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Ernst & Young employees attend a training session at the company's Toronto offices. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Ernst & Young employees attend a training session at the company's Toronto offices. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Weekend Workout

Training costs: Less is more Add to ...

In years past, Ernst & Young LLP would invite as many as 250 employees at a time to take a week away from the office and gather in a luxury resort in northern Ontario's cottage country. They would get daily seminars to update their skills, and their room, board and transportation expenses were paid by the company.

But that was so pre-recession. This year, employees will come to the company's downtown Toronto office on days they are slated for training and go to a newly built dedicated learning centre. It's classrooms are equipped with the latest high-tech video presentation equipment, so that training can include video seminars where the trainer needn't be in the same city as the students.

"We probably cut our out-of-pocket training costs by close to half by reducing travel and outside-the-office training locations, and doing more by remote technologies such as webcasts," says Karen Wensley vice-president human resources of Ernst & Young in Toronto.

Severe pruning widespread! E&Y is hardly alone in looking for innovative ways to continue training in the midst of austerity. For the first time in 20 years, more than half of Canadian employers are planning to trim their employee training budgets, according to a survey of 218 employers by the Conference Board of Canada. Some are talking of cuts of as much as 50 per cent.

The findings mark a significant break from company responses in past recessions, when many organizations actually boosted spending on training, says Alison Campbell, principal researcher for the Conference Board in Ottawa.

The highest per capita spending on training over the last two decades occurred in the aftermath of the recession in the early 1990s. The reason, the Conference Board concluded at the time, was that after organizations were downsized the remaining employees needed extra training to take on expanded responsibilities, Ms. Campbell says.

The same kind of restructuring has hit many companies in the past year, "so you would expect to see an increase in this downturn. Instead, we are surprised that organizations are telling us they are cutting back their investments in training," she says.

Finding and filling gaps The cutbacks are not a cause for panic, though, as the world is much more wired than in the past and employers are increasingly looking to supplement classroom lessons with less expensive online learning. As well, much more instruction is being done informally on the job, says Lynn Johnston, CAE, president of the Canadian Society for Training and Development in Toronto.

"We're seeing an increase in informal learning, mentoring, job-sharing and observation, and in-house meetings and discussions. Because there has been downsizing, there has to be cross-functional training but a lot of that is being dong informally, with mentoring by senior managers, job-sharing, job shadowing and in-house group problem-solving discussions."

Over all, e-learning has grown to represent 24 per cent of all employee training hours and there has been an increase of at least 10 per cent in the past year in the amount of learning being done informally and through social networking, according to California-based talent management consultancy Bersin & Associates.

However, there is also a trend in limiting who receives training, Ms. Johnston says. "Companies are also being more strategic in aligning the kinds of teaching they do to the immediate goals of the business," she notes.

If, for instance, they want to drive down their accident rate or drive up their customer satisfaction rate, they look at providing the best specific training and they don't give it to everyone, only those who are most likely to benefit from it, Ms. Johnston says.

If you don't receive, ask Employees who are not receiving the training they think they need should ask for it, advises Elizabeth Stephenson, managing director of management consultancy Verity International Ltd. in Toronto.

"Don't count on the management or your boss to identify development opportunities for you, or suddenly deciding to reward you with training; it won't happen in this economy," she says.

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