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I work for a midsize software company. Recently we have experienced some attrition for a number of reasons, one of the chief complaints is that we are not offering training for our employees. There are several types of training we need to work on including business, technical, interpersonal etc.

Being recently promoted to management I started devising a plan to implement a continuing education program that strongly utilizes PluralSight, among many other sources.

My proposal included spending roughly $15k a year to provide all our employees with a PluralSight account. I have been met with much opposition, not so much related to the $$ though.

The main argument that I have encountered is that PluralSight offers too many courses that fall outside our current skill set. For example: We are primarily a .NET shop and one of the directors mentioned that he does not want one of our team members learning Ruby and then leaving the company to go do Ruby somewhere. This is a specific example of course.

I struggle with this line of thinking immensely, it violates a key core value/belief I have that we can be successful as a team if and only if we inspire each team member to be great personally, and that includes constantly expanding their horizons into new technologies.

That being said I always seek to understand (try to anyway) all points of view, and I cannot wrap my head around this. My questions are:

  1. Can anyone help me understand his line of thinking?
  2. Can you help me formulate a good argument against him?
  3. Am I missing an important factor somewhere?

UPDATE

I was able to resolve this problem with the help of the following meme that features the quote in the comments from @Fredrik

enter image description here

I simply printed about 20 copies of this and handed them out. It did the trick.

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Classic quote related to this: "What if we train our employees and they leave? What if we don't, and they stay?" –  Fredrik Mar 13 at 14:13
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One small suggestion: Do not make the training mandatory. Offer it and encourage it. If certain employees do not want it, offer to let them find a suitable alternative they find valuable to present for your approval, and be open minded. –  Miro Mar 13 at 15:20
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What's the difference between an employee learning Ruby on their free time so they can leave and take a Ruby job? –  cimmanon Mar 14 at 16:22
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Your management has a childish and short sighted reason for not offering training. Any decent developer could learn another language/technology outside of the workplace, then leave if they wanted to. –  daaxix Mar 16 at 14:53

10 Answers 10

I work for a company that uses Pluralsight as our main way of training developers. First off it is a great resource and well worth the money. To answer your questions....

Can anyone help me understand his line of thinking?

Your boss is basically scared that your employees will use company resources (time/money) to gain a new set of skills and move on. This is a valid concern as it is your company making the investment in them and thus if they take that investment made and turn around and leave you are essentially out the money and also need to find new talent (a costly process sometimes). This is more or less a very conservative business plan, your boss is assuming the worst and also sounds like he is assuming that people are eager to leave which is a whole other bag of issues.

Can you help me formulate a good argument against him?

There are a few points I would hit on here (these are what I would say/do, you can take them for what they are worth)

  1. Education of employees is key to business growth ESPECIALLY in the tech world were things move faster than anywhere else. You may be a .NET shop (my company is) but that does not mean that exposing your developers to other frameworks/technologies/ideas is a bad thing. Maybe one of them will see something new and be able to rework your product to make it better. Tying your self to a single framework/technology can and has been the downfall of many places.

  2. If your boss is really afraid that developers will leave once they use your resources to learn new things than it does not (at least to me) sounds like any of your employees are very happy. I use PluralSight to learn all sorts of things because I feel that a comprehensive knowledge of software leads to better products no matter the platform. Yes, I could leave my .NET job and go do Java or Objective-C somewhere else, maybe even make more money, but I like what my company is doing, they treat me well and offer me opportunities that keep me here. They give me lots of ways to learn new skills to take elsewhere but I simply never even think about that.

  3. If your boss is that concerned then why not send your employees to .NET bootcamps or similar things.

  4. Most knowledge (at least related to computers) can be had for free on the internet anyway. Pluralsight offers a nice way to deliver material to people in an easy to understand way. If your developers really wanted to find out how to program in a different language or learn a new algorithm I am sure they are decent enough with Google to get them selves there.

Am I missing an important factor somewhere?

The big factor here seems to be your bosses fear of your employees using you. That is a pure business issues. Unfortunately sometimes these decisions fall on those who make them as pure business decisions (dollars earned/saved vs dollars lost/sunk) and often times there is a bigger picture that is overlooked.

Hope this helps...

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Also, being a .NET shop now does not mean that you are always going to be a .NET shop in the future. –  Simon Richter Mar 13 at 16:50

Can anyone help me understand his line of thinking?

His line of thinking to me is along these lines. You pay for training an employee in something that you as a company does not use. This does not help your company in any way. This is all bad. How can this be good?

Can you help me formulate a good argument against him?

My personal argument regarding this would be that the employees will appreciate the company more if we offer them training. Even if they learn new fields that the company does not currently utilize, it is adding the ability for our company to take advantage of this technology in the future. We should encourage growth of our team members.

