Will Bachman: Were you issued a qual card the first day on the job? If not, how did your employer expect you to get qualified? Hey, welcome to Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is produced by Umbrex, and I’m your host, Will Bachman.
The Navy has a pretty good system for training new hires, that I’ve seen only rarely in the civilian world, and that is a written qual card. The day I reported to my submarine, I was given a whole binder full of qual cards, just like every other enlisted person or officer who reports for duty. The qual card, short for qualification card, is a beautifully simple idea. Tell the new hire what skills and knowledge he or she is expected to master, and then put the responsibility on that new hire to go around and learn it.
I had a separate qual card for each of the watch stations I would be expected to stand, namely battery charging line officer … By the way, that is the least glamorous job ever. Engineering officer of the watch, who’s in charge of the engine room and reactor when at sea, engineering duty officer, who’s in charge of the engine room when shut down in port, officer of the deck, who’s responsible for the operations of the whole ship for six hours at a time at sea, ship’s duty officer, responsible for the whole ship for 24 hours at a time while in port, and qualification and submarines were my gold dolphins.
The engineering officer of the watch, or EOOW, qual card was maybe 10 pages long, and had 100 or so individual line items. Each line item was classified as observe, or explain, or perform under instruction, and there was a small number of simulate, for some emergency actions that you would not normally want to perform. In some cases, a perform might be to stand watch under instruction for a full six hours. Each of the watch stations in the engine room that report to the engineering officer of the watch, I’d have to stand each one of those, probably usually several times, with the qualified enlisted watch stander looking over my shoulder, while I took the logs, cleaned up the space, operated the machinery, under very close supervision mind you, as required. Or, it might be some specific action, like clean the lube oil strainer, or start up the diesel engine.
And explain. For those, I needed to explain my understanding or demonstrate my understanding. Then, you had to go and you had to get a qualified watch stander to give you a checkout, and to sort of test you orally, before that qualified watch stander would sign off and give you a signature. All the qualified watch standers had an incentive to make sure that I knew what I was talking about, because one day, for the enlisted guys in the engine room, I’d be standing watch as their supervisor, and they wanted to make sure that I was capable and competent. The other officers, to sign off, I was going to be their peer, and they would look bad … It would look bad on them if they signed on my qual card and it turned out I didn’t know something, and they didn’t want to have to turn the watch over to me or take the watch from me when I had messed stuff up. After all the signatures that were complete, you typically had to take a written exam and then final oral exams with the engineer and the captain.
So, I want to give some observations on this technology. I’ll call it a technology, this qual card, just a piece of paper, and the importance to me. So number one, I was told when I arrived what material I had to master. Number two, I had to build relationships with basically every qualified enlisted person in the engine room, so I had to get to know them and I had to recognize that they were more knowledgeable than I was in their area. Number three, the responsibility was on my shoulders to go learn the material and to get my prac facts, practical factors, done.
So I had to pay attention. I had to take ownership of my own learning. If I need to perform some task under instruction, let’s say during a reactor startup, I better pay attention to when the reactor was going to get started up, and ask the eng for permission in advance to do the under instruction watch. So that made me alert to what was going on. It made me want to volunteer, sometimes even beg, to be included, and even if that meant coming in at 3:00 in the morning in port, because that was the only time something was going to happen, well, I’d be there.
Number four, there was a focus on being able to do and not just discuss. It’s one thing to calmly explain what you’ll do in a case of flooding. It’s a very different thing to stand watch under instruction, even during a flooding drill, and have five people shouting reports to you, and to remember your immediate actions, and retain some semblance of calm. Number five, it was clear to everyone when I was qualified to stand watch on my own. I didn’t have to wait for a highly subjective opinion, because my qual card was done. I had satisfied all the requirements.
Number six, it was also clear to everyone when I was still unqualified. The term we used for newly arrived shipmates who had not yet qualified to stand watch was probably not very appropriate, and not very kind, but it was NUB, for non-useful body. I didn’t get paid more once I qualified, but I can tell you that I worked desperately hard to get qualified as quickly as possible, because NUBs got zero respect, while qualified watch standers were seen as contributing shipmates.
This process for training new employees is incredibly flexible, and ought to be widely applied in the civilian world, but I rarely see qual cards used. Consider a manufacturing plant. Let’s say an ambitious assembly line worker wants to get promoted to line supervisor. There could be a qual card for each station on the assembly line, and the worker would first need to qualify on every other watch station, every other assembly line position.
A qual card for supervisor would probably require that the worker first qualify on each of those stations, and then the qual cards would list all the practical factors that the worker should perform under instruction. It could be like replacing the caps in the bottle capper, changing the labels in the labler, doing changeover from one product to another, doing quality control inspections, filling out all the paperwork, running the morning meeting. Then the qual card for supervisor would require the worker to, under instruction, manage the line startup, manage the line shutdown, manage the line changeover. Then, the worker would supervise the entire line for a whole shift, under instruction, several times.
The qual card also works really well in a white collar context. Let’s say that a sales rep wants to get promoted to sales manager. Qual card for sales manager could list all the practical factors, perhaps such points as monitor another sales rep doing outbound calls and then give feedback to that sales rep, lead the weekly sales team meeting, successfully coach another sales rep on how to retain an at-risk client, develop a budget for the year, for the group.
One reason that we don’t see qual cards in the civilian world is they take effort to create. What do we really expect the digital marketing manager, or the customer sales rep, or the procurement manager to be able to do. It actually does take some effort to think through all of the skills or tasks that we expect that person to manage and to be able to master.
Another reason we perhaps don’t think we need qual cards is that we can basically just recognize holistically when a person is ready for the role. Perhaps, but if you’re working in an organization where you can define what skills are needed in a given role, and you find that some of the folks who want that role, or are in the role currently, don’t have those skills and knowledge, you might consider developing a qual card for that position. If you can identify the skills and knowledge the role needs, you’ll empower the individuals to take ownership of their own learning.
Have you ever had to get qualified? I’d love to hear about it. You can email me at email@example.com. If you were intrigued or thought anything was value of this episode, and think someone else might be interested, I hope you’ll share it with them, or share it on social media or LinkedIn. If you visit our website, umbrex.com/unleashed, you can sign up for our weekly email, where you’ll get transcripts of this episode and every episode, as well as some bonus features. Thanks for listening.