How to Make the Most of Learning and Development with a Small Budget

Marianne Hayes
June 4, 2019

If you're managing a diverse team of employees and have been in the work world long enough, there's one truth you've probably already learned by now—investing in people tends to reap the biggest return when it comes to business success. There's a growing body of research suggesting a very real link between business success and employee engagement and happiness.

Every dollar spent on employee fitness, for example, translates to a $1 to $3 reduction in total health care costs. Similarly, workplace mindfulness programs uniquely bolster employee engagement, productivity and happiness.

Looking beyond physical fitness and mental well-being, learning and development is the next rung in the ladder. In other words, how are you helping your employees grow, learn, and really maximize their potential? Edward Yost, manager of employee relations and development at the Society for Human Resource Management, says that in today's rapidly evolving workforce, strategic learning and development initiatives have never been more important.

"In order to keep up with changing technologies, new ideas, concepts, and software, we need to constantly be learning and developing as individuals, and helping to grow and develop our employees to stay ahead of the game and be more effective, productive and accessible," he says.

Companies like HubSpot are ahead of the game, offering individual employees unlimited books and an annual $5,000 continuing education budget, among other perks. Lowe's is another trailblazer for employee learning and development, providing employees with up to $2,500 if they choose to learn a trade like carpentry or appliance repair.

These larger companies have one thing in common, though—big budgets—which begs one obvious question: How can organizations with smaller budgets implement meaningful and effective learning and development programs?


Start where you are

No matter your budget, investing in employees matters. One 2017 Work Institute study found career learning and development to be the top reason workers either stay with an organization or hit the road. When you're working with a smaller budget, you'll feel the cost of employee turnover even harder. According to the Center for American Progress, it costs somewhere between 16 percent to 20 percent of the employee's annual salary to replace low- to mid-range positions. The cost is even higher for executive positions.

So where do you begin? Yost says to zero in on your company's biggest pain points.

"The key first step is figuring out what we need to learn," says Yost, whether that means sharpening up on new technologies, techniques or processes. "Where's our skills gap? That's the key to rolling out and building an effective training and development program; finding out what it is we need to learn, then figuring out how best to go about getting there."

Demonstrate the worthiness of learning and development

"Whatever you offer should translate to immediate effectiveness and immediate ROI for the organization on the back end," Yost adds. "If you're the HR person and you're making this argument, you want to make sure that you can demonstrate the return on investment for every dollar you spend, because it is an outlay of capital of some sort; time, money, materials, those kinds of things."

When it comes to convincing the powers that be to direct more dollars toward learning and development, be prepared to sell it. Paying for your sales team to attend a pricy conference may be expensive upfront, but the skills they learn there could very well translate to business gains in the near future.

Invest in soft skills

Those who are working with a particularly tight learning and development budget may get the best bang for their buck by developing soft skills (a.k.a. interpersonal skills that help people interact with one another more effectively); a key ingredient for emotional intelligence. According to a recent LinkedIn report, training for soft skills is the number one priority for modern talent development teams. Fostering empathy, it turns out, is critical when it comes to successfully managing teams of people.

"Maybe what you need to get you to that next level is training your managers on soft skills and giving legitimate, actionable feedback," says Yost. "You can see almost immediate impacts in improved performance, lower turnover, lower absenteeism, and maybe even higher levels of engagement and retention. It's ROI you can actually demonstrate."

Every company's needs are different, but the common thread is to create programs that fill in skill gaps and are likely to demonstrate a real return on the investment. Not sure where to start? Collect feedback and input from your team about how they want to learn and grow. Employee surveys are a great way to clarify where workers are looking for some extra guidance.

As your learning and development program begins to take shape and pick up steam, you can then consider building it out further as your budget sees fit. Paying for your employees to attend relevant conferences or pursue job-enriching certifications and trainings can pull double duty—and help to satisfy employees’ professional and personal ambitions. Overall, effective learning programs develop individual employees and equip (and inspire) your team to move the needle on the company's revenue goals.

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