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Free Employee Training Gets the Job Done

Employee training was cut during the recession. Now there are free ways to boost workers' skills.

CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Employee training, like other budget items considered non-essential, has taken a hit.

But worker training is a form of recognition that's a win-win for employees and business owners. It shows staff that management is invested in them and their careers, while providing owners with a more efficient, skillful workforce.

The big problem is cost. Standard corporate-training courses are financially out of reach for most small businesses. But there are other ways to expand employees' skill sets by taking advantage of low-cost local resources and economic-development funding.

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The biggest bargain, because it's free, is cross training. Cross training essentially allows workers to swap knowledge. An office manager spends an afternoon with an accountant learning the basics of payroll software; the next day, the office manager shows the accountant how to order supplies and manage the boss's online calendar.

Both employees benefit from learning new skills; they'll also gain a new appreciation for different aspects of the business. It can be especially valuable, in particular, for front- and back-office personnel to shift positions.

There's a big benefit for the owner as well. Each position now has a backup person: someone who knows the essentials of the job and can fill in during busy periods or when a worker is out sick.

But cross training is only as good as the people doing it. Not everyone has the patience to teach a co-worker a new computer program, especially when taking the time to train someone means their own workload piles up). It's also important to make sure both sides are motivated to learn. Ideally, both parties should be learning a concrete skill that makes them a more well-rounded, valuable employee.

But often, the skills your employees need are ones that no one in the office is qualified to teach. If you do have a modest training budget, local colleges and universities are a good place to look for affordable options. The Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, for example, offers regularly scheduled business workshops that are open to the public. Topics have included food retailing, managing a multicultural workforce and optimizing communication to improve performance. The workshops run from four to eight hours, with a suggested fee of $50 to $70 per participant.

Community colleges offer an even wider array of choices. The Corporate Training Center at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla., for example, offers a selection of one-day classroom courses, but also works with businesses to build customized programs. Subjects range from computer skills, such as Web-page design or PC repair, to interpersonal skills. Customer-service staff, for example, can enroll in a class on conflict resolution or phone etiquette. Courses run about $150 to $200 per person for half- or full-day classes.

The Business Training Group at Carroll Community College in Westminster, Md., provides training in a variety of formats: on campus, on-site at the workplace or online. Courses in PowerPoint or Excel, for example, can be taken in a one-time, full-day format, online over a period of four weeks, or in three evening sessions. Each option costs $129 a person.

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If you're considering online classes,

Education to Go

contracts with colleges throughout the country. Although you can't register for classes directly, you can search the site to find schools in your area that offer its business-training courses.

Many states have programs in place to foster small-business growth, so it's worth checking with your local economic-development office to see if they'll reimburse you for training costs. A program in New York City, NYC Business Solutions, has a Training Funds program that pays for 60% to 70% of employee training. Wisconsin, through its Department of Commerce, helps pay for up to 75% of training for companies in industries facing labor shortages (including childcare, biotechnology and tourism).

Another valuable resource is your local

Small Business Development Center

, part of a nationwide network of 1,000 centers funded in part by the Small Business Administration. Many centers offer low-cost training or can point you to local schools and colleges.

For executives:

Winning Workplaces

has executive learning webinars on topics such as fostering trust within the workplace, building an ownership mentality among employees, and developing a customer service culture. ($50 each, with discounts for multiple orders). The Web site also has an extensive online archive of research studies and human-resources related articles, as well as case studies of successful small businesses.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.