Training Is The “BIGGEST” Weak Link

The free market is alive and well today in our industry. Each new year brings us innovations in equipment, tools and chemistry to make our jobs easier, safer and, hopefully, more effective and more profitable. If the innovations don’t create more value, cleaners don’t buy them. There is built-in accountability. The new and great products sell, and the ones that don’t cut it… don’t sell. Yet, while the advancement in cleaning technology in the past decade has been significant, our advancement in cleaning training has not. A test taken today for certification is not much different from that of a decade ago — often with many of the same answers, working to not offend any particular cleaning school of thought, or other invested interest.

The standards written as the foundation of these tests have become enormous projects of interested, and often conflicted, groups that collectively take years to produce a revision that ends up being outdated by the time it is released, based on the new technologies and research of the day. The training format of classroom instruction with a structure of having to memorize answers to 150 or more questions also has not changed much. It mirrors the same school system model that is currently failing our children. Traditional schooling is no longer a prerequisite for success. Going to college to earn “big money” is now the exception, not the rule, as other ways of learning have replaced the rigid, programmed bureaucracy of our test-centered educational system.

Teaching skills

The central problem to the format requirements of current training models is that, with so many required questions to teach to, the instructor must spend the time allotted on teaching the attendees what to memorize to pass the test, rather than on how to think and how to actually clean. When you ask today’s instructors the most difficult part of developing and teaching courses, at the top of the list has to be how they squeeze real, practical learning in the midst of all of the laundry-list of miscellaneous, and often impractical, minutia they are required to cover in their course. While, with some basic courses, this might not cause much harm, with more specialized crafts — in failing to teach attendees how to problem solve on site new technicians can walk into a job with a false confidence that can cost them dearly. Because students are given their test scores, but no information on what they missed and, more importantly,why, there are always gaps in their knowledge.

The question is, do we want to see who can memorize the most trivia and circumvent the tricky answers, or do we want students to leave a class knowing and understanding the subject thoroughly so they can be better cleaners? We both receive pleas on a regular basis from technicians who took a tip lightly covered in a rug or upholstery course and felt they could apply it in any situation. In particular, with such high-liability tasks, such as testing for or preventing dye migration, and performing color correction, some instructors present their own products as “be-all-end-all” solutions without qualifying that pre-existing conditions can create expensive nightmares for their students if they actually apply “tips” in the wrong way. An important skill, such as color correction, squeezed in at the end of a multi-day class, when students are tired from sitting and being “PowerPointed” to death, fails everyone — the cleaners and the consumers they serve.

Service providers versus textile pros
The current training in the fields of upholstery and rugs within the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) is basic level instruction. It is what you need to know in order to keep yourself out of trouble in most general situations in the home. Though basic training and typical chemicals can serve the on-site upholstery and area rug cleaning technician just fine, for hyper-sensitive and/or heavily soiled natural fiber and investment-grade textiles there needs to be an inplant focus, which the certification courses do not prepare students for, or even address at any length. What the classes are churning out are “service providers” to perform a basic level cleaning service to consumers. What they are failing to do is develop the mindset and skills to craft real professionals in the fields of fine fabric and specialty rug care.

On-site Versus In-plant
The biggest textile disservice the educational bureaucracies have done to consumers is to imply through their standards, and their courses, that on-site cleaning is interchangeable with in-plant cleaning. Because few of the contributors of much of this material have actually operated successful in-plant upholstery or rug facilities, they genuinely do not have the depth of knowledge to convey this effectively into a course. Questions created by committee fall to the lowest common denominator to create the least amount of friction. The goal is to placate, not to educate. What has resulted is competent on-site education for fabrics and rugs, with “safe” skills taught to simply help keep cleaners out of trouble. What has not resulted are courses to train specialists in either field on how to be excellent “textile professionals.” The problem, however, is that the IICRC does not explain this to cleaners or consumers; the organization just implies that anyone certified in the Rug Cleaning Technician (RCT) or Upholstery and Fabric Cleaning Technician (UFT) are well-trained in their craft… even when they may, in fact, not be.

