December 6, 2013

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Head of the Class

Professional Development Keeps Employees’ Skills Sharp and their Minds Engaged

By Rachel Madison | Illustration by Mike Bohman

December 6, 2013

When companies hit tough economic times, professional development opportunities for employees are typically one of the first things to go. However, industry experts argue that companies can actually save money and grow stronger through professional development, even when they hit difficult times.

Anne O’Brien, assistant dean of programs for continuing education at the University of Utah, says if companies aren’t helping their employees address skill gaps, they aren’t going to move forward. “During hard economic times, companies will cut their training budget, but in order to create a more sustainable organization, employees need to know how to make the most out of their work day.”

In addition, experts agree that professional development can give companies—and their employees—a lot more than just a stronger chance of survival during financial crises.

Alice Osborne, coordinator of community and continuing education at Utah Valley University, says there are five ways employers benefit when they provide professional development to their employees. Companies benefit by having an increased ability to take advantage of innovation, an increased rate of employee retention, a reduced rate of employee absenteeism, an increased quality of work and increased productivity. Employees benefit too.

“Why would a company want to send employees to an expensive class?” Osborne says. “It’s because research says certified professionals are more driven and have a greater sense of ownership in the company they work for. They come away with a big-picture view and long-term operational ability.”

Professional development opportunities can range from conferences and seminars to an outside consulting group going into a company and teaching new skills.

“Anybody in the workplace today knows things change so fast that you constantly have to be building on what you already know,” says Adam Tidwell, director of the northern Utah chapter of the Project Management Institute, an organization devoted to improving project management practices across all industries. “You have to be out there participating in professional development and keep yourself open to new ideas.”

Todd Mabey, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Utah, works primarily with real estate agents and property owners through training and networking events centered on property ownership. Mabey says employees need to pursue professional development in order to keep their skills honed. “We can’t sit back and take the ride,” he says.

Through professional development, O’Brien says employees can immediately begin doing something new they’ve learned, stop doing something they shouldn’t be doing, or reinforce that what they’re doing is right.

“You have to have people who will still do a good job when you’re not there because of a level of respect and trust from the training you’ve given them,” says Deborah Labenski, programs specialist at the Tooele Applied Technology College who oversees the college’s Custom Fit program, which provides businesses with trainings from leadership skills to forklift certification. “People who don’t invest in their employees have a high turnover. It’s way more expensive to turn over your workforce than spend a little time and money on your current workforce. Smart companies—the ones that survive and thrive—get this.”

It’s All about the How

Lowell Oswald, executive director of the Utah Personnel Development Center, a center that provides professional development to teachers and administrators who work with students with disabilities, says not many people will argue with the importance of professional development, but it’s the “how” that really matters.

“It’s how you provide it that really matters,” he says. “That’s the part that most of us seem to forget, is how it’s delivered and the follow up to make sure it’s actually working in the business setting.”

Suraj Syal, coordinator of professional development at the UPDC, says he often sees people who attend intensive trainings, but once they return to the office, they revert back to practices they were using before the training. “When they go back to the office is when the real work begins,” he says. “You typically only get a 5 percent return on investment without coaching after training. With no coaching support, employees return back to the ways things have always been done.”

Syal says that’s why coaching and mentoring after a professional development course or seminar is key. “In sports, the coach coaches during the game, not just before it,” he says. “To get a return on investment with professional development you have to follow up.”

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