Successful businesses make work force development a priority, not an option. So say experts in the field of business education.

"Things are changing so rapidly that organizations have to invest in developing their employees' skills or [the business] will fail," says Brenda Levya-Gardner, associate professor and director of the executive human resource development graduate program at Xavier University. "It's important for companies to keep their people. Through work force development, organizations have a better ability to adapt to the changes around them."

For Sherry Kelley Marshall, executive dean of work force development at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, the equation is simple: "Competent employees help companies maintain business objectives."

The encouraging news is that work force development is on the upswing in Greater Cincinnati and across the nation.

Gary Gebhart, director of adult work force development at Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development, says Great Oaks is seeing a noticeable increase in the number of businesses participating in work force development.

"Short-term training has increased, and as layoffs increase and jobs are shipped overseas, long-term training increases. That's what we're seeing now," Gebhart observes.

Great Oaks' experience is reflecting a national trend. U.S. businesses spent more on employee training in 2002 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), provided more hours of training, and utilized technology to deliver training more than ever before, according to the American Society for Training & Development's "State of the Industry Report."

"The data show that, despite the economic challenges U.S. organizations faced in 2002, they continued to invest in employee training," says Brenda Sugrue, director of research for the group and author of the report. "It's clear that these organizations understand that the key to sustaining a competitive advantage is a knowledgeable, highly skilled work force."

According to the report, training expenditure as a percentage of payroll increased to 2.2 percent in 2002, up from 1.9 percent in 2001. Training expenditure per employee increased to $826 in 2002, up from $734 in 2001; and training hours per employee increased to 28 in 2002, up from 24 in 2001.

"It's a win-win situation," Levya-Gardner says. "The types of skills that are learned in work force development training are not necessarily academic. Generally, it's an organization helping a person learn job-specific skills, which benefits the organization."

Great Oaks Institute's Gebhart says an investment in work force training offers dividends "” most importantly, making a company more competitive and cost effective. "One of the big things we're seeing now is companies are looking at continuing education from a [return-on-investment] point of view."

Xavier's Levya-Gardner agrees. "Over the long term, the return on investment is much higher than the initial investment," she says.

According to the University Continuing Education Association, more employers nationally are seeing that money spent on employee training is truly an investment rather than expenditure. In a report on work force development trends, the association states businesses are recognizing that a more skilled work force results in increased economic productivity. The result is "organizational spending on work force education and training is on an upward path."

The education association report shows that 55 percent of companies ranked by Fortune as the "100 Best Companies to Work For" paid for between 21 and 40 hours of training per employee in 2001 (the most recent data available). An additional 34 percent paid for 41 to 80 hours of training, and 8 percent paid for more than 80 hours of training per employee per year.

The critical need for work force development can't be ignored, experts say, especially since the future supply of workers in Ohio, for example, is projected to increase by 560,000 between 1998 and 2008, from 5.6 million to 6.2 million. According to "Ohio Workforce Outlook to 2008," those numbers represent an increase of 9.9 percent, up from the 6.6 percent increase over the previous 10-year period. Similar estimates exist in Kentucky and Indiana.

According to Kelley Marshall, "there is no bad time" to partake in work force development. Some times are better than others, she admits, but less opportune times should not deter a company from jumping aboard. "Influences such as a downturn in the economy can keep [organizations] from participating in work force development, but if they avoid thinking about it, they're only staving off the problem."

Angie Taylor, vice president of business and industry services at Gateway Community and Technical College, is adamant about continual training. "Training should not be an annual event. We don't want to see a company wait until it is on fire [with a problem] and then throw training on it," she says. "Training needs to be built into every employee's performance plan. Education is a business solution; therefore, it needs to be ongoing for life. Work force development has come so far. It is employers and employees working in partnership with local educators. It's triage, and it works so well."

Levya-Gardner says she believes employee training ideally should be introduced in the beginning of an organization's life cycle, but it's never too late to get started. "Work force development is not something done in a crisis mode or it will undermine a company's infrastructure. Companies need to look ahead to assess their needs and build it into the corporate culture."

For organizations that think they do not have resources to finance training, Taylor recommends looking for grants. "In Kentucky, we have a lot of economic development grant money," she says. "In some cases, we can go in and provide training for free. Many companies simply aren't aware grants exist, but all they have to do is inquire."

Admittedly, not all businesses understand the value of work force development. However, "companies that do not make an investment in retention efforts will spend it later on recruitment efforts," Kelley Marshall warns.

"The bottom line is companies need to provide a reason for employees to stay. They want to know their company supports them," she adds. "Work force development gives employees a sense of worth ... and that's advertising you can't buy."