Contract Training in a Changing Economy

An Inside Higher Ed article this week noted that with fewer large businesses influencing workforce training, many colleges engaged in contract training are shifting their approach away from serving larger employers and toward serving as a training "hub" for numerous smaller businesses. We reached out to Leah Kier, community outreach and custom training director for the University of New Mexico's continuing education division, and Amy Wartham, director of corporate training for the office of continuing education at the U of North Carolina at Charlotte Ben Craig Center, for their advice on how colleges (including four-year institutions) need to shift their contract training approach to be effective in both meeting the needs of this changing economy and identifying new revenue streams.

Revisit Your Offerings

The reality in most regions is that corporations have cut back severely on their training budgets. Wartham notes that many large organizations are internalizing their training, rather than outsourcing to vendors or universities. And smaller organizations with fewer staff are not likely to find the expense of a university course to be an effective training solution.

Kier and Wartham recommend reinvesting your existing resources, transitioning from offering customized training courses toward more consultative services. For example, you can offer:

  • Course design for companies that are struggling to develop in-house training
  • "Train the trainer" sessions
  • Videoconferencing
  • Design of training materials for in-house use: manuals, worksheets, workbooks
  • Needs assessment of their departments to determine what training they need to offer their staff

Your institution's expertise, after all, is not just course delivery; it is instructional design.

If you have the opportunity in your region to contract with large organizations, consider digging into what training they are hoping to offer in house. An institution of higher education can bring them the resources and the expertise to make that training highly successful. If your institution has expertise in blended and online course development, this can be especially valuable to companies.

If you previously had offered training to a large company that now is gone, consolidated, bought out, or simply cutting back its budget, look for smaller companies that need the same skills training you were offering. You may be able to offer "train the trainer" expertise to more companies in smaller, more affordable packages.

In either case, take stock of what employers need, and what skills and expertise your institution can bring to the table. Linda Lancaster, a conference director with Academic Impressions, offers the example of a national employer that told one institution that they could not afford customized training because their employees were always on the road, and it would be neither practical nor economical to bring all of them in for a training workshop. The university was still able to meet the employer's need for training, however, by designing a series of training CDs that employees could listen to while in their cars or in hotel rooms.

"It's problem-solving. Listen very carefully to what the employer is telling you and see if you can solve the problem for them, using your resources and skills. You become valuable to companies when you do that."
Linda Lancaster, Academic Impressions

Engage in Low-Cost Market Research

Redesigning your offerings requires some fast needs assessment, but this doesn't always have to be expensive. For example, most job fairs will allow universities to attend for free. Attend the job fair, leave your brochures on the table, and wander around to talk with all the HR representatives for different employers. Ask:

  • What skill sets do they need?
  • What skill sets are they having trouble hiring?

This can be an excellent means of gauging the current needs in local industry -- and introducing a number of employers to the services you offer.

Kier recommends also looking into:

  • What new companies are moving into town and hiring
  • What companies are closing down
  • What state funds (through the state's economic development agency) and federal funds (for example, ARRA stimulus grants for healthcare and green industries) are available for training new hires or displaced workers

Knowing what funds are available will help you invest in more targeted outreach. For example, WIA funds will often cover half the training cost in high-demand industries. "Letting the local hospital know that the state will likely cover half the cost of the training is a powerful incentive for them to get connected with you," Kier remarks.

Of course, one-on-one sales calls are both time-intensive and an intensive use of human resources; you will want to use them for very targeted purposes. Save your resources by first:

  • Putting "feelers" out on your website (for example, have an online "Interested in Customized Training?" form that visitors can fill out)
  • Email blasts
  • Attending alliance meetings and professional organization events -- get the word out there, let the industry know what services you provide

"Waiting for the phone to ring doesn't work anymore -- I've had to go and find the business."
Amy Wartham, UNC Charlotte