CXO

Strategies for stretching training dollars

Cutting IT training budgets when times are tough can damage staff morale, hamstring important projects, and ultimately hurt a tech leader's career. These techniques can help you cut costs while still providing staff with opportunities to learn new skills.


TechRepublic Vice President Bob Artner calls it the Law of Training Funding Paradox: “The fact that your team doesn’t have the right skills is often cited as a reason not to give them those skills.” And, as Artner notes, you need to fight the temptation to cut the IT training budget because “your team’s training is vital to your career.”

It can be tempting—especially for those who have never worked in IT—to think of training as an easy place to save a few dollars. CIOs may have to explain how a relatively small outlay in training money can save the company tens of thousands of dollars in consultants’ fees. Or perhaps a CIO will need to demonstrate how much faster back-office integration can be completed if the company sends a staff member to learn more about the enterprise’s middleware product.

But even after doing their best to defend IT training budgets, some IT leaders still will have to find ways to cut training expenses. Fortunately, resourceful executives and managers may be able to save money on training without drastically cutting out opportunities for employees to learn.

Employees get the most for “their” money
Stu Berg, an information systems manager with a utility services company in the Northeast, tries to make sure each employee on his team receives some training every year. In his department, database administrators often attend training sessions and conferences on SQL Server, Oracle, DB2, and IMS. The systems programmers mostly go for operating system topics such as Windows 2000, AIX, and z/OS.

Over the years, Berg has found that employees often stretch their training dollar allocation if given the chance. Berg takes 90 percent of the entire training budget and gives an equal portion to each team member, including himself. Then employees manage their own training budget and submit requests through the usual channels for approval.

“Typically, they will use ‘their’ training budget frugally so they can get more training,” Berg said. “For example, people sometimes attend consecutive conferences to save on airfare.”

Berg reserves the remaining 10 percent of his department’s training budget for employees who may require more training when they move into a new position. Berg says that this system has eliminated the all-too-common problem of running out of training money at year’s end.

Berg also watches for cost-effective opportunities to bring trainers in-house for group sessions. These situations most frequently come up for “soft-skills” training such as project management, which could benefit 10 or more staff members.

Group discounts
Larger groups of employees can save money and still get away from the office for their training sessions. In some cases, employees don’t even have to attend the same class at the same time to get a discount.

Learning Tree International, for example, markets a discounted voucher program to state, local, and federal government organizations. An organization can buy five or more vouchers, which can be used for classes any time within the next 12 months. Discounts increase with volume, and Learning Tree claims that organizations can save $580 or more per class when they buy 10 or more vouchers. (Standard course fees range from $1,825 to $2,645.) The training company offers businesses a similar voucher program, which Learning Tree says will save 17 percent or more over the standard single-session cost. Individuals can save by purchasing training “passports” for four or eight courses, but unlike vouchers, this purchase plan can’t be transferred to another person.

Training on employees’ time?
The other cost of group training—whether it’s in-house or offsite—is the loss of employees’ working time. To help soften this blow, TechRepublic columnist Tim Landgrave believes it’s fair to ask employees to take some training on their own time. You can read his opinions about the cost of training in a recent column.

Go online
Another money-saving option is to take equivalent courses online. IMGUniversity.com offers Mastering Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0 Fundamentals for $699 as a 10-week online course. In person, the IMG course runs five days and costs $1,995. If you don’t live in the Chicago area, add airfare and accommodations to the cost. You could easily end up spending three times as much for an employee to attend in person. Of course, there’s more opportunity to interact with the instructor and classmates in person, but is that interaction worth the added expense in lean times?

Sharing expertise in-house
TechRepublic member andymand suggested a cheap, informal way to help motivated employees increase their expertise. Set up a “Lunch & Learn” program to cover subject matter with a tutorial-style book. Andymand leads a Java study group where he works.

“We meet weekly and discuss our answers to questions and programming exercises I put together and e-mail to the group in advance,” andymand said. The department’s only investment is in a $20 or $30 book. Group members usually just bring a brown-bag lunch from home and eat quickly so they can get down to hands-on programming exercises. The group moves at its own pace through the book, and more advanced members often help others master the material before moving on.

To encourage this kind of informal group learning, IT managers should be sure to note the initiative shown by participants, and especially by the group leader, when it’s time for performance reviews. Free lunches, gift certificates, or an afternoon off may also be in order for those who successfully participate in such exercises.

Seek training grants
Local, state, and even federal government programs can also be a source of training dollars. TechRepublic member Sorensen  was lucky enough to find such a program for his Nebraska-based former employer. As the systems administrator, it was Sorensen’s job to teach Microsoft Office applications to about 50 employees, most of whom were novices. Training end users was taking up a big chunk of time he could better spend on his primary IT duties. But the company’s executive committee wouldn’t approve money to provide even CD-ROM-based training for these employees.

A local training provider told the systems administrator about a grant program run by the state’s labor department. (You can find your state or local government’s Web site through this index.) The training provider helped Sorensen fill out the application, which included details on the estimated costs, number of participants, and content of the proposed training. The state ended up granting the company the money to train all the users.

Sorensen reported the kinds of results tech leaders would like to see from every training endeavor. “Management saw an increase in productivity, the users’ enthusiasm for their jobs was re-energized, and morale increased,” Sorensen wrote. “Everyone was pleased.”

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