published on 15/06/2016 by James

If you train them, they will leave!
The worrying response to the skills shortage


John Edmonds
John Edmonds

It’s a tough one for me, as a learning and development professional, to understand. The mindset that believes that if we train people we are simply giving them a ticket to another job, we’ve made them more marketable and they are going to take advantage of it.

I remember one of our clients once telling us that the majority of the staff that had received project management training provided by us had since moved on, “…so we won’t be doing any more of that training…”.

If you train them, they will leave – it’s like a reverse version of the ‘Field of Dreams’ more positive quote, “If you build it, he will come”.

A response to the negative position of ‘If you train them, they will leave’ that I have heard given is this: No, they will leave for other reasons! And a quote from Richard Branson comes to mind:

“Train people well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

Let me ask a very basic question, why do we want to train staff anyway? Well, the answer lies in a report I recently read that said we have a skills shortage. Nearly two thirds of Chief Executives said that the availability of skills was of ‘serious concern’. It would seem that the right skills are in short supply.

But given what we have already said, it is not an adequate response to send staff off to a range of training courses and expect the skills shortage to magically disappear, when it’s the staff that might disappear!

A better response needs to be more rounded. Let me suggest five areas on which to focus if we want to address our skills shortage and retain our staff.

  1. Let’s start with a basic. It’s this, reward people well enough so that we get the topic of pay off the discussion table. Over the years’ various authors have suggested that whilst pay is a topic to be addressed, it really acts as a de-motivator if it is wrong (too low), but not as a motivator if we try to use it as an incentive. Writers like Herzberg and his hygiene and motivation factors; McGregor and his theories X and Y; and more recently Pink, from whom I borrow the ‘get the topic of pay off the table’ quote. Pay can often be one of the reasons that people leave, so make sure we close that door.
  2. Create the right organisational culture. Look around your organisation. What’s the culture like? Patrick Lencioni has identified a number of pointers that will indicate that your organisation is dysfunctional, so any of these sound familiar.
    1. Absence of trust
    2. Fear of conflict
    3. Lack of commitment
    4. Avoidance of accountability
    5. Inattention to results

Senior managers have a responsibility to create and nurture the organisational culture. If that culture is not open, flexible and supportive, why would staff want to stay around?

  1. Ensure that staff have a good work/life balance. Do your staff feel that the company ‘owns’ them? Do they feel like human ‘resource’, a unit of productivity. Yes, most of us will put in those extra, unpaid hours when the pressure is on, but every day? Every week? ACAS, the employer advice service, says that, “A poor balance between an employee’s work commitments and their other responsibilities can lead to stress, high absence and low productivity. Employees who have a better work-life balance often have a greater sense of responsibility, ownership and control of their working life.” And of course, that has to lead to a commitment to the organisation.
  2. Put in place a professional development programme for staff, and ensure that this can be, and is, tailored to the needs of individuals. A development programme is a key tool in fostering good employee engagement, as it says ‘the company is interested in me’, ‘they are investing in me’, ‘someone cares’!
  3. Make sure that there are development opportunities available (for those staff that want them). These do not necessarily need to be simple ‘promotions’, nor do they need to involve any increase in salary. Frederick Herzberg, mentioned above, identified recognition, responsibility and advancement as all being factors that would motivate. And countless studies have shown that when people aren't motivated, they become less productive, less creative, less of an asset to the company

If you train them, they will leave. Quite possibly, as it’s one of many reasons why that might happen. Don’t train them, and the consequences are all too predictable, as that skill shortage is not going away anytime soon.

So, perhaps the way forward is by addressing the five areas above and training staff?

Treat them well enough…

John Edmonds
May 2016

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