In challenging financial times, the training budget is often one of the first things cut. But that doesn’t mean your employees should do without. Here are some suggestions for inexpensive but effective methods to achieve your employee development goals.
1. Take advantage of networking groups. Many industry associations offer education for members at monthly meetings, at annual conferences and online, and some offer the added credentialing of professional industry certification. Beyond landscape associations, get involved with the associations of your customers. It helps you network and keep up with trends in your customers’ industry and may even open doors to a wider range of training opportunities for your employees.
2. Foster peer-to-peer learning. Having your employees teach each other is a great way to share best practices, teach new employees old subject matter and maybe even teach some of your old dogs new tricks.
Cross training: Cross train jobs shouldn’t only cover someone going on extended leave. Treated as a regular part of training, with a predictable schedule of job rotation, you can not only ensure that your employees are flexible, but you will create an engaged work force that understands the big picture and is stimulated by the challenge of continuous learning.
Lunch-and-learns: Modify the traditional office-based format to benefit your field-based employees. Send a production expert to have lunch with the crew and solicit their ideas to improve efficiency. One afternoon a month, bring your crews back to the yard early for a “lunch-truck-and-learn” where team members can highlight their successes and share production tips and techniques.
And don’t underestimate the value of a “breakfast with the brass” where your top executives host various functional groups for breakfast, listening to their feedback and showing them how they fit into the success of the overall business.
Weekly book club: Choose a business book and have team members read a chapter per week. At the end of every week have a team member lead a lunch meeting where everyone discusses what they learned and brainstorms how to apply those lessons to your business.
3. Partner with who you know. Ask your vendors what’s new. Check with government agencies or university extension programs for free resources. Is there a community center you can use for training space in exchange for volunteer services? Can your customers provide a venue or education on topics that are important to their business?
Here’s a real life example: When budget cuts threatened one company’s training calendar, it partnered with a customer, local government and three long-time vendors to create a day-long program that offered hands-on workshops in horticulture, irrigation and equipment maintenance. The company held the program at a nearby botanical garden, which allowed in-house experts to lead a plant identification tour in the afternoon.
A representative from city government gave a presentation and answered questions about new water regulations. Lunch was provided by another vendor, who was given time during the meal to present a few new products. The entire day cost only a few hundred dollars, but employees left feeling energized with tools and information they could apply immediately to better serve their customers.
4. Train the trainer. There are some skills only a professional can teach, so you will likely have to rely on some formalized training programs. If you are training multiple people, you can save time and money by bringing a trainer on site. If your budget won’t support that, then identify someone within the company who has strong communication skills along with the patience to help others learn. Send them to the classes and have them come back prepared to share what they’ve learned.
5. Encourage self-study. Develop a supplementary course of study that will help employees achieve their own career goals by customizing the learning.
Online training: Online courses are a great way for employees to learn at their own pace with a course of study tailored to their career goals. Check with your local Small Business Development Center (SBA.gov) for free or low-cost options. Other resources include: Dale Carnegie, BizLibrary, Learning Tree and the Business Training Institute.
Book lists: Customize lists of business books by topics relevant to a specific career track. For example, a field employee who wants to get into management can enhance his competency with books on leadership, management skills, communication and budgeting. Someone on a sales track may benefit from topics such as customer service, effective listening and project management. And leaders at every level should never stop learning about new ways to motivate, communicate and strategize.
Community resources: Toastmasters International is a non-profit group with chapters all over the country that will help an individual improve communication, public speaking and leadership skills. Community colleges and adult education programs, often based in public high schools and tech schools, offer low-cost courses on a variety of topics from computer software to business to English as a second language. If you have enough employees interested, some schools may even send instructors on site.
The author is an independent communications consultant in Glenwood, Md.
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