Employers are beginning to realise benefits of training

While there are clear advantages in offering training, employers have been slow to communicate it as a valuable benefit says Nick Golding

Whenever workplace training is mentioned, there will always be a group of employers that believe staff equipped with new-found knowledge will show their gratitude by going off to work elsewhere, at worst for a competitor.

However, Jim Hillage, director of research at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), says: "This is an urban myth among employers. Occasionally, you’ll get people moving about but what generally happens is that an employee who receives the most amount of training is more likely to stay rather than move."

Training is increasingly being seen as a valuable benefit that not only helps to recruit and retain staff, but one which helps businesses to be better able to compete with the emerging economies of China and India. This last point was recognised in the Leitch report Prosperity for the global economy: World class skills, published last year, which also proposed legislative measures forcing employers to provide staff with access to training at work.

Employers, so far, have been slow to take steps to promote training as a benefit and to put a value on it as part of a total reward strategy. But that is likely to change.

Training at work not only incorporates practical on-the-job coaching to help staff perform in their current role, it can also involve offering employees the opportunity to learn or develop skills that stretch them beyond the boundaries of their job, and allow them to explore different skills to help with their career progression. The value of the benefit can then be communicated to staff through the likes of total reward statements.

Links to total reward
Some training may not always be directly work-related, however. Languages at Lunch, for example, offers employees the chance to learn foreign languages onsite during their lunch hour. Rob Geraghty, managing director of the firm, explains: "Although job-specific training is important, there are other options that are available and not things that will necessarily be associated with the employee’s immediate role."

Buckinghamshire County Council recognises that training is a benefit for staff. Its various programmes are promoted alongside perks such as its pension scheme and flexible working options, and will soon be included in its total reward strategy.

Gillian Hibberd, corporate director, organisational development and HR, says: "We don’t have total reward yet, but when we do we will certainly include training as one of the benefits."

Publishing firm Oxford University Press has also moved beyond the traditional way of thinking when it comes to training. Even if employees do leave, it believes that training can be a key benefit that is capable of prompting them to return. Lorna Bevan, training and development director, explains: "We [believe] that if we provide really good training, some employees may leave, but we often get them back again, and while they are away, they talk very highly of the company."

The organisation also views training as a means by which it can secure long-term employee stability, reduce labour turnover, and limit the disruptions that ever-changing personnel brings.

As is common with many employee benefits, training can also be effective as a recruitment tool, luring top talent to an organisation with the promise of future career development. This is particularly key when looking to recruit graduates, who frequently rate training as being high on their list of priorities when looking for their first position.

In fact, the Graduates in the workplace survey published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in 2006, revealed that 90% of those employees who graduated in 2000, cited training and development as an important aspect of a new role.

Using training as a bartering tool, therefore, can help employers to compete effectively for this talent pool rather than relying solely on cash or other financial benefits. "Graduates have become quite discerning about their career prospects and, in some cases, may take a lower salary if they thought the training and development programme would enable them to get to where they want to be in a relatively short space of time," says IES’ Hillage.

Oxford University Press uses its constantly-evolving training programmes to entice top talent and graduates. "What we know about talented people is that they are looking for personal development and training, so we are constantly looking at the range of training programmes we offer," explains Bevan.

Motivating staff
For some organisations, workplace training has begun to replace traditional benefits such as occupational pension schemes as a long-term retention tool for younger employees. They use the prospect of career development as a lever to secure a pledge from staff to a future with the firm.

"We may have a perfectly good pension scheme, but it’s not at the top of the list with the younger age bracket. They are looking for career development," explains Bevan.

Developing employees’ skills can also have positive implications for the way that they work. Some experts in workplace learning believe that training has direct links to encouraging employees to feel more recognised at work.

In much the same way as a one-off cash bonus or a motivational programme can be used to recognise the efforts of an employee, training acknowledges the fact that staff want to develop and progress. "This is part of the psychological benefit of training. I think employees do feel as though their potential is being valued, and that their employer wants them to develop," explains Hillage.

By giving staff a sense of value, employers will benefit from having a well-motivated workforce. "The more training that people receive, the more likely they are to stay in their job, and be more productive," she adds.

