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.

“Training is very important to business continuity,” says Tracey L. Missien, interim director of work force education and economic development, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “In this economy, even though up to a quarter of companies report that training is one of the first places to make budget cuts, most employers see training and skills enhancement as key to maximize productivity and profitability.”

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.

“As with other areas of business, training programs need to be evaluated for their ability to impact the business,” Missien says. “Goals and outcomes of education should be defined and then compared between different methods of training. Management should look at feedback from employees, the level of knowledge retention, how quickly the employee can apply the knowledge and how the training experience was for the employees. The key is to prepare, deliver and measure in order to achieve the best practices.”

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.

“Training has always been important,” says Judy Savolskis, interim vice president, work force development, Community College of Allegheny County. “In the past, people acquired expertise on the job and stayed married to that same job their entire career. Now, there’s not as many opportunities for advancement and everything’s more competitive and changing. Continued education is imperative to roll with the changes.”

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 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.

“Oftentimes, a university or college have curriculum already developed that can be modified for continuing education training so a company can save money but not have to outsource curriculum development,” Missien says. “Over the long term, when a company has a relationship with a higher education institution, the partnership develops and efficiency tends to become a built-in benefit because they get to know each other’s needs and capabilities. This can save costs in the long run.”

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.

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.

“Sit down with your training provider and have a quality dialogue,” Savolskis says. “Tell them what you want to accomplish and what types of employees will be participating in the training. Make sure before you leave the discussion, you’ve decided on a measurable learning outcome so all parties know what can be expected for the cost of training and that they can provide what you are looking for.”

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.

“Companies must use some form of participant evaluation and assessment tool to gain feedback about the training,” Missien says. “Participants should be asked to provide feedback and individual reaction about the continuing education and evaluate their views toward the content, delivery and time.

Second, the organization should utilize a skills assessment process to gauge how well participants met the educational requirements of the training. Lastly, some companies use an evaluation report as a communication tool for the stakeholders, whether that is departments or divisions who have an interest in the training. This can help to further assess the outcomes of the education.”

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 enhanced ability to perform.

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.

“You can train the trainer as a way to save money,” Savolskis says. “Send managers to training, then have them relay their new information to other employees. Make sure the college shares approaches the trained employees can use. You can also save money by having the training on site which will also allow for flexible training times.”