Free Employee Training Pays Off for Small Business

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.

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.

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