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10 employee training programs that are low-cost and effective

There are plenty of alternatives to spending a fortune on employee training programs. These 10 options are a great place to start.
employee training programs
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; Dollydoll / Adobe Stock

During times of economic uncertainty, the budget for employee training programs is one of the first to be cut. At the same time, the need for learning and development has never been higher. 

A recent study showed that the potential for future growth is one of the biggest driving factors of employee satisfaction. Meeting the demand for development opportunities with limited resources is prompting L&D teams to think outside of the box.

10 cost-effective employee training programs 

The ideas below can help L&D teams engage learners and continue building a culture of learning, even while on a tight budget. When used for the right purposes, these programs can be very effective. 

1. Mentorships

Mentoring is often thought of as top-down, with senior employees sharing their experience and knowledge with junior ones. But in a culture of learning, everyone is encouraged to share knowledge. 

In 1999, General Electric turned the traditional model upside down and had junior staff mentor the senior ranks regarding the use of the Internet. Today, this type of reverse mentoring and other nontraditional approaches are increasingly common.

Group mentoring arose because of the numerical mismatch between mentors and mentees, with too few of the former to keep up with the demand for mentoring. In group mentoring, one mentor conducts sessions with multiple mentees, or multiple mentors get together with multiple mentees at the same time. 

Research has shown that 90% of employees with mentors are happy in their jobs. Exercising creativity in matching mentors and mentees can yield positive benefits as well. For example, matching up mentors and mentees from different backgrounds can foster inclusion. 

When structuring a mentoring program, define a specific duration for each mentoring relationship (between nine and 18 months is recommended). Putting an expiration date on the relationship allows more employees to participate in the program.

2. In-house coaching

Another one of the most effective, low-cost employee training programs is coaching. In fact, research has shown that more than half of companies with a strong coaching culture report higher revenue than their peer groups. 

Despite often being used interchangeably, “coaching” and “mentoring” are not synonymous. Mentors and coaches use many of the same interpersonal skills, but for different purposes. Mentoring has the broad aim of professional growth for the mentee. Coaching, on the other hand, is intended to develop the skills and knowledge of an employee (the “client”) in a particular area, to meet specific goals established by the client. 

The coach serves as a guide and sounding board on this journey, which typically begins with collaboratively creating a development plan. The coach provides direction and encouragement, suggests development activities, assesses the client’s progress, and gives actionable feedback in an iterative process, until both coach and client agree that the goals have been met. 

Companies with a strong coaching culture report higher revenue than their peer groups.

Oftentimes external coaches are brought in to work with senior leaders and executives, but many organizations are finding that the expertise needed for successful coaching already exists in-house. Leaders throughout an organization can coach individual employees in specific skills to improve job performance and in broadly applicable skills, such as interpersonal communication. Peer coaching programs, in which employees on the same organizational level help each other grow, can also be highly effective. 

3. Apprenticeships

The U.S. Department of Labor defines apprenticeships as a “business-driven investment in the future…that facilitate flexible training within a company’s own culture in order to meet its unique workforce needs.” 

Apprenticeship programs have been found to reduce turnover and recruiting costs. The basic components are hands-on training overseen by an experienced mentor and payment from day one, with compensation increasing as the apprentice’s skill level increases.

Amazon’s Technical Apprenticeship Program is one example of what this can look like in practice. As the website states, the program allows individuals to “gain valuable skills through a paid training course coupled with on-the-job training to best prepare them for careers at Amazon.”

4. Lunch-and-learns

Lunch-and-learns (also called brown baggers) combine a learning experience with social interaction and networking that occurs over a meal. They can be great opportunities for cross-training and silo-busting, both of which help promote a culture of learning throughout the entire organization. 

Lunch-and-learns come in a range of flavors, depending on format, opportunities for discussion, and so on. Some are intended to promote or reinforce other employee training programs, such as diversity and inclusion initiatives. They can also be devoted to wellness-related topics, such as retirement planning. Inviting employees to contribute discussion topics (and the prospect of free food!) can encourage participation. 

5. Toastmasters 

Many corporate leaders become involved in Toastmasters International at some point in their career. Founded in 1924, Toastmasters International is a nonprofit that has over 280,000 members in its worldwide network of clubs. The organization’s mission is to help people from all walks of life develop public speaking and leadership skills. 

