At a recent meeting of an engineering consultancy it was passionately said “We do not own oil fields, we do not manufacture, we derive our income from our people. Without Good people we cannot succeed”

I am not sure who said that, but whoever it was has a real understanding of what is important in any business, not just consultancies. All business is based on people. It is people that operate the equipment; it is people that build the infrastructure and it is people that create our income. And if we ignore that fact then we are heading for the short slide into oblivion.

In good times it is easy to focus on the needs of the workforce; it is simple to spend time and money on improving working condition and those ‘touchy; feely” things that make people want to work for us.

But what happens in tough times? When budgets are gone over to find areas for cost cutting where does the axe usually fall? Is it on the infrastructure? – Er… No. Well is it on the equipment then? – Well, we possibly will not go ahead with that costly purchase, but we certainly won’t start selling off our equipment without real good cause! But our people? Well – have a guess!

It will be the workforce that is the first casualty of any recession, real or imagined. They will be the first to be ‘downsized’. And the next thing to be slashed because of cash-flow difficulties will be the ongoing training of the remainder. Training becomes an expensive option which many companies feel they cannot justify in tough times.

And with the realisation that training can be costly the very need for ongoing training often gets questioned. One of the best discussions I have read about the value of training is the White Paper produced by IBM The Value of Training – The sub title of this white paper tells it like it is – ‘The High Cost of Doing Nothing”!

Skills development and training programs, often a target of budget cuts, may help organizations achieve … corporate objectives and enhance their overall corporate culture.”

Perhaps instead of slashing existing programmes we need to consider what the training is meant to achieve. With the Training Guarantee Scheme (In Australia) there came an attitude that training must be carried out or face getting taxed; so any training would do.

In many companies there was little thought given to what training was best suited to achieve their goals, or to improve the retention of the workforce. And even when some considered thought was given to the problem the emphasis was on “Hard Skills” rather than “Soft Skills”. As hard skills have a direct and measurable impact on people’s ability to perform routine or required tasks, this was at least one aspect of increased productivity which was obvious.

What is not so obvious is the subtle necessity for some very specific soft skills. ‘Soft Skills’ are often more directed to relationships and inter-personal behaviours. Some companies often shove these off into what they determine as ‘personal development’ courses, which employees love to attend, but have very little value to the company as a whole.

But this is narrow thinking, and even more so in difficult times. It is the soft skills that develop our people as a whole; that gives them the creativity, for instance, to find better ways of doing things with less. That improves performance without increasing costs by better communications. That inspires them to go that one step further for us without counting the costs.

Soft Skill training exposes our staff to new ideas and behaviours which can also be utilised in their personal lives, and it is this extra dimension that makes for stronger employees.

So while times are indeed getting tough, and the forecast is predicting possible stormier times ahead; I don’t believe that this is the right time to be cutting our investment in the future. We need to ensure that we have the right people in place for us grasp the first faint opportunities when the change comes.

If I can use a farming analogy – cattle breeders know that in times of drought it is sometimes necessary to cut back on the herd size; but they will fight tooth and nail to maintain their breeding stock – because without these, when the drought breaks (as it always eventually does) they will have no means of taking advantage of the improved conditions.

Training is an investment, and it is a sign of confidence for your employees. It means that you believe that there is a future ahead, and by investing in the development of your employees it means that you will have right people in the right place at the right time, – for when the drought breaks.

Michele @ Trischel

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