As an independent trainer, there’s more to your job than just providing training. There’s finding work, making travel plans, and taking care of billing. At some point, you’re bound to wish that someone else would handle all the extra junk and just let you teach.

Finding a training broker may be your solution. A broker can keep your plate and your pocket full, with minimum hassles and maximum exposure. And in the broker world, one of the best is The Training Associates.

In the interest of good journalistic practice and full disclosure, I must tell you that The Associates has been one of my brokers since I got back into independent training.
This interview with members of a training brokerage is the third in a series by Bruce Maples, in which he takes a look at the training industry through the eyes of professionals in four different jobs in the field. In the first interview, he talked to Don Justice about his role as the manager of a training company.Then he got the inside view of a traveling trainer’s routine from Latifa Meena.In hisfirst training broker article, Bruce explained how the business works. In the last installment, Bruce will talk to a training manager.
For this interview, I spoke with Nate Fischer, Steve Conant, and Andrea Mastrocolla. Fischer is the key account sales manager, which puts him in regular contact with the larger training chains and large corporations with extensive internal training operations. Conant is the client development representative for the central region, while Mastrocolla is the representative for the northeast region.

The view from Boston
People who are in daily contact with both training centers and trainers have a unique vantage point on our industry, and I am not shy about asking them about their opinions and observations. Here’s how it looks from The Training Associates’ HQ:

TechRepublic: What do you think sets you apart in the broker world?
We provide better quality instructors. We do extensive checking of our trainers before we send them out, and then we keep checking as they do work.

Conant: We emphasize good value, not just good price.

Fischer: Our margin is always 10 percent, not 30 percent or 40 percent like some brokers. For that 10 percent, the trainer knows that they will get paid in 30 days whether the client has paid us or not. There is someone here from 8 A.M. to 9 P.M. to answer the phone and deal with both trainers and training centers. The trainer only has one invoice to deal with, and the travel expenses are usually prepaid.

Mastrocolla: And we have a huge instructor base. We currently have 3,500 instructors registered with us.

TR: How many of those stay busy?
We keep about 400 of them busy on a consistent basis.

TR: What does that mean, ‘busy on a consistent basis?’
Mastrocolla: As busy as they want to be. They are booked every week unless they tell us they are taking a week off.

TR: And the other 3,100?
Fischer: They get used on a case-by-case basis. Some of them don’t want to travel and only want local work, so we can only call them when the need is within driving distance. Some of them are less experienced, or their skills aren’t in demand. This is very much a supply-and-demand business.

Remember, we only get called if the training center can’t staff something internally. Most training centers have someone in-house who can teach NT 4. So, even though there are lots of NT 4 classes out there, we don’t get as many calls for them, because there are so many people who can teach that.

TR: So what are you getting calls for?
Fischer: 90 percent of our work is certification-track classes and higher-end technical classes; we rarely get any calls for desktop training. The breakdown by subject is about 20 percent NT, 20 percent programming, 20 percent Novell and Lotus, 20 percent high-end server products like Exchange, and 20 percent everything else.

Conant: Novell was dwindling for a while but seems to be picking back up.

TR: What’s happening with development training?
Mastrocolla: Growing, growing, growing. Internet stuff, e-commerce, the new CIW cert—all are huge. Lots of demand for application development stuff, especially server stuff.

Conant: Visual InterDev is huge, as is XML. And of course, everyone needs Visual Basic instructors.

Mastrocolla: And SQL folks.

TR: What about the traditional languages, like C++?
Fischer: C++ is a good example of supply-and-demand. We consider it a high-demand class, not because we get continuous calls for it—we don’t—but because we only have about 12 instructors that we send out for it regularly. So, all the calls we get are hard to fill. The demand exceeds the supply, so those 12 are able to charge more.

TR: Speaking of charging, tell me what’s up with rates?
It depends on the technology and the demand.

Conant: Windows 2000 is a good example. When it first came out, certified instructors were getting $1000 a day. Now it’s down to $600 a day.

TR: So it really ebbs and flows, depending on what’s hot and how many people can teach it?
Conant: Right. And then there’s T&E.

Fischer: T&E is driving this industry right now.

TR: I’m scared to ask—T&E?
Conant: Travel and expenses. Everyone wants someone local or within driving distance.

Mastrocolla: Often we’ll tell the instructor, “Look, we hate to ask this, but if you want this class you’re going to have to come off your rate some. Otherwise, they’re going to take the local instructor, even though he’s less qualified, simply because they won’t have to pay T&E.” We give the instructor the choice, because sometimes it means working or not working.

Getting in the door is the key. Often, if you are a good instructor, they will want you back the next time, but they won’t know how good you are unless you teach that first class for them. So, sometimes it makes sense to drop your rates 10 to 12 percent for the first class for a particular center, simply so they get to know you.

TR: But I thought earlier you said you sell good value, not good price.
Fischer: We do. We always emphasize value to the centers. They’ll tell us they’ve got someone local at a certain rate, and we’ll respond, “Yes, but look at their resume versus our guy. Our instructor has taught this class 1,500 times, has implemented the product for a number of large corporations, and has gotten great evals for us for many years. Your person, on the other hand, is a paper MCSE who has only taught for six months. Who is going to bring more value to your students?”

Of course, it doesn’t always work. We can push the value proposition to a point but only to a point.

TR: What point?
Fischer: About $200 above market. If you are really good, then we can usually get you work at up to $200 above market but no further.

TR: Where do you see the market going? What are the key issues right now?
Conant: Real-world experience is the key right now. Everyone wants instructors who have hands-on experience, because quality is so important. Training centers are going after repeat business.

Fischer: There’s a shakedown going on, because training has become a commodity. Anytime you have commoditization, the keys become value, price, and quality. For example, in one town there were 25 Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centers a year ago. When we had the Y2K-related drop off in training last year, the ones that had been running fly-by-night operations started shutting down, because they didn’t have the quality trainers. Now there are five CTECs left.

Also, the quality of training is going up. Microsoft has raised the bar, and that is going to ripple across the industry.

Mastrocolla: Also, we are getting more and more centers who want the trainer to work with the sales staff. A trainer who knows how to ‘upsell’—sell the next class—is valuable to a center. Not coercion; just being sensitive to students that are ready and interested in moving forward.

TR: So where do you see The Associates going?
Fischer: Demand is going to continue to increase because training is growing across the industry. We are going to continue to expand our trainer base and our training center clients. In addition, we are going to be working even closer with our trainers, helping them understand and pursue their instructor careers. In short, I think everyone who delivers a quality-training product is going to continue to see growth.
What trends do you see in the training industry currently? Have you taken an interesting route to your current job? Write to Bruce and share you ideas about this article or suggest a topic for another.

Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville, KY.