Much has been spoken of the importance of training and no industry sector recognises this more clearly than the unit cleaner. Many shop operators marvel at the calm efficiency they experience on the odd occasion when they return a garment to Marks and Spencer. How can a unit shop operator under pressure from all sides achieve the same levels of calm and profitable efficiency that can be seen elsewhere?

There are some basic steps to putting together a sound training programme for a drycleaning business. Sadly, nowhere is the knowledge and skill to become a successful, high quality, safe and profitable cleaner clearly set out in readable form.

The Guild of Cleaners and Launderers’ textbook, Intermediate Drycleaning Technology, shows that there is more to drycleaning than meets the eye, but this text is becoming out-of-date. The most comprehensive summary of the knowledge and skills necessary can be obtained from National Vocational Qualification literature.

It is surprising that no organisation has yet recognised this need and set about identifying the key skills, say, for a busy receptionist on the correct way of inspecting a jacket so that the ballpoint pen refill in the lining isn’t missed, the moth hole in the cuff or the stain on the silk panel which is unlikely to be removable.

Giving the customer realistic expectations and ensuring that the cleaner’s legal obligations are covered would probably reduce unjustified claims on cleaners by at least 50%.

In stain removal it is not enough just to know how to tackle a complex stain with the correct sequence of reagents and the correct techniques so as to avoid abrasion, colour loss or delamination. The operator also needs to understand how to apply pre-treatment detergent, when to dilute this and how to work out from the fibre content label what the risks might be.

The machine operator needs to be able to classify and load the washer correctly on the appropriate cycle, and must also be able to understand the significance of a small hole in a lint screen or a rise in acidity of the separator water.

Modern bi-stretch fabrics are posing considerable difficulties for the machine operator and even more problems for the finishing operative, who has to recognise when steam finishing is not permitted and react appropriately.

The person on final inspection needs to be able to recognise poor control of moisture in the cleaning machine, loss of resilience on press clothing, incorrect pressing lays and a score of other points which if not corrected immediately, will lead to multiple claims.

Most cleaners do not possess all of the knowledge and skills necessary to produce the best results and do not charge enough to make a profit and to meet all legal obligations with regard to safety and the environment.

Training’s vital role

Where can a cleaner turn for help and what types of training are available? The first port of call for many entering the industry is the machine supplier. Most reputable suppliers offer training as part of the new machine package and many have a smart central training facility at their factory or warehouse.

The training available from the supplier is usually geared very much to the brand new machine and to its correct operation. This helps operators avoid expensive call-outs under warranty and easily avoidable breakdowns, which a newcomer could otherwise experience.

These training facilities are, for the most part, very good indeed and customers are strongly recommended to take maximum advantage of them.

Once the price of the new machine has been negotiated down to the lowest level, it is always worth asking for a few more days free training later in the year.

The main shortcoming of suppliers’ training is that it is very much machine-based and will rarely extend to techniques for treating different types of silk and different types of viscose fabrics, reception skills needed to avoid problems and the correct interpretation of care symbols.

The second most popular type of training is on-site, where a professional trainer visits a cleaner’s premises for between one and five days and takes each member of staff through their paces.

This skill training must be done on a one-to-one basis. It is vital that the trainee demonstrates to the instructor that the skills have been correctly acquired and will be put into permanent practice.

The underpinning knowledge and the understanding of the reasoning behind certain techniques tends to be fitted in around the skill training. A wise cleaner will try to provide a small quiet area for the occasional “chalk and talk” to help to formalise this aspect.

In cases where there may only be one or two trainees, it may be more cost-effective to send them to a training centre to join one of the classes held by organisations such as the Fabric Care Research Association, Drycleaning Technology Centre, Parrisianne and others.

Courses usually run from one to three days and the training centre is equipped with stain removal, cleaning and finishing equipment, so that both knowledge and skills can be taught. The FCRA is based in Harrogate and Parrisianne is in London. Both have their own centres. Other suppliers such as the DTC may use the Böwe Passat Centre at Maidenhead, Spencers in Kent, CPT in Yorkshire, or other venues.

