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How to help engineers make time for on-the-job training

May 15, 2023

It’s a tale as old as time: Engineers are too busy to do, well, much of anything beyond their main responsibilities. That includes learning new technical skills.

In fact, lack of time has been technologists’ biggest barrier to upskilling for the past two years. Unfortunately, this won’t change anytime soon. But as an engineering manager, here’s what you can do to provide on-the-job training opportunities and create time to learn at work.

Table of contents

Why do engineers need on-the-job training?

21% of technologists feel pressured to learn new tech skills outside of work. This can negatively impact their work performance and mental health. Engineers need on-the-job training opportunities so they can upskill without experiencing burnout in their personal and professional lives.

Jeseekia Vaughn, software engineer and board member of Girl Develop It, shared how learning contributed to her burnout. “I'm working as a full-time engineer . . . but I felt like the work I was doing was very different from the work that I wanted to be doing,” she said. 

“So then in the evening, I'm live streaming, I'm trying to learn a completely different code base, and then I'm also running conferences and things. So it was all the things that I enjoyed so much and didn't want to separate from, but after years and years of just being around the clock, eventually it just started to show through my work.”

Developing a training program for employees

When employees are busy, structured workplace learning is vital to carving out time to learn new skills. Make sure your on-the-job training program includes a mix of employee training methods.

Hands-on learning gives engineers real-world experience

Why is hands-on learning important? Hands-on learning lets employees practice and apply new skills in risk-free, real-world environments. 

The importance of hands-on learning is especially pronounced for technical topics like cloud computing and engineering skills. In fact, technologists say hands-on experiences are the most effective way for them to apply new learning on the job.

Guest trainers provide immediate feedback

If you don’t have internal staff to facilitate on-the-job training programs, consider bringing in guest trainers. These experts can lead training sessions for data engineer skills, DevOps engineer skills, cloud engineer skills, or any skill set your teams need.

Compared to video content, guest trainers provide a more interactive way for engineers to learn at work. Technologists like in-person or virtual instructor-led training because it:

  • Lets them ask questions and get help right away

  • Gives them the opportunity to have their work reviewed by an expert

  • Provides structured workplace learning to help them develop new skills at the right pace

9 ways to facilitate on-the-job training for engineers

Engineering managers understand the importance of on-the-job training programs but may struggle to create time for learning. These strategies will help you learn how to develop a training program for employees they actually have time for.

1. Debunk the workplace culture of busyness

In our workplace culture, busyness has become a status symbol. One study found that people perceive others who are busy to be important and impressive. In some cases, busy people even seem more “morally admirable.”

But busywork for the sake of busywork leaves technologists with little time to learn and develop skills that can reduce cycle time, increase velocity, and boost commits per day.

If you want your engineers to learn on the job, you need to reevaluate your engineering culture and remove busywork from their schedules.

2. Identify tasks to automate, streamline, or remove

To reduce busywork, conduct an audit. Researcher Adam Waytz suggests asking your engineers to make a list of the tasks they complete each week. Then ask them to rate these tasks based on how much time they consume, focus they involve, and experience they require.

You can use the audit results to identify places to reduce your team’s workload. Are your engineers working on valuable tasks that improve customer satisfaction and contribute to organizational goals? Or are their days filled with unproductive meetings and other disruptions? 

If you can automate, streamline, or eliminate tasks, you can free up time for them to learn at work.

3. Provide upskilling resources for your engineering team

To facilitate on-the-job learning, your engineers need more than time. They also need learning resources. 

While video content is often the most popular learning resource, it isn’t always the most effective. If you can, give your team members multiple learning options, like videos, hands-on labs, and instructor-led training sessions. They can choose their own adventure and learn new skills using the training methods they prefer.

Get tips to optimize your upskilling investment in this on-demand webinar.

4. Encourage engineers to learn technical skills they’re passionate about

Engineers should learn skills aligned with organizational outcomes. But you should also encourage them to pursue their own technology skill development.

If you ask engineers to make time to learn something they’re actually interested in, they’re more likely to put in the effort. And you never know when those skills will come in handy in your organization.

Principal Program Manager at Microsoft Steve Buchanan shared an example. He saw Kubernetes as an up-and-coming trend, but when he asked his manager to learn these new skills, he got shot down.

Steve learned Kubernetes anyway. “I spent the time learning, even invested dollars in a program at the time just to kind of ramp up on [Kubernetes]. And then fast forward, I ended up becoming a lead for a region around containers, and it was because I took the time prior to invest in myself and start learning that technology.”

5. Emphasize the importance of learning for technical specialists

If you have tech specialists on your team, you know they’re passionate about their work—but they can get so immersed in it that they miss out on opportunities for learning. 

Leadership Consultant Adrienne Lowe shared her advice for engineering managers who want to help their tech specialists uncover new skills. “One of the things I've done with my specialists is make sure they're still making time for continuing education, that they're still prioritizing cross-team collaboration and seeing what other teams are up to,” she said.

But learning new skills can be daunting when technology changes so quickly. Angela Andrews, Solution Architect at Red Hat, explained how managers can help ease that fear. “What if that thing that you need to learn kind of runs counter to what you're used to? [Having] a strong manager who kind of gives you that grace to learn and adapt . . . is important so we can all thrive, specialists and generalists.”

6. Build opportunities for learning into existing projects

Structured workplace learning isn’t the only way to help engineers make time to learn on the job. Existing projects and day-to-day tasks are also chock-full of opportunities for learning.

When an engineer encounters a problem, for example, collaborating with others can help them learn new skills. “If you have the opportunity to kind of dig in and maybe bring someone else in . . . you get to hear how someone else thinks about a particular issue,” said Angela. That experience can give engineers new skills to add to their mental backpack.

7. Encourage engineers to try a job rotation

Job rotations give engineers time to work in other areas of the business and expand their skill sets. What new skills could an engineer pick up from a technical writer or product marketer? Even if the engineer isn’t interested in switching careers, job rotations can help them learn skills to improve cross-functional collaboration in their current role. 

Job rotations aren’t just for entry-level engineers, either. Telecom thought leader, industry veteran, and Pluralsight author Jillian Kaplan explained, “I think job rotations are pretty common, like for college hires. But what about a mid-career job rotation? How cool would that be?”

8. Foster psychological safety in your workplace and engineering team

If you implement some (or all) of the tips above, and your engineers still aren’t taking the time to learn, there may be something else going on. Employees might have dedicated learning time, but they also need an engineering team with psychological safety to feel comfortable using it. 

What is psychological safety? Psychological safety in the workplace means that everyone feels safe to share ideas, ask questions, and make mistakes without fear of retaliation or negative consequences. Psychological safety isn’t something you (or anyone) can build overnight. It takes time to build mutual trust and respect among team members and leaders.

9. Prioritize your own time for on-the-job learning

Your team members look to you to set an example. If you expect your engineering team to make time to learn, you should, too. Block off learning time on your calendar, complete new courses, earn certifications, and share your progress with your team.

On-the-job training will enhance your engineering team’s technical skills

Each day has only 24 hours. As much as you might want to, you simply can’t create more time for your team. What you can do is make the most of the time your team does have. 

If you can facilitate on-the-job learning, you ensure your employees develop critical technology skills—without feeling pressured to upskill after hours.

Get your engineering team started with on-the-job training.