As the economy improves, employers are ramping up training and continuing education programs, and employees are eager to update their credentials.

As employers struggled to align costs with plummeting revenues in 2008 and 2009, "workforce training and development" budget lines were low-hanging fruit--easy to cut or even zero out without immediate harsh consequences. Business is better now, but employers still are asking tough questions as they consider the costs and benefits of training.

"As we exit the Great Recession, companies are starting to look again at employee training. Now, though, they're much more aware of their pain and gain points," says Jeff Spain, supervisor for community education and workforce development at Columbus State Community College (CSCC). "They are assessing the training's value to the organization and their employees in today's business environment."

After shedding employees in the last few years, companies are using nondegree continuing education to fill knowledge and skill gaps in their remaining workforce. They're counting on improved proficiency to increase workforce productivity, which, in turn, enhances competitiveness and the bottom line.

Employers are not the only ones worried about competitiveness. More than a few employees, nervous about keeping their jobs, are enrolling in continuing education classes on their own.

"Employees are competing with their co-workers and outside applicants today. When determining who to promote and who to lay off, employers do consider who has made the effort and taken the initiative to stay current and keep their skills sharp," says Garry McDaniel, associate dean at Franklin University's Center for Professional Training & Development.

Central Ohio's institutions of higher learning offer a multitude of training and continuing education options--on campus, in the workplace or online. A CEO or human resources director doesn't have to look far to find opportunities that will strengthen the workforce, and ultimately the business.

Wide-Ranging Options

Browse the course catalogs of Central Ohio educational institutions and you'll discover a variety of nondegree continuing education offerings, from one-day workshops to extended courses. Training can be found for line workers, mid-level supervisors and executives. Courses range from basic skills training to professional certification and management development.

"We keep our courses and curriculum applicable to today's environment," says Scarlett Howery, president of the Columbus campus of DeVry University. DeVry offers workforce development services through the Keller Center for Corporate Learning. "DeVry pays close attention to student outcomes, so we can match the training to current business demands. And our academic structure allows us to swiftly implement new programs as the need indicates; then we assist employers in implementation."

Leadership development and supervisory training are popular, as are information technology (IT) classes. "We've seen increased scheduling in all of our computer courses, especially in the Microsoft Office suite of products, and Adobe Flash and Dreamweaver products for website design," says Steve Kowalczyk, senior sales and marketing consultant at Ohio State University's Office of Continuing Education.

OSU also sees growing interest in its language courses, particularly Somali. "Businesses are learning the language in an effort to reach out to the growing population of Somalis in Columbus," Kowalczyk says. "The classes also discuss cultural issues that would help a company do business with them."

At CSCC's Center for Workforce Development, enrollment is growing for courses on alternative energy, green construction methods and LEED certification. "Lean/Six Sigma is always in demand and so is logistics," says Jane Shaefer, dean of community education and workforce development. "We're working with TechColumbus on developing curriculum for Java programming and for business analysts who work in IT."

CSCC's new Professional Development Institute assists firms in improving employee retention, identifying top talent and implementing appropriate training paths. "While [the institute] provides individuals with traditional career management services, it offers companies talent management assessments and one-on-one career coaching services," Shaefer says. "We'll assess an employee's strengths and help them navigate their career path to successive leadership roles. Individual employee development plans like these are an important succession management tool for businesses."

CSCC also is piloting a 21st Century Skills certificate program. "It addresses the skills all employers want in their employees, regardless of the industry. Some people call them soft skills. They're things like problem solving, teamwork and the ability to communicate effectively," Shaefer says.

Customized Curriculum

If a course catalog doesn't have exactly what your company is looking for, speak up. Schools routinely tailor topics to the needs of specific businesses.

"I explain OSU's contractual outreach courses to see how the university can offer courses to their employees," Kowalczyk says. "We do a needs analysis and discuss how the training possibilities can help both the employees and the company. Using our continuing education content, we reach out to the rest of the university to build customized programs."

Franklin University assisted Worthington Cylinders, a Worthington Industries subsidiary, in developing a training program for about 50 group leaders. "The group leaders ensure our production and manufacturing floor run efficiently and safely, and they work with employees on scheduling and safety issues," says Amy Thompson, human resources manager. "We were looking for supervisory training that helped them with things like change management, conflict resolution and performance management."

After reviewing a number of Franklin's training modules, Thompson says, Worthington "reworked them some, because we wanted the training to be directly applicable to the group leaders' job and to give our employees skills they can build on in the future. The training fits with our corporate philosophy of promoting from within."

Participants in the year-long program, launched in July 2010, meet at Worthington Cylinders each month for four to six hours. After the first three months, participants presented what they'd learned to management.

"We've had great feedback," Thompson says. "They appreciate that we're investing in them. They're already giving us ideas on how to improve communication and efficiency across different areas of the plant."