Because of this severe limitation in training in these specialty niches, there has been a gap in the development of high-end rug and upholstery cleaning plants, which has resulted now in a keen opportunity. On-site cleaning requires quick, safe, non-invasive surface cleaning methods. With equipment and tools that you don’t need to think about and ready-to-use chemicals, you literally can go through the motions without much thought. You can simply provide a service and be that simple service provider. Do you only want to do a “good enough” job? For those who want to hone their craft, use their minds and hands, and be known as a textile professional, they need to look at setting up an in-plant operation.

The advantage of in-plant cleaning is three-fold: 1.Better cleaning, because you can “wet wash” or “solvent clean” and be more invasive in a controlled cleaning environment 2.More “miracle-making”, because you can use products that you normally would be wary of in the home, and can spend more time on perfecting your results 3.More money, because when you become a specialist in rugs and fabrics, you can command top dollar in your town.

Change is hard, but we have no choice
With the economic pressures on the manufacturers of textiles, more corners are being cut, and more dangers are waiting to be uncovered by unsuspecting, uneducated cleaners in the home. Cleaners have to know what they can handle, and what they cannot. They need to be educated by instructors who are actually connected to real cleaning operations, seeing real problems — and solutions — in real time.

Manuals and standards, some up to a decade old, do not cut it today. The know-how needs to be updated year-round, not stuck for years in committees. The rules need to be loosened so that more relevant courses can make it to market, the emphasis taken off of hundreds of questions to teach to, and more on practical case studies and hands-on teaching. In the fields of rug cleaning and fine fabric cleaning, there needs to be an important shift to in-plant cleaning training. We need to stop training to the lowest common, on-site denominator. We are releasing cleaners with mediocre training in these fields. We need to shift to re-warding consumers with rug and fine fabric specialists. If cleaners want to find the most financial and personal rewards through their professional development, then they need to look beyond the current training formats and learn how to become specialists in these fields.
Consumers need more textile specialists, not service providers.

Questions people ask
The following is a select number of questions posed byCleanfax magazine readers.
1. How well do you feel the current certification programs prepare textile cleaners for success in today’s market?
Jim Pemberton:When I wrote the article “Where are the upholstery cleaning specialists?” I then concluded that technician training in basic skills like upholstery cleaning falls short of the type of upholstery specialist cleaning classes that were taught in the 1970’s and late 1980’s. There is surely nothing wrong with teaching upholstery cleaning technicians the basics to keep them out of trouble and help them to produce consistent work that pleases most customers. However, you cannot approach upholstery cleaning like you do carpet cleaning. The basics will help with most synthetic fibers and a few natural fiber fabrics and blends, but it leaves a broad swath of restorative cleaning needs not addressed. In the three years since I wrote that article, I continue to see groups outside of the cleaning industry, such as furniture stores, furniture repair specialists and dry cleaners entering into the fine fabric specialty cleaning field — not because they want to do it, but because they are forced to by clients who demand the service and cannot find specialty cleaners in their market area to serve their needs.

Lisa Wagner:The best student does not necessarily mean the best cleaner. When I got a top score on my CCT course with the IICRC, I left the class knowing all of the facts about carpet, but did not know how to turn on a truckmount, much less use one. I was obviously not the best cleaner in the group — I just knew how to take a test. With the RCT course with the IICRC, so much time was spent on identifying certain types of rugs, and many obscure materials that, in my entire lifetime, I have never seen come through our rug plant doors. Yet, with committee members more academic in the field than practical, that is the type of course to expect — more time spent on memorizing interesting textile facts than on hands-on cleaning. It is a good course for some basics, but when referring consumers to RCT certified cleaners, you cannot guarantee that the cleaner actually knows how to clean rugs properly.

