Training and development. Improving skills. People management. These are phrases that many small firms think belong in the glossy staff manuals typically produced by big corporate companies. SMEs are often hard-pressed in terms of time and resources, and think that employee training is a luxury they can’t afford. Small companies worldwide participate 50 per cent less in staff training than their large peers, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Yet, bosses of small enterprises frequently say that their companies lack the skills that they need. Ensuring that workers have the necessary training – and that they recognise this reflects their value to the operation – is vital to even the smallest of businesses.
Of course, most business owners acknowledge that staff training is a good thing, but many feel that the day-to-day running of the company must take priority over extra tuition and courses away from the workplace. The Forum of Private Business (FPB) quizzed its members on this issue and found that six out of ten bosses said that cost was the greatest barrier to providing staff training, while 40 per cent blamed lack of availability of appropriate courses, and a fifth cited time away from the business as an impediment.
It’s not just the case that SMEs are missing out on a better-trained workforce by neglecting their employees’ skills – they could be genuinely hindering the growth of their business. Good people management necessarily includes development and training, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) explains, and its research indicates that small firms that perform best and achieve the greatest success have a strategic vision for the organisation, understand what structures and processes need to be in place to meet these aims, and constantly revise their ways of working and the skills they need to be as successful as they aspire to be. This approach necessarily includes regular staff appraisals and training.
The good news is that between May 19 and 25 firms of all sizes can get some help with staff training through Learning at Work Week, an event designed to encourage employers and employees to brush up their skills and get free help and guidance in a number of key areas. The campaign helps companies and individuals alike to understand better where training and development could be incorporated into everyday working life. During the course of the week itself there are opportunities to assess and improve basic skills, through such efforts as the National Numeracy Challenge Online, a confidential website that helps staff pinpoint their maths weaknesses, and then gives them pointers on how to improve their numeracy overall. Other free tests and learning assessments are also available through the event’s website to help workers get better management skills, improve how they handle IT, and even aid them with learning foreign languages.
The FPB found that many employers do what they can to boost workers’ learning, even with a small or non-existent budget. They turn to a number of sources – many of them free – to get the skills their companies need.
- About a fifth use guides and handbooks to train staff.
- Almost half buy in tuition from outside training providers.
- Four out of ten turn to colleges or local authorities for help with employee development.
- About 38 per cent ask the business’s most trusted advisers, such as their accountant, for guidance.
- Online training services are popular with only 28 per cent of smaller companies.
Official help and local resources often exist to address the training dilemmas experienced by SMEs. The Government is working with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) to encourage more firms to forge links with nearby educational institutions to help create a highly skilled workforce. Many of these universities have great resources for working with businesses small and large, but few of those at the smaller end of the scale currently take advantage of the opportunities provided. The UKCES and the National Centre For Universities and Business are good places to start your search if you’re interested in finding out more about what universities are doing with SMEs in your area. When it comes to skills funding, the Government also provides financial help for small firms who want to take on apprentices, as we’ve discussed on this blog before.
Training opportunities can also come from unexpected quarters. One recent initiative that is being labelled as a way to boost employees’ skills is the Inspiring Governors Alliance, a drive to encourage more and higher calibre people to volunteer for these leading roles in local schools. Such a move may not seem to be related to skills development within a business, but the campaign has the backing of the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry, both of which bodies point out the benefits to companies of having members of staff whose leadership ability is honed outside of the business. And don’t neglect the talent that already exists in your enterprise that could be used to train up other members of staff. Typically, many SMEs employ informal types of training, according to research from the OECD, using experienced members of staff to train up younger, less skilled workers. The OECD points out that this opportunity could be exploited far more than it is at present, and, with more people staying in the workforce into older age, mature employees could be a huge training resource.
You may not think that you can afford the time and money needed for staff training, but the evidence suggests that you can’t afford to neglect it. A highly trained and effective workforce will drive efficiency and profitability, and should sharpen your competitive edge. Investigate the variety of training options – both formal and informal – that are available and relevant to your operation. And don’t forget your own skills. Whatever they may say, you can teach an old dog new tricks, and even the boss can benefit from learning some new skills from time to time.
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