For Nick Rivecca, president of Sonag Ready Mix of Menomonee Falls, Wis., and other managers who grew up in a slow-growing manufacturing industry built on an "us and them" labor-management relationship, the challenge of growing both production volume and employees is something they haven't had to consider before. Today's drivers are a new breed of employee. They are better educated and more aware of various career opportunities. But most new hires have little construction background, and even fewer are used to working outdoors. Producers are looking for new training approaches and adopting new attitudes to not only convince employees to work for them, but to maintain the spirit of empowerment on the job needed for growth.

Operations manager Ed Troxell doesn't worry too much, however, when Truck 335 is delayed. He knows that the delay isn't due to a poorly maintained truck, unproductive contractor procedures, or even weather. He's come to realize it's a matter of fame.

Truck 335 is assigned to Susan Hawk, who became famous as a concrete vehicle driver following her stint on CBS's Survivor TV series, and who has shown the world that concrete truck drivers are more than just robots.

After driving for a contract aggregate and bulk hauler for several years, Hawk applied for a job at Sonag when she learned that the company was about to start up its own plant. Just before her first day on the job, this Palmyra, Wis., native learned that she had been selected for the South Pacific odyssey. In fact, the entire experience had been completed before Hawk climbed in the seat of a front-discharge mixer for the first time.

Hawk reports that the thorough on-the-job training she received from Sonag's mentor drivers in those first few months was one of the key activities that kept her anxiety level down prior to the show's airing. When the show became the summer's television hit, Hawk's status changed from rookie driver to local celebrity. And Hawk's fame was a marketing boon for her employer.

However, Rivecca and Troxell knew that unless Hawk and their other new drivers were properly trained and could deliver concrete as professionals, they wouldn't get the order the second time. Sonag's management worked hard to be taken seriously in the highly competitive Milwaukee market.

Troxell, a professional civil engineer with a strong background in mix design, laid the groundwork for proper training in the winter of 1999. He encouraged two senior drivers to take the ACI Field Inspector Level I course and pass on their knowledge to new hires with a one-on-one mentor approach. As the company grows, Troxell knows he will spend more time formalizing the training program while keeping the family approach.

For Rivecca, Sonag's small size has allowed him to interact with drivers in a more personal way. "Our close contact with our employees has allowed me to share more information about how we are doing financially and how we approach our marketing and sales effort," says Rivecca. "I never had that opportunity with a larger company."

Members of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association are working hard to change the Medieval approach to training by targeting the industry's key point of customer contact: the delivery driver. For the past 24 months, NRMCA members have been formulating a new approach to driver training: a multi-tiered certification process. The first of these tiers has been incorporated into several ready-mix companies across the country.

In the Concrete Delivery Professional (CDP) Certification Program, drivers will be tested to show that they actually know the required information.

Developing equitable yet relevant competency levels for association member drivers who operate in diverse geographic and market conditions has been a great challenge. Many ready-mix producers have come to recognize that the driver is the key point of contact between customer and company. While the movement to include drivers in a certification program may seem radical, it's a move needed to keep up with our competing industries, Robert Garbini, NRMCA president, points out.

The article also includes a 10-point checklist to evaluate if yours is a learning organization.