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Cross-training and multi-skilling

Published:Sunday | November 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Participants in a Lift Up Jamaica programme carry out extension work at the Kellits Skills Training Centre in Clarendon. - Contributed

Paulette Dunn-Smith , Contributor

Businesses today have to be ready to compete against each other as improvements in transportation, communication, and technology have made the world much smaller. Companies, therefore, have had to seek ways to respond quickly to changing markets and their personnel needs. This week, we look at cross-training and multi-skilling as one method of improving productivity.

Multi-skilled workers are individuals who possess a range of skills and knowledge which they apply to tasks that may fall outside the regular boundaries of their original training. The worker becomes an effective and productive contributor to the output of the company by being able to do several jobs normally undertaken by many persons.

In the past, employees were trained to perform only one job; however, modern companies have recognised the value of cross-training their employees in a wide range of skills. By being able to perform multiple tasks, the employee can easily be transferred from one position to another and immediately begin to work productively.

Multi-skilling will become even more important in the competitive market of the 21st century. It is particularly important in small and medium-size companies.

According to an article in the London Financial Times (October 5, 2005), a flexible workforce, including a multi-skilled one, can help a company expand its business capabilities while not necessarily expanding its staff. Here at Dunn, Pierre, Barnett and Associates, we advise small companies to recruit staff with broad skill sets, and to organise customised training to expand their capabilities. Multi-skilling cannot only make work more satisfying for employees, but also help enhance employee performance.

Multi-skilling or cross-training is part of what makes the Japanese automaker Toyota so successful. The company was able to avoid massive layoffs that United States automakers were forced to make in the early 21st century. Among a number of flexible working practices, the company cross-trained their workers to build multiple car models on the same assembly line. These practices have helped lead the company's success in the auto industry.

Multi-skilling is based on two principles. One is competency of the individual. This is based on the fact that the individual employee can analyse and fix day-to-day problems as they occur. The second principle is the use of the employee's multiple skills and the time needed to perform the activities given the new responsibilities. The value added to the company is based on how well the worker performs given the situation.

Paulette Dunn-Smith is an international trainer and workforce development expert. She is the executive director, Dunn, Pierre, Barnett & Associates Ltd and chairman, Caribbean Career and Professional Development Institute. Contact her at or

  • Advantages of multi-skilling

Foremost among the benefits is that multi-skilling increases worker productivity. Other advantages of multi-skilling include:

1. Increased flexibility

Workers who are able to perform a large number of tasks can fill in for other workers, increasing workforce flexibility.

2. Improved communication

Knowledge of various tasks can increase the understanding of other tasks and improve coordination within the business.

3. Positive effects on innovation

The processes of improving design concepts are easier because of the individual's 'multi'-knowledge.

3. Employment security

A multi-skilled workforce does not feel threatened if, because of technology, skills become obsolete. Workers have the ability to transfer knowledge to new situations.

4. Task/project efficiency

Through the increased level of multi-skilling, work can be re-organised so that it can be performed most efficiently. Workers start and complete a task or a project and take ownership, which sees better results.

5. Competitive market

As a result of reduced labour costs, caused by a reduction in turnaround time and the number of workers involved, savings are passed on to the customer, making the business more competitive.