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Offering training in areas that are not directly related to an employee’s current role will help to optimise this feeling of being valued and boost ongoing staff motivation levels. "People will value the fact that they are being treated [as] and seen as individuals at work, and are not just capable of working in one area," explains Geraghty.

So it is essential that employers which offer training actively communicate this to staff, whether this occurs at the interview stage, through line managers or on total reward statements. Yet while there are clear advantages in offering training, particularly when it is communicated as part of the reward package, many employers have not yet made this transition. Mark Hoyal, practice leader, talent and leadership in Europe at Hewitt, says: "’Is training in that benefits bracket now?’ I would say it isn’t for many organisations yet, but I think it should be."

One of the reasons for the slow shift in the perception of training as a benefit could lie with the internal make up of an organisation. Although many employers have a dedicated training and development department, there is often no clear link between this and the reward or benefits team. Only by bridging this gap, can the true benefits of training be identified for both employees and employers. "One of the things that we see in most HR functions is that the benefits people never talk to the training people, and this really needs to be more linked up. It is just not joined-up thinking," says Hoyal.

In fact, it is common to have situations where training and development teams, do not work directly with benefits teams, even if they are both part of the human resources department. "There is a gap between the two [at Oxford University Press], as benefits are administered separately, although this is something that is likely to change sometime in the future," says Bevan.

She adds that, going forward, the publishing firm hopes to bring training and development under its total reward banner, where benefits currently sit, and offer a complete package to employees.

"The total reward approach hasn’t bought us all together yet, but I think it will. A lot of people are looking at presenting staff with benefits statements which look at the whole proposition, but I think that is a bit further down the line yet," she explains.

If current government proposals are passed as legislation, however, even employers which are opposed to providing training will have to provide this in some form.

Workplace training became headline news with the publication of the Leitch report in December last year. This proposed a long-term strategy to increase skills levels among UK employees by applying pressure on employers to provide training for staff. Its aim is not only to boost skills in the UK, but also to improve the country’s competitiveness in the global economy, so that by 2020 the country is classed as a world leader in terms of skills.

The report refers to the emerging economies such as India and China and says that if UK businesses are to remain competitive then they must ensure that they have a more highly skilled and trained workforce.

Compliance questions
If the recommendations go ahead, it will become statutory for employers to provide staff with access to training at work. Although no exact level has yet been set as an objective, employers which are not providing sufficient training by 2010, will be forced to comply.

"Lord Leitch is saying that we have to change the game here, we need to incentivise employers to make it easier for them to provide training and make it easier for employees to take that training," says Hillage.

Providers of training programmes agree that for UK industry to compete on a global scale, training levels have to improve.

Martin Prescott, managing director at provider RedPC Services, explains: "There are huge amounts of pressure on the UK government to encourage more employers to train staff because it will result in the UK being more internationally competitive."

So employers that have embraced training, integrated it into their benefits offering and communicated the value of it to staff will be reaping early rewards, while those that haven’t may find that soon they have no choice but to get on board.

Why is training a benefit?

Contrary to popular belief, training can help retain employees by making staff feel that their employer is interested in developing and investing in their career.

Training can also be an effective recruitment tool as many graduates are beginning to prioritise career development above starting salaries. For many individuals, it is about long-term progression rather than short-term rewards.

Employees that are offered training opportunities at work may perceive it to be a form of recognition or reward as their employer is prepared to invest in them.

Staff who feel they are recognised and valued by their employer will be more motivated at work. This can have a positive impact on retention and productivity levels.

Case study – Bucking the trend

Buckinghamshire County Council has found that training is a popular benefit among staff. Feedback from its annual benefits survey shows that training is consistently rated as one of the organisation’s top three perks. For this reason, it plans to offer each employee a minimum of five days training and development this year.

The learning programmes on offer include language lessons, keyboard skills, and secondments to different departments. Employees must agree on the type of training they will take with managers.

Gillian Hibberd, corporate director, organisational development and HR, says: "We like to offer our staff the type of training that will help them progress within the organisation."

She also believes that the training programmes that are on offer are a huge attraction to applicants during the recruitment process. "It is one of the things that makes people want to come and work here. In fact, the reason I left the retail sector for local government was because of the training and progression opportunities," she adds.

It puts particular emphasis on training for social workers. "We can’t recruit social workers, so we literally have to grow our own. We recruit them and then put them through the training," says Hibberd.