Opinion

Behind Closed Doors: Training? Leave it all to the other guy

In such straitened times, companies are even less inclined to shell out on expensive courses for staff who may pack their bags once they've got their new skills to take with them. Colin Beveridge suggests some solutions.

Looks like it's time to get out the handcuffs again.

Don't worry, I'm not about to embark on a politically incorrect account of my impending visit to Amsterdam with the other guys from the Leeds United mailing list - I am referring to the staff training programme and how I can use it to secure my best people for another year or so.

Now, if your company is like mine, your IT department may well have an obligation to provide personal development plans and associated training opportunities for all staff. Generally speaking, these are closely linked to individual and departmental objectives, forming an important aspect of routine performance appraisals.

This is a really great idea in principle, but not always sincerely realised in practice. Either because the training budget doesn't exist in the first place, or it becomes a very early casualty in the annual budget round challenge; which is a pity.

It seems that far too many IT directors and managers still don't recognise the true value of providing ongoing development training for their hard-won staff. Despite the fact that our industry has allegedly been suffering from an insoluble skills crisis for the past 30 years - most of us still prefer to buy in the finished article, rather than growing our own.

Sure, I understand that we can't always wait for new skills to develop organically and we often need immediate access to state-of-the-art expertise. I do live in the real world, where market forces
"It's a good job that other professions don't follow IT's example. If they did, I for one would want to look very closely at the staff training records before I submitted myself to medical or dental surgery. Or, perhaps before I buckled myself into an aircraft seat?"
Colin Beveridge
come into play and strong demand always drives up the premium for rarer skills: those skills which we all need now but which we have not adequately planned to acquire for ourselves.

We have all seen and smiled at the job adverts asking for two years of experience in software or hardware that is less than a year old - but, hey, these job specs weren't dreamed up by the naïve little agency representatives who are handling the requirement.

No, we - the employers -are to blame. We are the ones who deliberately create the churn that drives staff turnover, repeatedly robbing Peter to pay Paul by hoping to recruit staff that someone else has trained.

Such is life you may be thinking. This is just a normal part of the IT industry career ladder - regularly moving on to a new company every other year, getting some new skills and then moving on again to exploit their true market value, through increased salary or by turning freelance.

No wonder then that many companies are so reluctant to provide their existing staff with training in new, marketable, skills. No wonder also, that a large proportion of their longer serving in-house staff may be well beyond their personal "best before" dates.

At the moment, though, we are undeniably in the midst of a technology downturn and, no doubt, this has already translated into a wide-scale and severe reduction in the recruitment of IT staff - just look at how thin the jobs section in the weekly trade press have become over the past year.

Every day it seems national news broadcasts are filled with disheartening announcements of further large-scale job losses in our sector. IT is well and truly on the front line of this downturn and there is little that you or I can do about it. We have to ride the storm.

In most normal years, this would be good news for IT employers - a "buyers' market", allowing us to avoid paying through the nose for essential staff. Sorry, if that sounded a little bit too harsh for those of you already on the receiving end - but that's the way it is.

However, for the next year at least, we are unlikely to be able to exploit the situation by recruiting the finished article for our vacancies, even though they may be cheaper than usual, because our headcount limit is capped. Furthermore, general budget cuts will also make it harder to use consultants and contractors to fill our skills shortages. Talk about rocks and hard places.

At the moment, anybody with any sense who has a good job with a reliable employer is probably keeping their head down, waiting for the inevitable turn of the cycle. More than ever, I believe, that now is the time to sit tight and, if possible, build on personal skill-sets as insurance for the future. Of course, this will create an even stronger than usual pressure from staff for training.

So all of this indicates that a number of factors are steadily coalescing into a compelling argument to make a number of department heads seriously reconsider their previously unreceptive attitude towards staff training and development.

Which is where I go back to my opening remark about the handcuffs

In the past, the argument against paying for our staff to refresh their technical skills has usually been along the lines of "why should I pay five grand for them to improve their chances of getting a better job somewhere else? If I pay for this course they will just leave us even sooner".

It's a good job that other professions don't follow suit. If they did, I for one would want to look very closely at the staff training records before I submitted myself to medical or dental surgery. Or, perhaps before I buckled myself into an aircraft seat? After all, would you be happy to fly if you knew that the pilots had not been trained for a specific aircraft, or indeed any modern aircraft since the Dakota in which they originally qualified? I think not.

And yet, we do expect our IT people to be able to pick things up as they go along, almost by osmosis, even when their output may be critical to the success of the business, or personal safety. This is just another of the questionable management techniques that we like to keep safely hidden from our colleagues- behind the closed doors of the data centre.

The answer though is fairly simple.

We CAN provide our staff with the training they would like and that we require for them to do a good job. All we need to do is to protect our investment. A simple "training contract" between the employee and employer should benefit both sides and be relatively simple to implement.

If both sides agree the potential mutual value of a training investment, say £5,000 for a particular course, the employer will pay for the course, subject to an agreed rate of return with the employee, ie. the period over which the employer may derive real or perceived benefit from providing the opportunity.

In this way, by remaining with their employer, the retained employee sees their training "account" credited by their grateful employer, for the duration of the training contract, and both parties derive longer-term benefit from the investment.

Premature termination of employment during the training benefit period, by either party, would, naturally incur an appropriate compensation to the other party.

This all seems too easy to me; which is probably why it doesn't happen very often.

Is Colin right or just an old (metaphorically speaking) cynic?
Are you are deliriously happy with the status quo in the area of training or do you think Colin's ideas make sense? Please say whether you are happy for us to publish an edited version of your email and if possible supply your job title .> >Send an e-mail.


Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development, services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, such as Shell, British Petroleum, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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This was first published in February 2002

 

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