Training on a Budget

In tough economic times many companies slash their training budgets, thinking that training is expendable. This, according to the author, is ill-advised. Training is not an expense to be minimized; it is an investment that pays dividends by helping workers do their jobs more effectively so that they can positively impact a company's bottom line.

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Maximizing Your Training Dollars in Challenging Economic Times

In tough economic times many companies slash their training budgets, thinking that training is expendable. This is, in my opinion, corporate suicide. Training is not an expense to be minimized; it is an investment that pays dividends by helping workers do their jobs more effectively so that they can positively impact a company’s bottom line. Anything that improves profitability should be pursued, particularly when times are tough and profit is hard to come by.

This article will address the importance of continuing to spend money on training when times are tough, what training options are available, and how to maximize what you get for your training dollars.

How training saves labs money

I have made my living for more than 17 years as an independent trainer through my company, Spectros Associates. In that time, thousands of people have attended my lectures, and I have seen many examples of how training has helped companies save money or how timely and appropriate training would have saved money had it been pursued. Below are a few examples:

I once taught a course at a facility that was using a sample preparation technique that was time-consuming and destructive to the sample. I introduced the facility to a faster and easier method of sample preparation that was nondestructive. I heard from the company later that it had saved $20,000 in person-hours and material costs in the first month by adopting the new sampling technique. Thus, the training paid for itself in less than four weeks. How’s that for a return on investment?

In another example, a course attendee’s company had recently purchased $150,000 worth of analytical equipment for use on a specific project. However, the company was having difficulty getting any usable data from its samples. After we discussed the company’s problems, it became apparent that the instrument it bought was not sensitive enough to yield the information the company desired. Ultimately, the instrument was mothballed and the people were reassigned to other projects. This wasted not only the $150,000 spent on the instrument but also six months of workers’ time. If the workers had received the right kind of training before the company spent all that money, things would have turned out differently.

A final anecdote to prove my point

An analytical lab was trying to develop a quantitative spectroscopic method to measure the concentration of a molecule in a new product. Hundreds of man-hours were spent trying to obtain a reproducible and accurate calibration—a goal that was never achieved. Manufacture of the new product was delayed for several months as a result. When I was called in to give an on-site training course, I discovered that because of the sample preparation technique being used, the path length of the samples was not controlled. If you are familiar with Beer’s law, you know that the path length must be known in order to achieve reproducible concentration measurements using absorbance spectroscopy. Ultimately, a better sample preparation technique that controlled path length was used, the desired calibration was obtained, and manufacture of the new product began. The cost of hundreds of man-hours spent futilely trying to develop a quantitative method was considerable, not to mention the loss of sales from the delay in introducing the product. Some training in the fundamentals of spectroscopy would have prevented this problem.

These stories are not unusual; they are commonplace. In tough economic times, any activity that makes a lab run more efficiently should be pursued, perhaps even more so than when times are flush, because there are so few ways in a down economy to positively impact the bottom line. Training is one of these opportunities. Another reason to continue to fund training is that as workers are laid off, those left behind have new and unfamiliar job responsibilities thrust upon them. The only way to get these workers up to speed in their jobs quickly and efficiently is through training.

Getting the most from your training dollars

Now that I have convinced you to continue spending money on training in these tough economic times, the question is how to get good training at a good price. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the key training delivery methods—online training, on-site training, and public training:

Online training

Online training is also referred to as Internet training or webinars. In this type of training, users log on to a website where they can view an instructor’s PowerPoint® presentation. The instructor and attendees talk to each other over a conference call or the Internet. Typically, the instructor can add text and graphics to slides while lecturing, as if using a blackboard, and can show attendees screen views of websites of interest or other programs running on his or her computer. Attendees can communicate with the instructor by speaking, using an Internet chat function, or activating an icon similar to raising one’s hand. Anyone with a telephone line and a high-speed Internet connection can participate in online training.

