informal learning into a single easy-to-use app that participants can access anywhere, from any web-enabled device. Learn more or start a free trial at Pract.us.