Despite an increasing dependence on technology in the workplace, only 16% of U.S. workers receive company-sponsored training to keep their skills up to date, according to a recent survey by the American Society for Training and Development.
Employers who are willing to play the role of educator are heroes, U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich said in an address Tuesday to members of the national organization, which is holding its annual convention here this week.
Being competitive in today's dynamic global economy requires constantly updated technical and problem-solving skills, Reich said in his speech, delivered by satellite.
Reich's message touched a sympathetic chord among the 615 exhibitors and 5,300 others attending the annual conference.
Companies are often reluctant to spend money on training, said Curtis Plott, president of the trade group, because they are concerned that they will train people who leave and take their new skills to another employer. That is why most of the continuing education money spent in the United States is on college-educated men over the age of 35--a group perceived as less mobile.
But with downsizing and the elimination of management layers, companies are going to depend more on lower-level workers, Plott said. And they must be taught to use technology and suggest change.
"We need better skills at the bottom of the work force," he said. "They're always the ones who can suggest quality improvements and connecting the process to the customer, because they're the ones out there daily."
Fortunately, as new technology raises potential problems for corporate America, it can also provide the solutions. Using high-tech training programs, companies can offer on-the-job education to employees at all levels without spending a lot of money.
One manufacturing company, for example, introduced 750 new products in one year, Plott said, and had trouble keeping its technicians updated. So, knowing that employees often learn by asking each other questions, the company gave all of its technicians cellular phones and each other's phone numbers. The system was a success, he said.
In another instance, a large mail-order house installed "electronic performance support" software--a big name for giving customer service employees access to a particular consumer's buying habits. That way, employees could suggest other purchases to customers on the spot.
Such training for a service staff that works around the clock and has a high turnover rate would have been prohibitively expensive until recently, Plott said. But by giving employees computer training and access, such a program can be both practical and effective.
The Gannett newspaper chain provided a similar tool for its advertising salespeople. Each was given a computer that carried the most current rates and options for buying space in more than one of the company's nearly 100 publications.
Dave Kocher, an exhibitor at the trade show, said one of the fastest-growing uses for training databases is to educate employees about federal requirements for health and safety when working with hazardous materials. Kocher represents Advanced Educational Technologies, a La Mesa company that sells interactive video disc and videotape training programs.
Surveys conducted in 1983 and 1991 show that more employees are benefiting from formal training programs to keep skills current. In 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available, technical professionals reported receiving the most training, followed by management support specialists. Percentage receiving formal training:
Employee type 1983 1991 Technical professionals 23% 31% Management support specialists 20 28 Technicians 18 26 General managers 17 25 Mechanics and repairers 22 24 Miners 16 23 Precision production workers 13 17 Clerical workers 10 16 Sales workers 13 16 Non-technical professionals 9 13 Transportation workers 6 10 Service workers 8 9 Craft workers 7 9 Machine operators 4 8 Laborers 2 5 Average 11 16
Source: U.S. Department of Labor; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times
Bigger Equals More Training
Large companies are more likely than small ones to implement formal training programs for new employees. Percentage of companies with training programs:
Employees Size of business 1-24 25-99 100-499 500+ Service 22.0 31.1 41.2 50.7 Non-service 16.0 23.2 33.6 41.7 Average 18.6 25.9 36.1 44.4
Source: Small Business Administration; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times