Businesses everywhere are struggling their way through an economic downturn. That’s a fact. And, unfortunately, it’s also a fact that in difficult times many companies cut back — sometimes way back — on training and development, a discipline often thought of as expendable.

Rob Snyder, executive director of the Metropolitan Education and Training Services (METS) Center in Erlanger, confirms the trend.

“When things go wrong in the private sector, development is the first thing to go,” he says. “The issue (for many companies) is how many people to cut, not how many people to train.”

Brian Ratliff, founder and president of Event Management & Production Services in Hamilton, agrees. “Everybody is very budget-minded these days. You don’t see a lot of elaborate meetings going on. I used to have a client who never once asked how much something was going to cost; now, that same client is penny-pinching.”

Action Coach, a business coaching firm in Blue Ash, offers one-on-one training, group training, workshops and seminars. Over recent months, owner Laurie Althaus says she’s noticed a greater tendency toward her company’s group training offerings. “Even though they may want to be one-on-one, more and more people are choosing the group training just because of the economics of it.”

Despite the bad news, some companies recognize the sluggish economy as an opportunity, either to propel their business ahead of the competition during bad times or to use the down time to build skills that will benefit productivity in the long term. And many individuals — those who have been laid off, those who want to make themselves more valuable to their employers, and those looking to change careers— use the downturn as an opportunity, as well, working on their personal and professional development.

Barbara Heyn, founder of Atticus Consulting in Blue Ash, works with both individuals and corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, GE and ProScan Imaging. She has also worked with educators at the University of Michigan and Columbia University.

Many of her coaching clients have indeed fallen victim to layoffs. When they come to Heyn, she is likely to administer a number of assessments that help determine professional traits, such as communication and conflict styles. Other assessments will then match dominant traits with career tracks, possibly leading the clients to entirely new opportunities.

Heyn is a staunch promoter of social networking, both face-to-face and of the new media variety. She touts LinkedIn as a better resource than many people give it credit for, but says nothing will ever be more effective than real social networking: the act of getting out there, meeting people and making personal connections. “Get your 30-second elevator speech ready!” she says. In her role as career coach, Heyn helps clients with that, as well.

As for her corporate work, Heyn says she is seeing several trends. Companies are beginning to ask for her advice on how to benefit from or utilize federal stimulus money. Other employers are looking to increase employee engagement. Employers are asking her how they (and she) can help employees develop themselves to their maximum potential. Another trend, she says, is to add the very practical skills that will benefit employers immediately. “Employers are looking for the more tangible skill sets right now, such as meeting planning, writing performance appraisals and basic management skills.”

Noele Williams, president of InterPro Teambuilding Systems, a consulting services company in Wyoming, says her clients are tending to ask for shorter-term projects that are narrowly focused to hit a specific need. “They want to ensure that what they’re receiving will be very practical and much aligned to what it is they’re wanting to accomplish.”

It’s those practical skills that Jeff Seeley, the CEO of Carew International — a Cincinnati-based sales training company — says are most worth the investment in times like these. “When the economy is good, everyone wins; when times get tough, there’s an opportunity to gain share,” he says. “How do you gain market share? Strategy. As an employer, you need to know how to help your people understand and communicate value ... how to defend value, defend price, how to distinguish and differentiate yourselves from the pack.”

Over at the METS Center, Snyder says that a wide offering of delivery methods is helping to maintain relationships with clients. In the past, celebrity-hosted training was popular. A motivational speaker or industry expert would come on-site and lead groups. Financially, that concept is less feasible today. Instead, companies are getting more bang for their buck by using lower-cost webinars and webcasts, sometimes featuring those same celebrity hosts.

The use of technology in training is the strongest trend Snyder observes, and METS is right there helping clients realize the best value possible. Snyder says METS offers custom training portals, distance learning and multi-point video conferencing, in addition to webinars and webcasts. Clients can also use METS resources for their own webcasting purposes, which may result in hefty savings over investing in their own equipment.

Steve Phillips, principal of the search engine marketing company Purple Trout, is also taking advantage of the trend toward technology training. Each month, Purple Trout sends out an electronic newsletter, which sees a subscription base of more than 1,000. The company also offers two podcasts and one free webinar a month and, in the fall, is going to start filming training videos for its web site.

“If we can give clients a little bit more than what they’re asking for, then it certainly makes the decision a little easier each month to write that check,” Phillips says. “We want to make sure our clients feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, but also a little bit more than their money’s worth.”

At the Savannah Center at Chappell Crossing in West Chester, General Manager Mark Wallisa is noticing a trend toward clients expecting greater accountability from training providers. “First and foremost, employers are looking for return on investment with their training dollars. With budgets very tight right now, they’re seeking training programs that deliver immediate results in terms of achieving a competitive advantage, acquiring new skills, improving productivity or reducing operating costs.”

Through her experience as senior project manager at TechSolve, a company that helps small to mid-sized companies implement process improvement solutions, Sue Via says clients aren’t necessarily expecting greater accountability from training providers, but they are making sure their desires are known.

“I don’t think they’re expecting any more from us than they ever have,” she says. “I just think it’s a little more blatant. Before, they danced around the issue. Now, it’s a little more upfront.”

Other companies are noticing their clients are expecting greater accountability from their employees.

Leroy Reshard, president of Sales Communications in West Chester, says many of his clients are having a hard time motivating people in this tough economic climate. Companies are calling on him as a consultant and motivational speaker to energize their sales representatives. “They want to see sales, and they want to see them quickly,” Reshard says. “Companies are no longer accepting ‘oh, we didn’t get it this time’ from their reps, they’re looking for results.”

At Marcum Conference Center & Miami Inn at Miami University, marketing and sales manager Kathy Crowley has noticed that fewer and fewer of her clients’ meetings have been based on just information dissemination. “I think it’s more about getting their agenda accomplished,” she says. “It’s about getting down to business.”

Crowley references the Marcum Center’s interactive offerings, such as a ropes course, access to the university’s ice center and scavenger hunts, and adds that she feels like her business has gained in recent years because of its surrounding environment. “This is not a resort destination kind of place. It’s something that’s acceptable. If you’re going to bring a group to a college campus, you feel like you’re going to get work done.”

Another local venue that offers clients interactive exercises is Dave & Buster’s, a restaurant, bar and arcade in Springdale. In addition to social offerings, Dave & Buster’s also hosts an extensive array of corporate and teambuilding events, including Dave & Buster’s Great Race, a competition that guides teams through an interactive series of tasks, and Company Challenge, in which co-workers take on a series of games focusing on organization and leadership. “Clients are expecting a great, fun teambuilding activity and are focused on the value associated with the offering,” says Tina Bojack, Dave & Buster’s special events sales manager.

Regardless of the economic downturn, there are still plenty of training offerings available to employers. It’s just up to them to decide how much they’re willing to invest, which kind of training is best suited to what they want to gain from it and what they can expect from their training providers. As Wallisa notes, “Those training providers and training venues that deliver the best value for the dollar will be the ones that survive this difficult economy.”

Top 10 Corporate Training Tips
  1. Determine the focus of the training early, based on skills that need to be developed.
  3. Bounce ideas off others before implementing a program.
  5. Choose high quality, relevant instructors and training materials.
  7. Use downtime from the sluggish economy to work on skills that will be useful in the long run.
  9. Take assessments to define personal communication styles.
  11. Utilize low-cost online training materials.
  13. Be upfront about what the company wants out of the experience.
  15. Have fun — try a ropes course or laser tag to build relationships.
  17. Award employees with a certificate of completion after the training.
  19. Promote constant learning. Don’t let a training session be the only way to grow.