If we don't offer them training than they will be less likely to get better offers and chances are we will be in a position to keep less skilled employees. If we do offer them extensive training in a variety of different areas than hopefully the employees will see that our company is what is best for their overall careers. The best employees will be the ones that are willing to see that your company wants the best for them and will ultimately stay. Sure you will lose some employees after they get their training but those are likely to be the ones that are not as passionate about their job.

Am I missing an important factor somewhere?

There is several important factors here that are well above my head and really falls squarely on the shoulders of your company. Ultimately, this should be viewed as a benefit for the employees. I, as an employee, view training as such.

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I understand this issue might not be money-related (although in the end it kind of is: the company won't pay for a training that might help other companies eventually) but if a boss won't allow a $15k training for an employee paid — let's say — $50k per year, then there may be problems more profound than this.

You don't keep employees by preventing them from getting new skills (no matter how useless these skills might seem now), you make them stay by showing the company is a good place to evolve in.

You'll need to be cautious when presenting your boss with this fact, but this kind of behaviour might be the reason some people want to leave in the first place.

Moreover, I'm sure you can find many other companies are spending similar money on trainings, and you can show him that this may be one of the factors that people are willing to leave the company. Perhaps show him that employees are really excited about this training?

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+1 for "this kind of behaviour might be the reason some people want to leave in the first place". –  Stephan Kolassa Mar 14 at 7:58
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From the question, it sounds like $15,000 per year covers all of an unspecified number of employees; it's not nearly that expensive per developer. –  Ben Voigt Mar 15 at 19:17

Personally I would be against it because that kind of training is ineffective at meeting the needs of the company. It looks like an employee benefit which is nice but does it really gain anything for the company? It is like attendance at conferences, a nice benefit from the employee standoint but from a cost benefit standpoint, it often costs way more then the actual benefit to the company. Will these employee benefits help you retain people, unlikely but possible. Usually people leave for other reasons. Really if training in the cool new things is my priority, then not getting to use them at my current company after the training is going to be just as annoying to me.

What do you really need to do to train employees on the specifics they need for their jobs and then offer some training that expands them professionally. What you don't need to do is offer it to everyone willy-nilly. What you also don't need to do is have people take the training on their own time (very bad practice that is common). If training is important, it is important enough to be done during work hours.

It should also be focused not on what the employee wants to learn for fun but on what the company needs the person to learn to do his current job better or to progress to the next level. This requires a training plan where you decide with each employee what he needs and then provide it. Just handing out the key to a web site where they can get training is useless as the people who need the training on particular subjects the most will not be the ones taking advantage. The ones who do take advantage will be the ones who would be doing this training on their own anyway.

Instead of wasting money training the people who would learn on their own anyway on subjects which are irrelevant to their work or projected work, spend the money on improving the skills of your worst performers and giving specific training that might not be so job specific to high performers as a reward.

It is NOT your job as a company to give anybody any training they might desire. It is your job to determine what is needed and spend the money there.

Yes tech moves quickly and some training to keep up with new advances is needed. But it is better to do that as the company is getting ready to transistion to new things as well not just when someone feels the need. Training people on tech they can't use is counterproductive. Training people on something they will need in two years is just a waste of time as people forget what they don't use.

The most effective training I have seen is when you have employee-provided training on topics of interest. This serves your training needs well as the trainers have to learn about something and understand it enough to explain it to others. It improves the devs communication abilities which is also important.

The subjects can be scheduled to provide a mix of things the experts on your software need the less expert to get trained on and things that expand everyone professionally. It also means that you consider training important enough to expend time during the work day to provide it. It means you have some control in insisting that your lesser performers expand their horizons whether they wanted to take the intiatiatve to do the training on their time or not. It also allows people who would like to expand ther horizons but who do not have the personal time available (like young mothers or people caring for a sick relative) to do so on their own time.

This approach allows you to balance between training we would like to have, training we all need for a change in how we do business, training to help people be ready to move to new respopnsibilites, and training that some people need to be able to do their current job. It is much more effective than abdicating your responsibilty by setting up a system where you don't have to think about what the real needs are.

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This is a tough question to answer, as everyone's response will be completely subjective to his/her personal take on this issue.