Points on postal learning

Some years ago the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers ran correspondence courses for cleaners. These have been discontinued and for a long time nothing was available until a series of modern correspondence courses were prepared by the Drycleaning Technology Centre.

Each course builds into a very good reference manual, the contents of which will have become familiar to the trainee by the time the course is finished.

Owners and managers can also gain information from meetings of the Textile Services Association. Drycleaning staff at all levels can additionally benefit from the technical information provided by Guild of Cleaners and Launderers meetings.

Retaining the training

Many cleaners moan about the cost of training and then complain because their newly-trained staff leave to take a job elsewhere. The solution is not to cancel the training budget.

Training has to be recognised as a continuous and on-going requirement for every member of the unit shop. It will not succeed if it is seen as a one-off investment or a knee-jerk reaction to a particularly expensive and avoidable claim.

The manager or proprietor has to take a personal interest in the needs of the member of staff being trained, the success of the training they receive, the enjoyment they got from it and the benefit it will bring in the future both for the business and for the individual. Properly handled, a continuous programme can be a major tool in staff retention.

Once training has been received, both the individual and the business deserve some recognition in the form of a recognisable certificate that can be displayed with pride to encourage other staff and to give customer confidence.

Certification after training

The Guild of Cleaners and Launderers is the examination body for the industry and its exam board regularly reviews the syllabus requirements at every level.

Guild certificates are among the most widely held in the industry and the owners display them with justifiable pride. However, the certification for the cleaner of the future is intended to be the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) or, in Scotland, the Scottish Vocational Qualification (SNVQ). This is now available for all cleaners at Levels 1 and 2.

Level 1 covers basic competence in the essential operations with a clear knowledge of what to do. Level 2 extends this to a wider understanding of the reasons underpinning the techniques used. NVQ Levels 3 and 4 are expected shortly, designed to meet the needs of supervisors and managers.

The uptake of NVQs in drycleaning has not been rapid and there has recently been a change of secretariat for the Industry Training Organisation (ITO), passing from the FCRA to the TSA.

In order for NVQs to succeed it is necessary that they be properly understood and vigorously marketed and there is every indication that this will take place.

Managing unit shop training

How does a busy cleaner translate a feeling that investing in training might be beneficial into a positive plan of action?

The first step is to systematically define the training needs for each person in the organisation, including the manager. This definition needs to be written down, discussed and may need to be cross-checked with outside experts.

The next step is to set realistic objectives for each member of staff and to round these off with the appropriate certification—either the correct NVQ or the appropriate Guild certificate.

Then comes the crucial step—identifying and writing down the business objectives that the training is supposed to address. These might feature:

• Improved quality, reduced complaints from specific causes (eg greying, fading).

• Better machine productivity.

• Justification for higher prices.

• Improved shop safety.

If a cleaner has more than three business objectives, it is important to put these very clearly in order of priority and to define exactly how you propose to monitor that the objectives have been achieved.

Profit is easy to check, quality can be quantified but health and safety and other areas may require more thought.

Once a cleaner knows the direction he wishes to take and who he is going to take with him, a detailed training action plan can be drawn up.

This project could be phased in over a 12-month period, extending it to two years, if necessary. The plan should include every member of staff and every possible source of training knowledge—and trade publications such as Laundry and Cleaning News can help contribute to the overall objectives.

Once you have your plan and you are faced with a considerable potential cost, you could apply for grant support to your local Department of Employment Office.

Linking a training programme to NVQ certification is a wise move.

Once you are about to start the training programme, remember that the trainer is not necessarily a member of your business and will not recognise needs as clearly as you do.

It is vital that you brief each trainer clearly on your objectives, the business objectives and the training needs of each individual. Only if the trainer’s targets coincide with your targets are you likely to get the benefits you want.