How managers can salvage training during tight budgets

Monday - 7/23/2012, 5:37pm EDT

Linda Petersen, Graduate School USA

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It's no secret budgets are tight and will likely get tighter.

Frequently, one of the first victims of the budget axe is professional training, says Linda Petersen, a former federal official now with Graduate School USA.

Petersen joined In Depth with Francis Rose. She said too often training, which carries long-term benefits, is not viewed as being part of an agency's strategic vision.


Salvaging training in a tight budget environment


Linda Petersen, Graduate School USA

In times of tight budgets, training often goes by the wayside. All too frequently, decisions about spending priorities result in slashing or eliminating funding for training - particularly for "non-technical" training. Training is an attractive target for leaders wielding a red pencil for several reasons:

  • Training benefits tend to be longer term while needs for cost cutting are immediate;

  • Non-technical training is often viewed as a "nice to have" rather than a necessity; and

  • Most organizations have limited Return on Investment (ROI) data to support expenditure of dollars for training.
In brief, training is not sufficiently integrated into the strategic vision and planning of most organizations.

For those of you who are training officers and human resources managers, it's imperative to do everything you possibly can to make the case that training IS a top priority. We know that some non-technical training is mandatory. Agencies must provide human resource management-related training for new supervisors and retraining every three years for current supervisors. Agencies must provide training on IT security, ethics, and several other topical areas. In tight times, these government-wide "must do's" can become the only training that occurs. Your job is to make the case that training in the "soft skills" and allowing for knowledge growth and developmental opportunities are equally important and are "must do's" for your agency. Saving a meaningful training budget will benefit your agency in a variety of ways.

We've all seen the numbers. We know that huge percentages of each agency's workforce can retire over the next few years. We have yet to fully analyze the impact of the knowledge and talent drain that those retirements will produce, but we know there will be a significant impact. Training is the key solution to maintain the level of knowledges and skills agencies need now and to build those needed for the future. And keep in mind that the necessary knowledges and skills to be a high-performing organization are not just the technical subject-matter ones directly related to the line mission occupations. To be high-performing, employees and managers need to be adept in such competency areas as written and oral communication, networking, collaboration, decision-making, teamwork, persuasiveness, and so on.

Training is not only important for new employees, but for existing ones as well. Training opportunities — chances to grow, develop, learn new skills, methods, approaches — can be a great way to keep people motivated and excited about remaining with your agency. A robust training and development environment helps you to attract top talent and keep it. In short, it enables you to remain competitive in the labor market and minimizes the negative effects of unwanted turnover and attrition.

To defend against deep training budget cuts, you need to be able to clearly portray how these factors mentioned above play out in your agency. First, having a strategic plan that clearly shows the path - and the need for training solutions - from the skills and knowledges that exist now vs. those needed for the future is critical. You'll need to determine where and how training can help to bridge skill and knowledge gaps. As part of your analysis, you should identify the optimal training curricula, timing and methods to set your agency up for success over the next 5-10 years.

Be sure, too, to consider alternate methods of training. With today's (and tomorrow's) technology, we don't have to rely exclusively on traditional classroom training methods or on undocumented and sometimes haphazard on-the-job training. On-line learning, webinars, podcasts, virtual classrooms and so on can be highly effective — and can be less costly.

Building the ROI case is crucial. With shrinking funds available overall, agency leadership must make budget cuts. Without useful data about the actual, tangible benefits of training, decision makers will cut training dollars in lieu of other discretionary spending. With strong ROI data, you can make training funds less "discretionary." You need to develop effectiveness measures for training - and means of gathering the data. You need to define how it improves performance, reduces errors and re-work, better satisfies customers, motivates and aids in retaining employees and other factors linked to the agency's priorities and strategic plan. And, again, look at the wide range of available delivery options to determine which are both effective and efficient so as to maximize the ROI.

To sum up, the steps you should take to save (and hopefully grow!) training budgets in your agency:

  1. Set and obtain leadership buy in for strategic training objectives

  2. Gather and maintain data for building the ROI case to minimize training fund cuts

  3. Broaden training methods and sources