  1. While the specific example that you gave seems like it might not be the truest concern, it is a concern nonetheless. Upper management, especially in smaller companies with a tighter budget for training, always worry about employees leaving after money has been spent to train them. However, employee turnover usually points to a deeper issue than "Oh, I've got more advanced training! Time to leave!", but I digress. I believe his line of thinking is a combination of several factors. First, the fact that you're spending money on something that doesn't specifically target the main required skillset of your team. While I personally agree that gaining knowledge outside of this realm can be helpful, it's harder to justify this line of thinking to the people picking up the check for the training. Second, money is always a concern for management (usually because someone above them is more worried about it). Couple that with this perceived threat of employee turnover from gaining new skills, and you get a very resistant viewpoint. Your director likely sees employee skill expansion as a threat of not only employee turnover, but also a threat to the way that your company does business. Perhaps one of your peers begins training in Ruby and begins to think "Hmm, Ruby does x, y, and z way better than .NET....why aren't we using this?" Bottom line: There are probably a number of reasons that management fears training, whether it's targeted to your company's skill set or not. And while we can't begin to guess what all of these reasons are, you will eventually just have to accept that if this is the way that he/she feels about it, and he/she is in a position of management, you will either have to arrive at a compromise or simply accept his/her viewpoint.
  2. Now, there are a number of valid potential talking points you could use to persuade your opposition:

    -"There is an equal chance that giving our employees advanced training in .NET will lead to them looking for employement elsewhere..." What would stop employees from leaving the company after they were trained further in their .NET skill set, as opposed to any other skill set? As I said earlier, employee departure generally stems from something other than acquiring additional/more advanced skills. If management is against training, by your director's line of thought, they would have to be against ALL training.

    -"While we won't require it, employees learning skills in other areas outside of our company's skill set can lead to innovation in business and development practices" There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained by studying other areas of thought. An employee may find something that works really well in another programming language and implement a comparable solution in .NET. Knowledge expansion breeds innovation.

    -"Employees gaining training outside of their current skill set can make them a valuable expert in an area where we may need future guidance" Creating a new expert in a technology that you might utilize down the road is never a bad idea

    -Also, try explaining your line of thinking as well. If you believe that the team will grow, be more well-rounded, and more likely to stay with the company if given training, then say so! Even if management has a strong opinion formed on the subject, at least make your viewpoint very clear.

  3. I'm not sure you're missing something, but I think you need to remember this: Not everyone is going to agree with your core values/line of thought. The reality is, people are going to have a different way of looking at this than you. Just because management disagrees doesn't mean that you're wrong, or that they're wrong, for that matter. But it does mean that a compromise is likely going to be your only solution. If you feel very strongly about this, and management refuses to budge....you might be better off at a company that is more closely aligned with your beliefs.

A long answer, I know. I hope it helped.

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You asked for help understanding your director's point of view on this question of company-paid training. It seems to me that he's wondering if it makes sense for the company's money to be invested in developing the skills -- the human capital -- of the people who work there and can walk away. It sounds like his life is made harder by the recent attrition: departures of multiple useful employees is one of the worst things that can happen to a properly run business.

If he were a completely rational actor (which nobody is) he would compare the projected return on this training investment to the return on some other investment, and choose the one with the best return.

To put this return-on-investment question starkly: If morale is not good in your company, why not throw a $15K party? Won't that raise morale more than a bunch of online seminars?

But I suspect his real thinking is emotional. "Why should I spend good money on a bunch of disloyal pain-in-the-neck people?" I suspect he's thinking that way because of the recent departures, which have certainly given him a pain in the neck.

How can you address his issues?

First, work with his emotional issue if you can. Say something like, "it sure was a pain for me when Joe and Sally left. I feel like we were set back in our project. I want to get it done, and done right. I know xyz is counting on us." Then listen. And listen. And listen some more. Hopefully he'll give you some insight into the struggles he has as a director, meeting his objectives or pleasing his boss or whatever.

Once he knows you're his ally in reducing his neck pain, then you can become his advisor on how to improve working conditions. Be patient. Prove you care.

Maybe you could even spend a little personal money enabling an engineer or two on your team to evaluate a couple of training programs. O'Reilly offers subscriptions to their vast Safari collection of books for something like $45 for a single month. Other training services offer one-month deals too. Doing this is a way to say to your company, "I have skin in the game and this approach to training works."

Then, and only then, go for the return-on-investment business case for the training program. It's a solid case: replacing good people is very expensive, and delaying projects is potentially disastrous. If that $15K prevents even one resignation, it's paid for itself.

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You're thinking too much like a programmer and not looking at this from a manager's perspective. Let's assume your manager does understand the benefits of training. Learning another language can broaden a developer's skill-set and maybe even apply some "Ruby Ways" into your .NET world. Who knows, maybe you'll find a project where Ruby is a better tool. At least it's one way to make a team member a little more happy about the job and feel better about the company.

This is all well and good, but your boss has to explain this to his boss. It's another level of abstraction. This person may understand even less about software and keeping devs happy. Maybe he doesn't think happiness is important at all. Your boss's protests are probably his imagination running wild in expectation of the backlash he is going to get from superiors.

