Training trauma

A number of ITers feel their employers are letting them down when it comes to providing career development and training, and the...

A number of ITers feel their employers are letting them down when it comes to providing career development and training, and the downturn is exacerbating the problem. Nick Langley reports.

Katharine, who works in IT support in the Cambridge office of a law firm, is looking for a new job. Twice this year she has been booked into a team leadership course; twice her manager has pulled her out, saying pressure of events at work means she cannot be spared.

Funding for training is not the problem. Because the cancellations were so late, Katharine's employer almost certainly forfeited the full course fee both times. The truth is that, following downsizing in the department, there simply are not enough people left to cover Katharine's workload while she trains.

A recent graduate with a good degree in a non-IT subject, Katharine was promised rapid promotion when she took the job. She is now angry and demoralised. But far from showing understanding of her frustration, her manager criticised her attitude at her last appraisal.

A commitment to employee development is as important as environmental and social awareness to today's corporate image. Of the UK workforce, 24% (5.5 million people) are employed by companies that have met the Investors In People standard for their commitment, planning, action and evaluation of staff training issues.

The IT sector seems to be doing marginally better in this area than other industries. According to the May bulletin from E-Skills UK, the employer-led organisation that promotes IT training in UK businesses, 31% of employees in IT firms received job-related training during the first quarter of this year, compared to 28% in the UK workforce overall.

However, anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that employers and workers alike feel things are still not right. In another E-Skills UK survey, 46% of UK businesses admitted their IT workforce would be more productive if it had better skills. In the US, only 30% of respondents in a Lucent survey of network professionals' job satisfaction said their companies' formal training programmes meet their professional needs. And 8% of respondents to an Open University survey of the workplace training arrangements of business students ticked the "Staff development? You must be joking!" box.

Katharine's situation is not unusual. The recent torrent of redundancies has left surviving staff with more than enough to do. Many employers have their attention focused on the ground just ahead, making a long-term commitment to a programme of training impossible. Budget cuts are also a problem, as reflected in the parlous state of the IT training sector. "The cutting of training programmes and budgets in times of recession is a classic example of the lack of strategic role given to training, and the short-term constraints of many managers," says Caroline Lloyd of Warwick University, author of a report on workplace training in the UK.

However, many employers would probably be prepared to stump up, if only staff could be spared from their duties. "With the workforce in many organisations kept to a minimum, providing cover for workers being trained is seen as a greater constraint than the cost of training itself," Lloyd says.

One company Lloyd investigated had gained Investors in People recognition but still failed to provide appraisals for all of its employees, and training remained ad hoc and informal. "Training and development was more likely to be provided for those employees with high levels of mobility who would be difficult to replace. There appeared to be a conflict of interest between individual employees' desires for training and development, and managerial short-term aims," she says.

The economic downturn cuts both ways when it comes to employers' reluctance to invest in training. On the one hand, they are less worried that staff will take the training and go to a rival for more money. On the other, with people clinging to their jobs, there is less reason to offer training as an incentive to stay.

Whether it is used as a staff retention gimmick or a genuine effort to boost effectiveness and productivity, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a lot of workplace training is missing its target. One reason is that little of the training on offer is tailored for the trainee. If managers are thinking short-term and working within tight budgets it is cheaper to send lots of employees on broad-based commodity training, even if it means a lot of them sit fuming for hours while they wait for the bit that is relevant to them.

E-learning - training delivered to the desktop when time permits - has the potential to put the trainee in control of what they learn. But the high drop-out rates on e-learning courses suggest they are not delivering what people want. Once again, economies of scale are to blame.

The reasons why businesses opt for e-learning are overwhelmingly economic: people stay at their desks and so are available to work if required; they don't incur travel and accommodation costs; and the courses are much cheaper that classroom-based training. But to meet the demand for low-cost, off-the-shelf training, e-learning courseware providers are forced to concentrate on high-volume generic content.

The e-learning business has been rethinking its propositions lately, and is beginning to offer more focused material that can be delivered in bite-size chunks.

However, for e-learning to be effective employees must be willing to find time to train themselves within their hectic work schedule. Many people already find themselves staying beyond their contracted hours to get their work done. E-learning will eat even further into their personal time. And, if they get round to it at all, it will be when they are tired.

Employers that go the e-training route are sidestepping the requirement to schedule time for employees to learn. Another Open University survey found that the majority of employees (72%) would prefer to have both an annual allowance of training time and an individual budget that would enable them to choose the course they felt they needed.

IT professionals rarely have reason to envy people who work behind the counters of the financial sector, but on this issue the banks may have got it right. Many branches open half an hour later one day a week to allow time for staff training. Of course, this is only possible because bank employees do regular and predictable jobs. But unless IT employers are prepared to offer time off for training, provide staff to cover your absence and ensure that you actually get to the course you are booked on, there will be plenty more people like Katharine: angry, demoralised, and waiting for the first opportunity to jump ship.

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