While few employers would argue against the idea that professional development is valuable, two concerns often rise to the surface when it comes time to invest in workforce training.
“The gut reaction is ‘we can’t afford it’ or ‘we don’t have time; we need people to produce,’” said Gretchen Jameson, chief learningal officer at Kacmarcik Enterprises.
Those reservations loom especially large for small to mid-sized businesses operating on a limited budget. But, in a tight labor market – in which workers recently cited a “lack of career development” as the leading reason for quitting in a 2022 McKinsey study – experts argue employers of all sizes can’t afford not to offer robust employee development opportunities.
“We know from labor market information and demographics that the labor force is hard to come by right now,” said Laura Catherman, executive director of the Corporate Training Center at Waukesha County Technical College. “And we also know that investing in your workforce, whether it be through employee engagement or ensuring you have a really strong workplace culture or the skill development of your employees, is one of the best ways to keep your workforce engaged and retained.”
A little creativity paired with discernment in how professional development dollars are allocated allow businesses to maximize their budgets as they invest in employees.
The first step, before investing in a particular workforce training opportunity, is to narrow in on the specific problem that you want to solve, said Jameson.
“Whatever you do, pick a learning experience with your team or small business that actually addresses some kind of performance gap,” Jameson said.
She cited a recent example at Kacmarcik Enterprises, in which a logistics leader discovered that late-shift crews were having difficulty making decisions on the floor, resulting in stalls to the workflow.
A natural reaction might be to pull the workers from the floor and take them through an hour-long training session on the nuts and bolts of operating the software, Jameson said.
Instead, the company built out a workshop experience on the floor that covered not only the software basics, but also included training in creative problem solving and making decisions on the fly. As workers participated in that workshop, managers focused on how to better develop trust in their team so employees felt permission to act on their problem-solving abilities.
“That way, we’re solving an actual performance opportunity as opposed to ‘here’s a course on Udemy,’’ Jameson said. “... If you don’t pair (training) to an actual gap, it’s not as effective.”
For employers who, at the thought of having employees sit through a training session, only see the potential loss of productivity, Jameson argues there are more efficient ways to promote learning in an organization. A learn-as-you-go approach is effective and tends to be lower in cost, especially in manufacturing settings.
“The reality is you can actually keep people working while they’re learning. In our industrial space, in particular, we’re helping people really understand that learning doesn’t mean, ‘OK, we’re going to march off the floor and have an hour of class learning.’ … Your people could be super productive and be learning at the exact same time if you design it right,” she said. “And the result really is a better business bottom line and stronger KPIs on pretty much every engagement metric, revenue generation, innovation, research and development.”
For the budget-conscious employer, Catherman recommends short-term workshops, such as those offered at WCTC’s Corporate Training Center.
“Try a bite-sized piece of training that’s not going to take you away from your desk for a long period of time but is a way to learn something new – like perhaps a piece of technology has changed and it’s a way to dip your toe into the skill development pool,” she said.
Sending one or two employees to a training session and inviting them to share what they learn with their colleagues is not only cost-efficient, but also empowering to those employees, she added.
Digging into a company’s own internal resources is another way to save money while deepening employee engagement. Establishing mentoring relationships among employees can be particularly fruitful, especially if those partnerships are designed with intention, said Catherman.
“Companies that have a more formalized program or even just a more defined approach to it – rather than just saying, ‘We’re pairing you up with John. He’ll be your mentor,’ – building some goals into the program, defining the parameters of what that mentoring relationship looks like – those are the types of programs that we see being effective,” she said.
Employers should also encourage workers to connect with leaders and peers in their field that are outside the company, said Jameson.
“I would say, for every organization: figure out ways, especially for early-career people, to make networking happen, because they’re going to learn and then come back to you better able to do their job,” she said. “It’s a cost-effective way to promote learning in your organization.”
Leaders of small businesses should be particularly mindful of individual contributors, those who manage a one-person team and don’t have anyone in the organization to look up to within their area of expertise. Without investment, individual contributors are particularly susceptible to burnout or leaving the organization altogether.
“As a leader, be aware of who your individual contributors are and then help their managers or you yourself map out a simple development plan for that person,” Jameson said. “It doesn’t have to be a crazy curriculum, but think about how do I help this person advance in one or two goals?”