Start thinking like a sales/marketing person. Come up with some concrete examples of why the additional learning can benefit the company. You're going to have to get very creative here. Could you apply some of the ways Ruby uses the MVC pattern? Can you run Ruby in a .NET environment? In many companies, it's difficult to just say, "We're programmers who are curious and want to grow our skills, so if you get out of our way long enough, we might come up with something useful." Otherwise, you're a bunch of creative people who are being strangled by your current employer and can't wait to find another company.

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Let's ignore the $15k, it's completely irrelevant compared to the time that the employees are going to spend doing the training. The question for your company (at least, as your bosses are probably seeing it right now) is:

Do we give employees time to do pretty much whatever they like?

You seem to say yes, employees should be completely free to choose whatever training they want from what PluralSight offers. You trust that they will use their knowledge to benefit the company.

Your bosses seem to say no. They present as an example that they don't want employees to use company resources to polish their CVs for a job application, which is entirely reasonable to want to avoid, but is rather an extreme case. You're all disheartened by the recent attrition, but even so one would hope that it isn't actually all that common that your employees sit down to work and think, "how do I get out of here?". Even if they do, it's not certain that your best move is to retain them or that your worst move is to spend a little bit of time/money that gets them out the door quicker ;-)

It seems likely that there's a reasonable middle ground on employee self-direction. Perhaps you could allay your bosses' concerns by adding to the plan that each line manager discusses with each employee their training goals, what courses they're taking to achieve their goals, and records it all. Ensure that each employee is doing a reasonable amount of training that "should" directly benefit their work for the company (and persuade your bosses that "reasonable amount" is less than "all" -- that some learning outside your narrow field is beneficial provided you also learn in your field). This is not really burdensome on the employee - if you're not willing to talk to your line manager about what you're doing on company time then the problem is not the training policy. How often does this need to happen? I would guess that weekly is too much and annually is not enough, but answering that kind of question is supposed to be what HR is for, so use them ;-)

You also need to impress on your bosses the fact that if they exert too much control the training can't happen. It sounds like they've agreed in principle that training is needed, so this is a real concern for them. You have to give the employees some self-direction because the logistics of going from "we don't do training" to "we have a director-approved syllabus for each employee where we've checked that it's all relevant to our work" is just too far to go in a short space of time.

Many employers say, "we'll do training and develop your skills". Actually they send a few people on a few courses that don't really achieve much. Suggest to your bosses that what you're doing will work better overall than the alternatives, even if the "cost" is that some of the training activity doesn't benefit the company, or even is counter-productive.

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Been in this situation a few times before, so here's my two cents:

Can anyone help me understand his line of thinking?

Your boss suffers from one or both of these conditions:

  1. Narrow-mindedness: i.e. inability to see how learning something new allows people not only to improve their existing tasks but also to feel better about themselves, more fulfilled, more valued and -therefore- more productive. Learning, e.g. Ruby or Python will make a .Net developer better at .Net. It will also make them feel more confident as a developer and more valued in their role in the company. Your boss may be too blinkered to understand this.

  2. Guilt/Fear Transference: If your boss feels that people may leave once they've been trained up then he obviously realizes that people are looking to leave. The reasons for that will be invariably linked to company practices and individual relations, not merely lack of training. Your boss uses the first available scapegoat (training) to justify these fears, instead of having to correct the issues that cause them in the first place.

Can you help me formulate a good argument against him?

You need to address the above conditions. First, you need to make your boss understand that training, even in different subjects, will make people better at what they do. There are lots of articles out there that explain, for instance, how learning Ruby improves Java programmers. I'm sure you can find lots of material that's relevant in your situation too.

Second, you need to make your boss admit the reasons people are trying to leave and try to address them. If that fails, a good argument you can pose is this:

"Some one wants to leave. They are either valuable and the company wants to keep them or they are useless and nobody minds if they leave". "If the person gets training and they are bad then they may leave quicker, which is good. If the person is good, then you can use the training (and the promise of more) to entice them to stay, which is also good"

Present it as a win-win scenario.

Am I missing an important factor somewhere?

Not really, you just have to bear in mind your company's culture (is honestly valued?) and your boss's disposition (does he give a damn?). I've worked in places where the company encouraged dishonesty and the boss was a Dilbert-esque sociopath. If that's the case, do what I did and get a new job asap.

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"Can you help me formulate a good argument against him?"

I would stay stick with your current approach. There is already a problem with attrition, so people are leaving anyway regardless of knowing a competitor's skillset. If I were in your place, I would compile statistics from exit interviews listing the reasons given for leaving and their quantity.

The focus should be on making the business a Great Place to Work; then you'll be able to attract and retain talent. It sounds to me from your description there may be other concerns as well.

Google has a great way to help foster creativity and growth. They allow 20% of the day to be used for pursuing a personal project or idea that can help benefit the company. Perhaps allowing some of that flexibility to learn a new language and work on something truly interesting would help excite the developers and encourage them to stay.

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