Training: Now’s the Time to Invest

Sept. 11, 2012

In the last issue we reported on projections for the construction industry from the perspective of four economic experts. Their prognosis was for a very guarded optimism, but since then the news from Europe and elsewhere suggests things are sliding from bleak to couldn’t-be-much-bleaker. When the economy tanks like this and you’re looking for places to cut, it’s tempting to target “soft” expenses like employee training and development. But don’t do it.

We’re in a situation that’s ripe for what a friend of mine calls counterintuitive reasoning, in this case cutting back on something just when you need it the most. One example of this backward-leaning thinking he likes to use is dramatic-the world immediately after 9/11, when companies pulled inward, uncertain of the world situation, but at exactly the time their employees needed reassurance and direction the most.

So let’s repeat: When times get tough, it’s time to get training. Cutting costs by trimming your staff means getting the most from the employees you have left, which means specialized training to refine or introduce new skills, refresher training to bring employees up to speed on skills and responsibilities they might have left behind but will need now. You’re consolidating and cross-training so your staff can step nimbly back and forth between related job descriptions. In a down economy everybody’s worried, and taking the time to help your streamlined staff manage new job responsibilities also injects a shot of enthusiasm into your organization and can help reduce the anxiety that leads to accidents and injuries.

A recent study for ESI International, a global training organization that specializes in project management, business analysis, and contract management, suggests that while training can look like an impossible sell in tight economic times, one way to go about it is a hard-eyed, practical look at the value you expect to get from your dollars, what in economic lingo is called establishing your return on investment, or ROI. The effort doesn’t have to be extensive or time-consuming. What you’re after is to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the cost associated with whatever training you decide to be necessary is justified in terms of employee productivity and development and the overall well-being and productivity of your operation.

You start by focusing on results, by defining very specifically what you want your training to do. Training professionals often focus on the quality of training rather than its impact, assuming that quality leads to learning and learning leads to impact. The fact is that while quality is important, especially in the construction industry, which is necessarily preoccupied with safety, it doesn’t go nearly far enough in establishing how the training you’re contemplating will benefit specific performance aspects of your organization.

The point of training and employee development is to get your employees from where they are now to where you want them to be, which means you have to know exactly what they’re doing and what additional skills or capabilities they will need to acquire to get them to that next level. This is the essence of establishing your ROI.

It means that first off you must know who you’re training and why, an exercise that’s particularly important when you’re consolidating jobs or switching responsibilities among employees in an effort to cut costs. One of the biggest mistakes employers make, especially in tough times, is wasting precious training dollars on high-profile people who don’t need it, who are already functioning at an acceptable level, and neglecting employees who may appear to make less of an individual impact, such as accounting clerks or data processors, but who are in effect fundamental to the smooth-running of your business.

Additionally, it should go without saying that the people you train must be the people who are actually doing the job, employing the software or operating the equipment, or will be doing it now that you’ve streamlined. This can be a particular challenge when you’re consolidating job descriptions or shifting responsibilities, but the time you invest in getting this clear can be invaluable for sorting out and refining contemplated changes to reflect your revised organizational goals and objectives. To make this part of the process work, it’s important to secure input from individuals directly responsible for the people you expect to train: office managers, field superintendents, project managers, the kind of people who are in a position to know who among their team could benefit from training, and, particularly, those who are likely to be receptive.

And no daydreaming.

Quantify. The only way you’ll know whether you got what you’re looking for from your training dollars is to be very specific about your objectives. You say you want to increase individual productivity in a certain area-but by how much and what will that look like? Do you want your operators to get the job done X-many hours faster or do you want them to become more versatile? Only then will you be able to develop effective training strategies. Maybe you send your best operators to a manufacturer- or dealer-sponsored course to learn new technology, or dispatch your head estimator-or the enthusiastic novice you just brought on board for almost nothing-to a users’ conference to learn how to get the most out of your software, or bring an expert onboard for half a day to clear up glitches in the way your employees are handling paperwork or data collection. Or maybe now’s the time to take that software package you were too busy to figure out when you bought it down off the shelf and put it to use. Remember, this is an analytical process so you have to go at it step by step.

Validate your conclusions with as much data as you can and from as many different perspectives as you can, from the people you expect to train to their managers to the people or facility that will train them, as well as who in your organization will be responsible for any post-training upgrades or review. And don’t forget to factor in post-training support: What equipment (computers or mobile devices), technology, or other resources will be needed to make the impact of the training what you expect it to be and how will you provide it? Basically, you’re looking for four levels of improvement: improvement in the quality and effectiveness of individual employees’ behavior, improvement in their individual job execution, and improvement in their overall contribution to the bottom line.

This should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Know to the penny what you’re proposing is going to cost and where that money is going to come from. Dithering is negative. And don’t get discouraged. You’re not reinventing the wheel here, but you are adopting a new perspective, and you may have to try a couple of approaches before you get the right training mix. Which may mean testing things out on a small group of motivated trainees. And although it’s tempting to calculate your ROI after the fact, you’re missing out on one of the important benefits of the process, which is the opportunity to make adjustments as you go along.

Remember that training doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Know how your investment will affect the organization as a whole. In lean times, leadership tends to shift toward the CFO’s office. Shifting your mindset in that direction, from what you think you should be offering to why and what impact you expect the invested dollars to deliver means accepting responsibility for the behavior of the people you train.

We’ve talked about this before, but remember that in good times or bad, for training to be effective the content of the program must be relevant to the people being trained and it must be delivered in a way that makes sense to them and shows them how to apply it on the job. The organization as a whole has to support the training, that is, be prepared to make use of the increase in productivity and efficiency that’s the aim of this exercise. At the very basic, this means managers must be prepared to provide trainees opportunities to apply what they’ve learned. Once again, this requires planning and must be attacked at the head end of the process.

Involve your managers in setting expectations for your training and brainstorm their expectations and how they plan to utilize the improved skills or productivity in their area. This is a collaborative process. People who are informed and motivated to apply what they’ve learned are worth every penny you spend on them. Your goal is to establish a program in which real learning occurs and is adopted on the job.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how ROI can impact your training programs, you can download the entire report at

Much of it is very valuable information. Take advantage of it.