Training Employees from Underserved Populations

Training employees is one of the primary challenges of any company. If that employee comes from an underserved-population demographic, then that just adds another layer of complexity to the training task.

Depending on who you ask and what industry that person is in, you will hear a wide range of what training is. If you were to Google the word “training,” a common definition would be something like, “Training is the education, instruction or discipline of a person or thing.”

Regardless of what topic or skills a trainer is attempting to convey, the trainer must have the attention of the trainee, must be understood and needs sufficient time to relay all the information regarding the topic(s). A quality trainer/teacher is one who can connect with their student(s), because until a connection is made, the teacher is simply “throwing” information into the air and hoping the student(s) “catch it.”

Connection and “The Training Triangle”

Connection is the first piece of what I like to call “The Training Triangle.” To connect with students/employees, we, as trainers, must be able to relate to that employee, or at least understand the employee’s point of view. We cannot allow our own personal biases, assumptions, attitudes or egos to get in the way of connecting to our employees. We need to deliver our message in a way the employee will understand, accept and find relevant to them.

Underserved populations

Who is considered “underserved,” and what does the term “underserved” really mean? The term was originally coined regarding a population’s access to health care, but a general definition of the term would be, “Populations who are disadvantaged (lower access to social resources) because of ability, transportation, education, finance, emotional issues, race, religion, language group, social status or other disparities (family issues, etc.).”

Some of the life challenges a member of this population might deal with are:

  • Limited choices/options for personal or professional growth.
  • Lack of direction and/or motivation.
  • Lack of family structure and/or support.
  • Poor or toxic relationships with family or friends (trust issues).
  • Lack of personal discipline, quality habits or time management.
  • Poor financial education, ability to budget resources.
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth.

I dare say that almost everyone has been exposed to challenges resulting from any of the mentioned situations. How long a person spends in a particular situation is the question, and the length of time dealing with that situation and/or the severity of the situation leaves a mark on a person and can cause them to perceive the world in a certain way.

Who is considered “underserved,” and what does the term “underserved” really mean? All photos courtesy of The Greening Youth Foundation and Warren Williams, unless stated otherwise.

Nature or nurture

That brings us to the question of nature or nurture. Is a person who comes from (born into) an underserved population going to remain how they are at the interview stage, or can they be “trained” to be the employee we want and need for our companies?

In the 1980s, a research project called The Talent Project was conducted by Ben Bloom to answer two questions: 1) Are prodigies born or made? and 2) Where does talent come from, special individuals or special circumstances? It was found that encouragement and practice are the keys; motivation, and not genetics, is the answer.

Life experiences mold and shape every one of us into the people we are today. If you build a working environment at your company that promotes understanding, empathy, consistency, honesty and transparency, and you not only take the time to listen to your employees but to act on their feedback in a timely manner, that type of company structure will give you the best possible training environment.

Age factor

Along with the knowledge that the individual is considered underserved, another important piece of information needed by trainers to connect with their employees is what age demographic or generation they are. Most employees currently coming into our workforce are Gen Y (“Millennials” born between 1982 and 2000) and Gen Z (born from 2001 until now). This is relevant, because societal norms and technology change from generation to generation. The life experience of growing up in the ’80s, ’90s or 2000s will differ.

The social impacts to Gen Y & Z are:

  • Technology-based skills, goods and services.
  • Instant feedback, whether gratification and/or rejection.
  • Texting (constant communication).
  • Disposable/replaceable goods and services (questionable security).
  • Surface/shallow relationships (less face-to-face communication).
  • Social media (“madness”).
  • Options (too many/too few).

All these things affect the lens through which people view life, and the language used during those time periods will affect how the employee understands the trainer’s message.

If you build a working environment that promotes understanding, empathy, consistency, honesty and transparency, and you not only take the time to listen to your employees but act on their feedback in a timely manner, that type of company structure will give you the best possible training environment.

Your training program

The next piece of “The Training Triangle” is the setup and presentation of you or your company’s training program. Your training program should be set up in a way that caters to how most people learn, through visual, tactile and auditory means. Individuals from an underserved population tend to have weak reading and reading-comprehension skills, and are not used to working in groups or in a team setting. Positive results have been found by using pictures with limited text, hands-on activities, group discussions, debates and competitive interactions incorporated into the teaching curriculum.

Some other teaching techniques that compliment learning fundamentals are modeling, cooperative learning, student-led teaching, class discussion, questioning students and placing students in situations and scenarios that force them to think in order to find a solution/resolution. During this process, the trainer/teacher is addressing mistakes as they are made and providing positive feedback.

In my experience, one of the greatest issues or stumbling blocks with individuals from an underserved background is the sense of failure and how they perceive and handle it. Society has pushed the thought that failure is a bad thing and that failing anything has negative connotations. For some, this means they would prefer not to try something so they don’t risk failure, and this can impede learning, growth and advancement for the employee. Many times, I have had to change the way an employee views failure and show them that failure is a natural and necessary step in the learning process.

Growth, development and mastery of any technique are all derived from practice, reflection and modification. Has the employee/student asked themselves, “Did you fail, or did you learn what doesn’t work?”


The last piece of “The Training Triangle” is the culture of your organization. Does it support your training program and the employees in your company? Individuals from an underserved demographic may have had broken or poor family structure, very few positive influences and/or little consistency in their lives. They may have lacked role models and never had a mentor or confidant. Everyone has dreams and goals, but many have no ideas or plans as to what steps to take to reach those goals.

Is your organization systematic and understandable, consistent with structured, attainable goals for every level of employee? Is it team based, requiring regular interaction (even competition) with other employees and/or facets of the company? Does the company focus on the positives, promoting ongoing learning and development, and is the environment/job fun? All these things help foster learning, training and a healthy workplace.

A company with a healthy, positive culture commonly has high employee morale, above-average production, lower incident rates and lower employee turnover. As a trainer, if you strive to be a role model, a mentor, a resource and a trusted team member, you will be able to provide what many underserved employees have been looking for or are lacking in their lives.

I consistently have been amazed at what individuals can do when motivated by inspiration, given a little guidance and supported in their efforts. At the end of the day, almost anyone will excel in an environment that is positive and supportive, built upon trusted relationships and solid guidance. Establish that in your company, and everything else gets easier.

Warren Williams, CTSP, is a senior safety manager & trainer for Wright Tree Service, a 55-year TCIA member company. He is chairperson of the Rules Committee for the International Tree Climbing Competition (ITCC), a certified SPRAT level 1 technician and an OSHA authorized 10 & 30 hour trainer.

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