Multiple choice Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Let’s face it, when you’re in a budget crunch you’re looking to slash any line item that doesn’t show an immediate return. In today’s recession, training is becoming that item more and more.

The U.S. corporate training market shrunk from $58.5 billion in 2007 to $56.2 billion in 2008, according to research firm Bersin & Associates. The average training expenditures per employee fell 11 percent from 2007 to 2008, and small and midsize businesses were hit the hardest, averaging 33 percent fewer training hours per employee.

You may think trimming or even axing training is justifiable — training takes time and money and doesn’t usually have an immediate return on investment. But educators say now is a prime time to enhance your employees’ skills, whether it’s taking advantage of slower business to cross train employees or supporting your employees in the additional responsibilities that they took on following company layoffs.

“First off, skills very quickly become obsolete,” says Robert D. Stokes, assistant vice president for academic affairs for part-time and continuing studies at Villanova University. “You need to continue to upgrade the skills of your employees so they can handle the new types of tasks and activities that they’ll be involved in. Also, I think that employee productivity this day and age is one of the key factors for organizations to improve and grow, and I think that cutting education is hurting the organization as a whole.”

Eliminating your training or education budget can be detrimental. But there are ways to maintain productivity with fewer dollars, and it starts and ends with efficiency.

Track your spending and its returns

One place to start is looking at the training or education you’ve done in years past. Did you see results that directly improved your bottom line? If not, look closely at what you’ve spent money on. Maybe you’re paying for employees to get advanced degrees that are useless to your company or maybe you lack the resources needed for your staff members to fully implement what they learned in training.

There are multiple ways to track training, the most popular being pretesting and post-testing to grasp the change in employee knowledge. Whether or not you measured your employees’ change in skills, a follow-up assessment to gauge retention and whether more training is needed can provide positive feedback. Questions to think about are: Did they learn something from the training? If they learned something, can they apply it on the job? If they can apply what they learned on the job, did it have a positive financial effect on the company?

If you haven’t seen the results you were hoping for, don’t continue to throw the same training program at the problem and hope for a different outcome.

“Sometimes I think what happens is training is sort of viewed as a cure-all,” Stokes says. “Someone hears a great speaker at a conference and says, ‘We’ve got to bring this person in,’ and everyone goes to the training, and they’re happy about the training. And then, a week later, everything drops off. You want training that is relevant to the problem that is occurring and that it’s a proper solution.”

It’s important to remember that training isn’t always the solution and that people learn in different ways. The best thing to do is either sit down with a training provider or internally spend time evaluating the best solutions moving forward.

Find solutions now, while planning for the future

Effective training that gets to the core of the problem starts with an analysis of what the issue is and having a sense of what you want to accomplish through training. A common mistake is assembling training for a particular reason but never defining the why and a quantifiable outcome.

An internal training department can outline the company’s objective, but you can always look to the experts at consulting firms, colleges and universities to do a needs assessment and align an educational plan with the results.

“You would need to conduct a human resource inventory to know what current knowledge, skills, abilities your employees have,” Stokes says. “Also, your organization would need to know what’s the mission and strategy of the organization, and is there a gap between the future and current employees that you have.”

External providers can offer objective advice to what your company’s priorities should be when it comes to training and carryout implementation. And while you may be thinking short term in this economy, a long-term plan is essential to be a step ahead of your competition and execute successful training.

The best ways to assure you’re meeting your company’s needs and spending your money wisely are to link training to your strategic plan and your performance management system — each job description and employee annual review. That guarantees a regular evaluation of your training program and your employees’ skills, and if you’re working with a provider, it keeps them abreast of your company’s future plans, which can lead to identifying problems and solutions earlier and faster.

Determine training that suits you and your budget

There’s a plethora of external sources to partner with, whether it be sending administrators to pursue master’s degrees or training employees on communication techniques. Colleges and universities tend to be the best bang for the buck, offering a one-stop shop with consulting, full implementation and a broad range of courses.

When it comes to training, the costs that add up are flying in topic experts, sending employees to out-of-town conferences or even holding training off-site. If you’re hoping to trim your training budget — and it seems many are — then think locally. Look at the office training and online services offered by local community colleges and universities.

Tough times call for creativity. Think about internal and external resources that lend themselves to free training. Check professional associations for round tables and seminars. Survey your employees on their areas of expertise and hold brown-bag lunches on those topics. If you’re bringing training in-house, just make sure you’re using a variety of techniques to meet each employee’s learning styles.

“Organizations can form strategic partnerships,” says Waverly Coleman, assistant dean for the Division of Business and Technology and executive director of corporate solutions for Community College of Philadelphia. “Instead of one company providing training for five people, those companies can form a collaborative (program). And even though I know that they may be ‘competitors,’ there’s certain skills and types of training that all of their employees need. It can be much more effectively provided and efficiently provided if they were willing to pull together and offer that training.”

And look for funding sources — federal, state and local organizations offer training grants, whether it’s the U.S. Department of Labor or one of your local economic development corporations.

If you’re thinking about dramatically cutting your budget, first think about why you have training in the first place: to improve your retention, customer satisfaction, corporate culture and the overall growth of the company.

“The best way to summarize it would be to say that employee education and training really is about increasing the intellectual capacity and the potential contributions that individuals can make in terms of being productive members of organizations as well as being productive members of society ,” Coleman says.