Toastmasters meetings give members an opportunity to improve their communication skills in a safe, supportive environment. Each meeting, several members deliver short, prepared speeches and an evaluator later offers constructive feedback. Afterward, all members are encouraged to speak extemporaneously on the day’s “table topics.”  

The cost to start a Toastmasters club and sponsor employees as members is modest, and it only takes 20 members to launch one. Toastmasters can help employees learn to conduct more effective meetings, become better listeners, and improve their time management skills. 

6. Book clubs

One of the most cost-effective employee training programs is a book club that’s open to all. The only expense, other than the time spent meeting, is the cost of books. And an organization’s willingness to invest the time and money into an activity that doesn’t directly generate revenue is a key driver of employee engagement. 

Additional benefits of sponsoring a book club can include:

  • Increased innovation and creativity after group discussions
  • Opportunities to align workers with business strategy, depending on book choice
  • Increased interaction with the leadership team, should they choose to participate 
  • Greater camaraderie among employees across functions

Starting up a book club in the workplace involves deciding on a meeting frequency, structure, member roles, and interesting, informative book choices. Expect book club membership to fluctuate, with some employees leaving and then later rejoining depending on their interest in the book choice. Virtual book clubs held on video conferencing tools like Zoom may help boost attendance. 

7. Internal blogs

Many organizations have instituted an internal blog that’s accessible only via intranet. Internal blogging is an important tool L&D can use for sharing knowledge, and for reducing the loss of productivity attributable to inadequate knowledge sharing.

For example, an L&D leader can post an article about a recently introduced development program and invite comments. As employees post comments and learning staff respond, it creates a dialogue that can interest others in the program and become a forum for feedback.

Blog articles can incorporate images, video, and audio to be more engaging for readers. They can also become a vehicle for celebrating learning milestones, which helps build a sense of community. 

8. Podcasts

Podcasts are a cost-effective way to appeal to employees whose preferred learning mode is auditory. Facilitators can invite in-house experts to impart their knowledge to others, and pick and choose topics that match the organization’s knowledge sharing needs. 

Since podcasts are audio only, the technology investment is minimal. Just be sure to choose the right equipment and software, as poor audio quality can decrease listener retention. From a creative standpoint, best practices include outlining – but not scripting – the ground to be covered, being prepared to ask follow-up questions that keep the discussion on track, and keeping a conversational tone throughout. When well-planned and produced, podcasts can be a valuable addition to any organization’s library of employee training programs.

9. Webinars

Creating a webinar is a little more challenging than a podcast, but is still cost-effective in comparison to many other employee training programs. Webinars are broadcast live but can be made available for playback after the event. 

Hosting a training webinar requires somewhat different skills than instructor-led training in a classroom environment. For example, a webinar presenter can’t see the audience to judge their reactions, but the audience is influenced by the presenter’s facial expressions, hand gestures, and eye contact (with the camera, of course). An effective presenter will use these nonverbal skills to hold the audience’s attention and demonstrate confidence in their message.

Webinars have come a long way to include new ways to engage learners. For organizations using Zoom, the chat, polling, Q&A, and raise-a-hand features each add a unique element of interaction. However, these features are not available with a basic Zoom plan. To take advantage of all the available features, an organization must upgrade to a Zoom Webinars plan. Some features, such as breakout rooms, carry an add-on fee as well.

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10. Video-based learning 

Another way to make employee development programs more cost-effective is to offer video-based learning. L&D teams are often able to find video-based courses, such as the ones offered by Big Think+, that meet their needs without the expense of internal or external video production.  

Video content offers a number of advantages to organizations, including:

  • Information obtained through video tends to be retained better than information obtained solely through reading or listening. 
  • With no limit to how many employees can access a video at a single time, video learning is easily scaled across global workforces.
  • Each video’s performance can be evaluated through LMS data, so it’s easier to understand learner behavior. 

When evaluating a potential video learning provider, see if they offer case studies or free demos, and consider the quality of their videos. Are videos captioned in multiple languages? Are they accessible across devices? These are features modern learners have come to expect when it comes to consuming video content. 

Final note

There are plenty of alternatives to spending a fortune developing employee training programs, and the best time to explore those options is before the L&D budget gets trimmed back. The options highlighted here can save a lot of time and expense even if cost-cutting is not required. 

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