Springing for Training

Agencies find ways to promote learning without sacrificing time and money.

No agency managers in their right mind would say they don't want to provide training for staff. After all, training ranks high as a driver of employee satisfaction, says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington think tank.

But in the real world, the spirit is willing, but the dollars are short. When Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, was researching whether to support training funds as a line-item in agency budgets in 2002, he surveyed 12 agencies and discovered that from fiscal 1997 through 2000, respondents spent an average of 1.99 percent of payroll on training. Meanwhile, private companies recognized for training excellence during that same time frame spent 3.6 percent. When Voinovich tried to update the information, 11 of the agencies said they didn't know what they spent on training and one wouldn't share its data.

Training dollars might be tight, but rules on how to spend them are generous. The Office of Personnel Management's training policy handbook says agencies are welcome to spend funds on certification and accreditation-including tuition fees, lodging and transportation. OPM even experimented with individual learning accounts at the start of the millennium and gave the program its stamp of approval. The program allows agencies to divide training dollars into accounts employees can access and spend at their own discretion. But the accounts aren't mandatory, and OPM doesn't appropriate an extra dime to fund them. So what's a poor agency to do?

Marc Drizin, director of workforce engagement at Performance Assessment Network, a workforce research firm in Carmel, Ind., looks for creative solutions. "I agree there is a cost to training and that it's not always easy to draw a direct link between training and some external benefit," he says. His data from 2004, however, shows that when you provide training and development, employees stay longer, work harder and recommend your organization as a good place to work.

Palguta suggests that managers ask employees to pony up some of the cash. The talk about moving from the General Schedule to performance paybands would mean that some agencies will base an employee's salary in part on professional development, he points out. His solution puts more responsibility on the employee for his career.

Reginald Wells, chief human capital officer and deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration, says he's almost embarrassed to admit how few dollars SSA spends on training. It's probably less than 1 percent of the budget, he estimates. Yet he considers employee development to be one of his best motivational weapons. His secret to bridging the dichotomy? Distance learning. SSA was one of the first agencies to adopt OPM's e-learning initiative, which includes the www.usalearning.gov Web site, where employees have access to tutors and course work.

E-learning might be one of the hottest tickets in the federal government. All e-learning can be customized, says Cathy Williams, a senior account executive with Ninth House, a leadership development company in San Francisco. And training companies are moving away from static page-turner presentations to Hollywood-quality productions featuring best-selling business experts and leadership gurus. In a 2003 test of Ninth House's situational leadership course, the Justice Department saved $2,500 per person over the cost of traditional classroom training. And each employee spent six hours learning the materials compared with 40 hours of instruction the old-fashioned way.

Says Williams, "It's a very exciting time to work with the federal government because [agencies] don't have to sacrifice anything to get what they want. There are solutions out there to scale to the organization and provide affordable, quality training."

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