Chain of Thought

Don't Assume Your Training Program Is Worth the Effort

The political waters have become so muddied that these days, even the idea of training now has taken on negative connotations. A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, suggests that taxpayer-funded job training programs are so ineffective that the only thing they teach is bad work habits.

Reacting to President Obama's recent proposal of new federal job-training programs for young people and the long-term unemployed, author James Bovard observed that “the federal government has experimented with these programs for almost a half century. The record is one of failure and scandal.”

As Bovard sees it, these training programs typically end up costing the trainees where it hurts the most: in their wallets. One study he cites, for instance, determined that one such government training effort resulted in “significant losses for young men of all races and no significant effects for young women.” Too often, he says, these training programs offer little more than pointless busy work for the trainees (e.g., studying butterfly habitats), and are emblematic of what happens when bureaucracies attempt to justify their existences.

Okay, so let's assume for the sake of discussion that Bovard's point is a valid one, but what he's talking about are government programs. What about training efforts in the private sector? As it turns out, even company-led training programs leave much to be desired.

According to Nick Goebel, global training services manager with Rockwell Automation, manufacturers often lack a basic understanding of whether or not their training programs address the skills gap their workforce is facing. As reported by our sister publication, IndustryWeek, too often managers approach the idea of training as being “a one-off engagement.” Goebel suggests that instead of taking such a narrow view of training, managers should follow three basic steps to ensure their efforts will pay off:

1. Assess your workforce's skills to ensure you're focusing on the right things.

2. Customize the training programs to your team's specific needs.

3. Provide your employees with the right tools to perform the skills they'll be learning.

Echoing Goebel's recommendations, particularly point # 3, is Laurie Keyser Brunner, senior VP of global client services with consulting firm ESI International. There is the assumption, Brunner says, “that training translates into an actual transfer of learning in the classroom to changed performance on-the-job. For this to happen, organizations must develop a supportive and complementary workplace environment, where management, business processes and supporting tools all permit the learner to apply new knowledge and skills immediately upon return to work.”

Too often, she notes, companies fail to establish success criteria or identify expectations for the training program. Quantification is a critical step in validating the business case for training. “Producing quantitative and qualitative reports and other high-level output can help prioritize training investments based on real, tangible data showing job impact.”

Postscript: Nick Goebel of Rockwell Automation, whom I quoted above, sent along the following comment in response to my blog post:

David, thanks for calling attention to the importance of training today's workforce. The point I was making in the IndustryWeek article, rather than questioning the worthiness of training programs, is that in fact there are many manufacturers who are doing a great job of training their staff – indeed, the best practices I outlined there are reflective of the strategies many of our customers are taking in their own operations. The next step is to unite manufacturers, educators, and government organizations to share these best practices and ensure training programs, curriculums and funding policies develop and integrate at the same pace so that the workforce is able to thrive in this complex manufacturing environment.

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