When I got top score on my CRS course with ASCR (now RIA), I learned a great deal about rug identification and memorizing weft counts and side finishes, but again, I did not learn any specifics on how to advance my cleaning techniques. It actually doesn’t affect “how” you clean a rug to know what country it comes from. I had an unfair advantage over the others because I’ve been around rugs all of my life and I’m an excellent writer so the term paper was a breeze. But because I can do well on a college-type test, and can write, does not mean I was the best rug cleaner in that class. It’s an interesting course that I enjoyed, but if the goal is to train large numbers of rug specialists, with under 100 CRS’s following through to the term paper, they are failing at that task.

2. What is your opinion on the influence of carpet manufacturers and fiber producers on the cleaning industry?”
Jim Pemberton: I don’t deny that we’ve had some good things happen with the “more open” relationships with carpet manufacturers and fiber producers. It has allowed some better mechanisms for a few cleaners to market their services and develop stronger retailer relationships. But overall, we’ve labored under too many restrictions for too few benefits in return. If we believe that the people who make carpet really care about our industry, we are mis-taken. We are not partners in their minds, but seen as a necessary evil at worst, and a very junior partner that should be treated with a benign paternalism at best. I don’t want to feel this way, but you only need read the recent “CRI rebuttal” to the study done by Debbie Lema regarding Seal of Approval (SOA) testing to see just how little understanding and regard that industry has for ours. And you only need to look at where your customer base really comes from to know how little you really need them.

Lisa Wagner:I understand the desire for the wool producers to get involved in the cleaning sectors. After all, they are seeking more revenue sources, so requiring manufacturers to bend over backwards to create “approved” products does that. Getting cleaners to pay to also be considered “approved,” also helps feed those revenue needs. The interesting thing about this, though, is that there is not a single in-plant rug cleaning peer that I know who chooses, or uses, WoolSafe products. If they do, it is by accident and not by plan. The approval guidelines are not based on cleaning results, but on arbitrary rules which do not apply to manufacturers of wool rugs, but on the cleaners of them. When you are cleaning rugs in the home, and leaving residue as a result, then issues like alkalinity, agitation and heat are important to be aware of. Using hot water extraction, or a highly alkaline solution, could cause the wool to bleed or yellow. Cleaning in a professional rug plant, with the amount of water and agitation that can be used, creates a completely different cleaning environment where the WoolSafe guidelines are simply irrelevant. The guidelines are made to prevent dumb accidents when you are choosing to surface-clean wool rugs in the home. Washing rugs in the plant is a completely different beast. Being knowledgeable about wool through hands-on experience and being a “wool smart” cleaner far outperforms someone with a WoolSafe designation from an on-line course where they never handled a single rug.

3. What is the solution, from your perspective?
Jim Pemberton: One-size-fits-all training does not work. In the field of fine fabric care, there is a need to first get technicians to understand the basics of the task, including training that is heavy in testing, inspection and choosing safe and easy-to-use methods that keep the cleaner out of trouble. However, for a cleaning company to be put to the forefront in their market area, they will need to be able to restore to “next to new” condition the most delicate textiles, including the removal of severe stains and odors. This training requires more than can be taught at basic skill levels. Such training need not be limited to the classroom experience; both basic skills and advanced techniques can be taught, at least partially, in an online learning environment. That being said, there will always be a place for “hands-on” supervision of advanced skill development.

Lisa Wagner:Real-world rug education is based on need. Some technicians want to learn enough to stay out of trouble and know when to say “no” to certain jobs. A basic level rug course should focus on the practical aspects of fibers, dyes, construction and pre-existing conditions, rather than on where the rugs are woven or produced. Surface-cleaning synthetic rugs and identifying natural fiber rugs to refer to rug washing facilities should be covered. Having them memorize lots of rug identification facts they will never use, should not. For managers and owners, more specific courses should be designed to teach hands-on cleaning strategies for problem tufted and custom rugs, as well as washing woven rugs. You cannot teach in-plant methods thoroughly online or in a temporary wash pit in a classroom; it needs to happen in an actual rug cleaning facility if the attendee wants to learn how to set up a professional rug cleaning operation. Best business practices and operations should be covered, and this can easily be enhanced through online channels. The point is that there needs to be a division between those who are going to surface-clean synthetic rugs in the home, and those who want to become true textile specialists operating a rug plant.
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