Getting Staff Up to Speed

Source Atlantic’s Julie Marr has won an HR award for her innovative training program that addresses core competencies

“People are skeptical of change, so as you bring new strategies to the business, you need to be really good at influencing other people.” —Julie Marr, HR Manager
“People are skeptical of change, so as you bring new strategies to the business, you need to be really good at influencing other people.” —Julie Marr, HR Manager

Historically in our business, managers have wanted employees to come in with the skills they need,” says Julie Marr, human resources manager for Source Atlantic, an industrial, electrical, and plumbing supplier and service-solutions company based in Saint John, New Brunswick. “The problem is, not everyone has those skills.”

It was the recognition of that fact—and the implementation of a training program to address it—that led to Marr receiving a 2012 Atlantic Canada Human Resources Award in the Human Resources Innovation category.

The award, which is administered by the Human Resources Association of New Brunswick, celebrates individuals who have made a difference in the human resources field through an innovative HR program or practice that creates a new standard of performance. The program or service must further the mission of the organization, be distinctive, have specific and measurable outcomes, and demonstrate a new dimension of performance. It must also have been implemented for long enough to have demonstrated its effectiveness.

Source Atlantic’s training initiative, Marr says, involves more than education; it’s designed to change the entire organization by creating “a culture of learning.”

Doing so is important because it’s now the role of the human resources department to guide the business from a talent perspective. “This is something that has absolutely changed over the years,” says Marr, who has worked for Source Atlantic for 18 years and served as human resources manager for 12. “In my early days, some general managers didn’t see the importance of human resources in supporting the business, but the current president does—and has been very supportive of the training initiative.”

The program began when Marr kept hearing about how the company needed to train more. “You have to look at the problems in the business and come up with solutions to solve it,” Marr says, “and in this case, I said, ‘Wait a minute. Training isn’t the solution; competency is. That being the case, what is it the employee needs to know? Let’s determine that and train to that—because I can send a guy to an Excel course 50 times, which is considered training, but it doesn’t necessarily make him better at his job.’”

The greatest challenge of implementing the initiative has been limited resources. Marr’s department, which serves 350 employees, consists of two people, including herself. “I like to say we’re jacks-of-all-trades and specialists of none,” she says. “Human resources is broad, and I know something about all of it, but if I need to get into the nitty-gritty, I’m not an expert.”

To deal with that, Marr has obtained help when necessary. Many HR specialists, she says, are unwilling to outsource, but “I do research and look at other resources, and right now I’m outsourcing to help build custom training cases and online courses that will help our employees. My goal is simply to make sure we achieve our strategy.”

Today, Marr’s training initiative has created job profiles to identify the competencies that specific types of employees—say, gas-plant operators—need to know and be able to do in order to effectively and efficiently do their jobs. Once competencies are identified, the program uses “learning pathways”—sequences of learning activities—to drive employees to reach proficiency in their jobs in the shortest possible time.

The initiative has been so successful that Source Atlantic has even begun selling its process to other organizations via Source Atlantic Training and Education Services (SATES). This cloud-based suite of products enables employers to build, execute, and track a learning process—a marketplace need seen by Source Atlantic’s sales team. “As we went down the path of implementing the initiative, our president realized that our customers were feeling the same pressures we were,” Marr says. “And we knew we were onto something. I was surprised a colleague would nominate me for an award because of it. There are a lot of people out there doing a lot of great things in human resources.”