I read an article in The Wall Street Journal the other day that analyzed problems with the U.S. Army’s advertising campaigns for new recruits. Concerned about failures to reach its recruiting goals, the Army commissioned a study of its current advertising efforts. The study recommended the Army stop emphasizing the “cash for college” focus of recent ad efforts. Instead, it suggested that the Army should concentrate on its core values of patriotism, discipline, and pride.

In other words, the Army should play to its strengths.

I think this same lesson applies when you try to solve the problem of retaining your best IT trainers. As you probably know even better than I, the IT job glut is enticing many good trainers to leave the classroom. Training managers are pulling their hair out, fearful that their best people will leave.

Rather than try to compete with the IT jobs that seduce so many good technical trainers, you need to concentrate on what attracts trainers to the classroom in the first place. In this column, I’ll give you some tips on how to do just that.

But first, let’s talk about money
Whenever I talk about staff retention, the first thing I hear about is money: “How can I compete with the salaries my folks are being offered? How can I pay a trainer the same salary she could make as an Exchange Administrator?”

The short answer is: You can’t.

With certain exceptions, the truth of the matter is that most training departments cannot compete with salaries from IT departments. Most qualified trainers can make more being a network administrator than training network administrators.

So don’t delude yourself with the fantasy that you’ll someday be able to pay salaries that will make your best trainers invulnerable to offers from other departments or other companies.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make every effort to make your salaries as attractive as possible. But it does mean you should be realistic about what you can hope to achieve.

Playing on your own turf
Fighting the battle solely on the issue of compensation ignores your strengths. When creating a strategy for retaining your IT trainers, fight the battle on your turf.

By that, I mean take an inventory of all the features that make training attractive at your organization. Once you have that list, brainstorm to see if you can make those features even better. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.

It’s about the teaching, stupid! (with apologies to James Carville)
We sometimes forget the lure of teaching itself. After all, for your top trainers, the best part of the job is getting to lead a group of students. If you’ve ever taught, you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about: the chance to impart knowledge to people who are eager to learn.

Granted, it might not be as magical as seeing the face of a child learning to read, but don’t think your IT trainers are immune to those feelings. I’ve talked to a lot of trainers, and almost without exception they enjoy being in front of a group of students. It’s usually not the classroom experience that frustrates your instructors, but other factors.

If you want to keep your best trainers, you need to make the teaching environment as attractive as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Update and maintain the facilities. You wouldn’t want to work in a dump. Why make your trainers teach in one?
  • Prequalify your students. This is so important that I’m going to discuss it in a future column. For now, suffice it to say that nothing is harder for an instructor than trying to teach students who don’t have the prerequisite background for the class.
  • Give your trainers time to prepare. Don’t force your trainers to teach subjects they aren’t prepared for. It’s bad for the students, but even more demoralizing for your trainers.
  • Motivate the students. This shouldn’t solely be the responsibility of the trainer.

Here’s a tip that might work for you when one of your trainers is contemplating leaving for a job in the IT organization proper: Ask if he or she will have to carry a pager in the new job. You could point out that you’ll never have to page them at 2:00 in the morning to teach an emergency Fundamentals of Networking class. While trainers have to work hard, their hours are more regular than someone in, say, network administration or desktop support.
The ability to learn
While this might not be true for all your instructors, one of the things most IT trainers love about their jobs is the ability to learn new skills as they teach. Here are some ways to play to this strength:

  • Mix it up. Don’t force your best trainers to stick with the same courses over and over again. Trainers are no different than anyone else—they need variety. To the extent that your schedules permit, let your trainers teach a number of different classes.
  • Budget training for trainers. If your organization is serious about keeping your trainers, you need to give them opportunities to enhance their skills. This means you’ll have to budget not only money for advanced training, but also time for your trainers to do the training.
  • Pay for certifications. If your trainers require particular certifications to teach specific courses, you need to step up to the plate and pay for those certification exams. (While this might seem obvious to you, there are many organizations that require their instructors to pay for their own tests.)

Talk to your trainers
These are just a couple of the things IT trainers like about their jobs. This list undoubtedly varies from organization to organization. The best way to find out your department’s strengths is to ask your trainers. Find out what they like most about their jobs. Once you know what that is, try to make it better. It’s a more effective strategy for retaining your best trainers than trying to compete on compensation alone.
Have you lost any of your trainers to the lure of a hands-on job and more money? What perks do you offer to keep your trainers? Send us a note and explain how your retention plan works.