Use the Down Economy to Retrain Workers

Less-productive times can be the best opportunity for your employees to learn new skills and information.
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The economy is struggling, business has slowed and your employees now spend more time playing Minesweeper than what you hired them for. Rather than waste this downtime, now may be the perfect opportunity to get your employees retrained.

Think of running your business as a boxing match -- and you're currently between rounds. Rather than sit doing nothing, you could learn a few things and come out of this rest smarter and more prepared than before.

Make the Investment

Don't think because you're cash-strapped that investing in your workforce is not an option.

Debbie McGrath, founder of HR.com, acknowledges that training "is first to go when the economy goes south."

It may seem like a simple cut on the budget sheet, but Tracey Wik, founder of Mile 36 Enterprises, a global leadership consulting firm says, "don't be penny-wise and a pound foolish about this."

Wik says that when times are tough, it's more important than ever to invest in your employees.

"Research has shown that, over time, it's those non-tangibles that really give people the sense of loyalty," says Wik. "You invested in them during a tough time, and so they're a little bit more loyal to you in the face of other opportunities."

There are a couple of ways employers can go about this: in-house training, online education, traditional graduate schooling, and certificate training.

In-House Training

Between 1977 and 2007, employment of workers 65 and over increased 101%, compared to a much smaller increase of 59% for total employment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means you probably have many older workers who have great knowledge to share with your younger staff.

Wik says this is a win-win-win situation.

"The younger person gets up to speed quicker. The person that has more experience gets to transfer their knowledge to the younger person. And the organization wins because of the knowledge transfer and having it stay within the organization."

Employers would be wise to have some of these older, more experienced workers create a curriculum or training plan that would help develop a broader employee base. The beauty of in-house training too, is that it can be executed during work downtime.

Online Education

What's terrific about online education is that your employees can participate at home or in the office. As the employer, you can set up a class schedule for them, scheduling time during the regular workweek and even pay for their enrollment if your company is financially able to do so.

For businesses that don't have piles of money to throw around, remember that your employees don't have to target a degree or take a full load of courses. Think about the skill sets you want them to acquire. They may be able to boost their competency in just a course or two. Many industry associations and organizations offer these one-course education opportunities.

Brick and Mortar Schooling

If you want to increase the pedigree of your company, nothing boosts a business resume like graduate degrees. Of course, the big fear for many companies is paying for employee education and then watching them walk out the door to work for a competitor.

Wik says many businesses offer a conditional reimbursement program: for example, a company will pay 80% of the overall degree with the stipulation that the employee stays with the company a minimum of two years, otherwise the employee must repay the debt. Also, many businesses will reimburse tuition only for courses directly related to the employee's job.

McGrath says some businesses will even let employees take time off to go back to school, but says this is rare. Another tactic is to build in back-end incentives, like pay raises, promotions or more.

And if you can't find any education or training you think will help, Wik recommends contacting the school you're interested in.

"In the executive education departments," says Wik, "most major universities are willing to customize content for you -- whether it's about innovation or branding, it doesn't matter."

Certificate Training

Certificate programs can fill specific voids your organization may be lacking.

While it may seem obvious, McGrath says, "Train for positions that you will be short in the next few years; i.e. tool and die makers, machinists, IT professionals etc."

Now is also the time to check in with your employees to see what new skills and procedures they'd like to get certified in. Since they're on the front lines, in many cases they'll know better than you, the employer.

In the end, "You have to be willing to make an investment to have the best and brightest," says Wik "and continue to be on the edge of offering them opportunities or you will not be able to attract consistently high caliber talent."

Steve Cooper spent over six years at Entrepreneur magazine and Entrepreneur.com. He was most recently the managing editor of Entrepreneur.com and was previously the research editor for Entrepreneur magazine. He has a degree in journalism from San Francisco State University and runs his own business, Hitched Media, Inc.