The beauty of online training is that there are no travel costs. Attendees do not have to travel to the instructor and the instructor does not have to travel to the attendees, saving thousands of dollars. This type of training also makes great sense if there are attendees at scattered locations, because none of them has to travel. Online training is also convenient; it can be done from the comfort of your own office. Lastly, no travel time is needed to take online training, freeing up lab workers for more important pursuits and increasing lab efficiency. For these reasons, online training is good at stretching training budgets during tough economic times.

Despite the many advantages of online training, it is not perfect. Online training is new and the technology is still evolving. As an online training instructor, I have encountered a number of technical glitches while teaching, including completely losing contact with my class. Online training is also new to many people, so they may be reluctant to take a risk on what they consider an untried training delivery method. After talking to attendees who have attended both online and in-person training courses, I can report that some people’s learning styles are not well suited to online training and they prefer to be in the same room as the instructor. As an online training instructor, my biggest frustration is the lack of human interaction. I find that no matter how hard I try, people ask fewer questions and are less interactive online than they are in person. Opportunities to ask questions and impart knowledge are thus lost. Additionally, I miss being able to see the faces of my attendees, which frequently tell me who understands what I am saying and who is lost. This makes it more difficult to adjust the content and pace of a lecture to a group’s needs.

Live training

The advantages of live training are that it has been around for a long time and people are comfortable with it. Having everyone in the same room means that handson instruction is available, which is impossible over the Internet. Live training also has the advantage of the most effective interactive training tool ever developed… raising the hand. Because the instructor and attendees can see and hear each other, the opportunities for interaction, and thus the exchange of information, are maximized. The disadvantages of live training are the inconvenience and expense of the travel it requires. I divide live training into two categories: on-site training and public training.

On-site training

On-site training entails the instructor traveling to a company location to train a group of people. The beauty of on-site training is that it can be customized. Any onsite trainer worth his or her salt will sit down with you to talk about your instrumentation, types of samples analyzed, applications, and the experience levels of attendees. A good trainer will then put together a customized on-site training course that caters to your needs. On-site training also minimizes the cost of training per attendee. The cost of training 5 or 25 people at your site is about the same, so the more people who attend, the lower the cost per person. In my experience, on-site training makes economic sense if there are three or more people at a given location who need training.

On-site training is also convenient because the sessions are normally held somewhere proximal to the attendees’ workplace. On-site training enjoys the advantages and suffers the disadvantages of live training discussed above. A unique disadvantage of on-site training is that since people are close to their workplaces, they can become easily distracted by e-mails and voice mails, or they may be pulled away from the course to work on other business. These situations prevent attendees from learning important material that may be critical for their jobs and waste the money being spent on training. A solution to this problem is to hold on-site training courses away from the workplace, such as at a hotel or conference center.

Public training

Public training sessions are open to whoever pays tuition and are typically held in hotel meeting rooms. There is frequently diversity in the knowledge and experience levels in a group like this, and it gives attendees the opportunity to learn from each other in addition to learning from the instructor. Another advantage of public courses is that, since they are held away from the workplace, there are fewer distractions to interfere with the efficient transfer of knowledge from the instructor to attendees. A drawback of public courses is that, due to the diversity of the people in attendance, they are not customized. Also, public courses involve paying tuition and travel costs for one or more individuals, which actually increases the cost of training per head. However, if only one or two people need training, public courses are still a viable option. Public courses enjoy the advantages and suffer the disadvantages of live training discussed above

No worker or analysis is perfect, and in any given lab costly mistakes are going to be made.

However, training gives you the knowledge to avoid costly mistakes and change procedures to improve operations. Particularly when budgets are tight, you can’t afford to continue to make mistakes. Training is a good investment of a company’s money in any economic climate, but it is particularly valuable in a down economy.

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Show me the Money

Published: October 1, 2009

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So far, nearly 5,000 grants totalling over $1 billion have been awarded by NIH. Most have been awarded to research labs at large universities and small colleges, while some have been awarded to small, privately owned research and product development companies.