Multiple choice Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

If you are toiling over what to do about training, you’re not alone.

Tuition reimbursement and continuing education look good on paper and are great recruitment and retention tools, but, as businesses are finding out, in today’s economy, those types of programs could also look more like a dispensable employee perk than a business necessity.

While academics will tell you it’s a mistake to cut training from the budget, those closest to financial reality will suggest trimming the fat and adopting a leaner training strategy that ties education to the company’s immediate needs. For most businesses, this means doing away with the nice-to-have training and focusing on the must-haves that affect the bottom line today.

“Maintaining intellectual capital is essential,” says Jerry Hoag, associate dean for executive education at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Companies always say their employees are their greatest capital, but in tough times, it’s quickly forgotten. You need to be able to maintain and support the most important training to the company through the ups and downs.”

Keep in mind that the usefulness of what is learned today doesn’t last as long as it once did. Technology’s rapid evolution makes knowledge obsolete when it isn’t built on. Still, the average number of formal training hours has dropped from 25 hours per learner in 2007 to 17.2 hours in 2008, according to Bersin & Associates’ 2009 Corporate Learning Factbook. The report reflects an 11 percent reduction in corporate training spending and claims a trend shift in the types of education that businesses are pursuing.

Goal setting

Training that educates employees on ways to increase revenue or decrease expenses or that improves relationships with customers is a business necessity and has a place in your training regimen.

Determine what your company needs to work on and what areas you need to continue to grow in as well as the basics to keep up with the competition.

“Cutting education is a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” says Myrtle P. Bell, associate professor of management, University of Texas at Arlington. “You can’t just check training off of a to-do list either; you must make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons for the company.”

Considering who will be receiving the training is an important step. Being wise about your budget means training those who are in a position to benefit the company most instead of offering a la carte training to whoever is willing to trade a few hours of work for classroom duty.

“Listen to what employees say they need,” says Donna Ledgerwood, associate professor, human resources management, University of North Texas. “Not to be learning means the company is losing its knowledge and power and thus has an increased risk of entropy. If you’ve tried training in the past that didn’t have the results you wanted, try a different strategy or university if the original one won’t help you solve training issues.”

Considering the type of education you need has equal importance to the way the education is delivered. While some companies find online courses give employers the best return on investment while saving on travel and driving time, others find in-house courses or a classroom setting to be the best delivery method for employees.

Choosing a trainer

Your company’s goals help determine what institution you’ll use to provide employee training. Look at local colleges and universities first, as these organizations have flexibility in training formats and delivery.

“Universities can help you form the right programs,” Hoag says. “Academic institutions are in a better position to customize programs (to) fit a business’s needs. The better your communication with the university, the better formed the program will be. Training firms need to make money and offer off-the-shelf programs to employers. If you have to design the program each time, it would be cost-prohibitive.”

Universities are often willing to consult with businesses to determine what the immediate training needs are. Community colleges, business schools and specific work force training centers can also provide tailored programs as opposed to off-the-shelf training that serves as a one-size-fits-all education.

“Trying to teach a person about technical details or jargon-loaded facts takes time and education,” Ledgerwood says. “A glossary and readings assigned before class can help make a successful training experience. No matter how good the trainer is, if the material is disconnected from the job or too theoretical, employees will lose interest — which is why your program needs to be tailor-designed.”

Don’t think of continued education as a perk to employees, but think of it as a way to keep the business growing.

A common error employers make is accepting a program where the employee misses a significant amount of work to go to school. Options exist that allow you to dictate within reason, how, when and where your employees are educated.

“Computer-based resources are good,” Bell says. “Local and junior colleges tend to be the most cost-efficient and allow the employee to stay on the job while getting an education. Decide how you want your employees to be educated and seek out a college willing to work that out for you.”

After you select a program and a university, your strategy must carry over into measuring tactics. Make sure you have a way to calculate the benefits of training and the reason you have selected the specific program.

Measuring results

Before an employee begins training, testing the skills that will be built upon is important. Testing will help determine where the employees’ skills are today and where they need to be after training. Making sure the employee, trainer and you are on the same page with expectations will help eliminate any miscommunication about future performance expectations.

“Self-assessments don’t work,” Bell says. “Determine what you want to get out of it and form questions to ask the trainees accordingly. You need to know where the employees’ knowledge stands before and after training. Test them again at a later date to see if the information has been retained.”

Prior to training, discuss the reason for the education and the way the training will be measured with the employee. Tell the employee how the new knowledge directly impacts his or her daily responsibilities. Managers should tie the training into performance evaluations to determine its true impact on the enhanced ability to perform.

“Many times, employers give employees training, then don’t follow up,” Hoag says. “You really need to have a continuous review process that is measuring the knowledge that was retained and is being used in the job. You can also follow this up with coaching and additional in-house reinforced training.”

Even after trimming the education budget, some companies say the cost is too much to handle right now. If you still believe in education, but can’t afford it, reassess it in nine months. In the meantime, use in-house training and coaching capabilities.

“Once companies give up on education, they are destined to go the way of Rome,” Hoag says. “You don’t want to lose your industry stance because you didn’t keep up with your brain.”