Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Training on a Tight Budget

As the competition for talent heats up, smart firms are taking steps to better attract and retain quality employees. How about your firm?

Providing training is one proven method for winning over employees. Besides the usual intended benefit of improving performance, training makes people feel more valued by their employer. One of the primary reasons employees leave is because they don't feel valued enough.

Training also supports people's innate drive for improvement and mastery, one of the primary factors that motivates employees. The acquired competency that comes with training and experience enhances career opportunities as well.

So there's a compelling case for the importance of training. Unfortunately, many A/E firms fail to make it a priority. This is particularly true of smaller firms that think they can't afford it.  

The evidence suggests that A/E firms trail other industries in providing training to employees. The latest annual survey by the Association of Talent Development found that corporate training investment across multiple industries has increased substantially in the last decade, now averaging 36 hours per employee annually. I haven't been able to put my hands on recent data for our industry, but I suspect that we're well below that average.

If you would like to increase the training you provide to your employees but have a tight budget, here are a few cost-saving strategies to consider:

Plan training well in advance. Your office undoubtedly receives a regular stream of mailers promoting various training programs. It can be hard to resist the impulse spending when something good comes along. Reduce the temptation by conducting an assessment of your staff's training needs every 6-12 months, and budget accordingly. Pick specific training programs in advance to the extent possible.

Utilize local colleges. Many colleges have departments that offer training at costs substantially lower than private-sector suppliers. Some of the best bargains can be found at local community colleges, which are increasingly providing high-level training in areas such as management, marketing, and technical skills. In some cases, the same trainers used by pricey training firms also work through colleges at a fraction of the cost.

Share the cost with another firm. Rather than pay the full fees for having a trainer come to your office, split the cost with another company or two interested in joining you. This can be an especially attractive option for small firms that lack the staff size to warrant a volume discount or earn an affordable per-person cost. There are also intrinsic benefits in training with another firm, such as sharing ideas on issues of mutual interest.

Control incremental costs. Ask the training vendor for a cost breakdown for their program, then seek to negotiate specific items. For example, the trainer may charge $20 each for three-ring binders. Offer to buy your own. You might be able to make copies of program materials yourself at significantly less cost. It's also a good idea to look into training at your office, or another economical location, rather than leaving the meeting place arrangements to the trainer.

Use "real-time coaching." Provide on-the-job instruction and reinforcement so that staff members can learn and be billable at the same time. Instead of sending them to a seminar on how to do better project planning, for example, bring the trainer in to teach them as they are planning an actual project. Besides saving money, this approach increases learning and practical application. 

Train your own internal trainers. You may already have individuals in your firm who are competent in training and mentoring others. Take advantage of their skills. Other inside experts may first need outside help in developing their training abilities. This requires an upfront investment, but can save money down the road. Plus internal trainers have the advantage of being more familiar with your firm and your business.

Create or purchase computer-based training programs. This self-directed option has grown tremendously in recent years. While I'm less confident in the effectiveness of this approach compared to other options, it probably still deserves a place in your training arsenal. Like training the trainer, this may involve a sizable initial investment, but over the long run could be very cost effective. Computer-based learning works best when coupled with some kind of follow-up like testing, on-the-job exercises, or discussion groups. 

These are but a few of the possible affordable alternatives for training your employees. Others include webinars, videos, assigned readings, and even the internet. The point is, you don't have to scrimp on training just because you're small or money is tight. And failure to provide adequate training will likely cost you more down the line.

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