Management training also figures heavily into the future of Northwoods Consulting Partners, a software developer in Dublin. "We have very aggressive growth plans," says Kim Kocak, Northwoods' human resources and development director. "The quality of our leadership will matter as we grow into those plans and cultivate our culture. We know we can't grow the organization without growing the people."

In the fall, Northwoods turned to Franklin to help create the Northwoods Leadership Series for the management team and the Sculpting Northwoods Leaders program for rising stars. "We're tapping innovation from our people up and down the ladder," Kocak says. "They're the ones that know our company inside and out. Investing in them only adds to their motivation to help the company succeed as we grow."

"We had definite ideas about what we wanted to cover" at the leadership sessions beginning in March, Kocak says. "The content and materials tie into our plans and the employees' jobs. They're very real-world. Franklin was very open to providing us what we needed and offered us their ideas."

That's music to McDaniel's ears. "When we meet with businesses, we discuss the areas where their employees need additional training to do their job well. We work closely with them to design classes that address those deficiencies and incorporate relevant examples to their day-to-day work," he says.

Building Bridges

Communication between educators and business leaders isn't a one-way street. Schools actively engage with chambers of commerce and other business groups to find out about local education needs, provide sponsorships and network. Columbus State, for example, "wants to be at the table as a resource anytime business leaders gather," Spain says.

Sometimes the business leaders become the educators, as schools put them to work as continuing education and workforce development instructors. "The majority of our instructors are actively engaged in their field," Spain says.

Learning from someone who's "been there, done that" can be a real plus for a continuing ed student. "Adults learn differently than traditional age students," Spain notes. "We ensure [instructors] understand that process and encourage a lot of discussion and interaction. We want to draw on what the students know."

Business leaders also are called upon to act as advisors to the colleges. DeVry's career advisory board "provides guidance and input, so our courses reflect real-world perspectives and scenarios that the students can recognize and relate to," Howery says.

"We regularly ask [business leaders], ‘What challenges do you face in your world?' Then we go to work to design curriculum that addresses those challenges," McDaniel says of Franklin's advisory board.

Although most continuing education courses are presented at the school or the business, some companies prefer other off-site locations. Franklin offers one of the most unusual training sites: Shadowbox Live.

"We partnered with Shadowbox to create the Theater of Business," McDaniel says. "These workshops focus on aspects of team building, communication skills, and sales and service. Franklin staff members teach the content. The theater's actors use comedy skits to make the training interactive. Everyone laughs and has fun as they learn."

A number of workforce development and continuing education options blend classroom instruction with online learning. OSU offers more than 300 online courses and more are on the drawing board. "If we can't do onsite training, we can put the content online. It may not be possible to take everyone away from work for training, but everyone can still be trained online on a schedule that's more conducive to the company's needs," Kowalczyk says.

Colleges and universities understand that time is money. "We know the company's biggest [training] cost is the time away from the job for their employees, so we want to make the most of their time," says CSCC's Spain. "We show how our training can make an impact on reducing waste, increasing customer retention, improving proficiency or whatever the company's measurement is."

Like the curriculum, the price tag is often customized. Factors include the number of participants, number of sessions, type of training, cost of assessments and course materials. Employers have sharpened their pencils. They expect a return on what is often a very significant financial investment.

Kocak knew she'd have to justify the cost of Northwoods' two management training programs. "It's valid for management to ask ‘What's the company getting for the money?' You have to show the return on investment," she says. "If you link the training to the strategic plan, it's an easy sell. In our case, there's no way for us to succeed without doing these things. Everyone understood that."

Employers hesitant about the value of continuing education should weigh the financial investment against the cost of having key employees defect to the competition. "Companies need to identify top performers so they can move up in the organization, not move out," Spain says. "Even in today's climate, your ‘A' players usually won't have any trouble landing on their feet elsewhere."

Enterprising Employees

With unemployment hovering at 9 percent and businesses still reluctant to hire, employees are very aware that finding a new job can be tough. So it's no surprise that workers at all levels are seeking out professional development opportunities to enhance their positions.

"Gone are the days when the HR department scheduled everyone's training," McDaniel says. "Today's lean companies need people who can manage their own professional growth. Employees need to be prepared not only to do their current job effectively, but they also need to be prepared for when new career opportunities arise."

Employees are finding, though, that their educational efforts often involve investment of both time and money. The convenience of online, evening and weekend classes makes it easier for employees to manage the time demands. But strapped employers may be willing to pay only a portion of the cost of a training program-or nothing at all. Schools, sensitive to the financial constraints on their adult students, increasingly tout affordability, offering nondegree class fees that range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

"Many employees are improving themselves of their own accord," Shaefer says. "They see the value of staying up-to-date, learning something new. They're making themselves more valuable to their current employer even as they position themselves for the future."

Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the April 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.