Effectively Training Low-Wage Workers

A pair of recent surveys finds low-wage workers not participating in coaching and training programs, with many unaware these programs are even available to them. HR must clearly define training and coaching programs, and ensure development opportunities are communicated early and often throughout the ranks, experts say.

Thursday, April 11, 2013
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It seems low-wage workers are not only not taking advantage of the type of coaching and training programs that could help them advance, but many aren't even aware that such opportunities exist within their organizations.'s according to a recent two-part survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a Chicago-based news and research organization.

One of the surveys saw two-thirds of 1,487 employers saying they offer coaching or mentoring programs, with 61 percent indicating they provide on-the-job training.

The other survey, however, polled 1,606 workers earning $35,000 or less annually, and found just 36 percent reporting their employers offer coaching or mentoring programs, or on-the-job training.

The data do show evidence that many workers may not be aware of their employers' training and other programs, says Jennifer Benz, senior research scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago.

"And, many workers are not taking advantage of programs when they [know they're being] offered," she says, noting that some programs were much more popular than others among low-wage workers who indicated they were conscious of these opportunities.

For example, 64 percent of the workers saying they knew on-the-job training was available to them reported taking part in it. Only 24 percent of these workers, however, said they took advantage of tuition assistance.

"Any number of factors" could be behind the survey findings, but how -- and how often -- companies communicate development opportunities is a key issue for HR to consider, says Lisa Orndorff, manager of employee relations/engagement and global human resources with the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management.

Orndorff notes, for example, that the most common action taken by employers in the survey (40 percent) is to communicate and discuss the benefits of training opportunities during employee performance reviews or other performance-related discussions.

"If the employer conducts the employee performance reviews one or two times a year, and that's the most common vehicle to share information about training opportunities with the employee, it seems that both the employer and employee are being disadvantaged by this means of communication," says Orndorff.

Employees may be more willing to participate in training programs, she continues, "if they were aware of the opportunities. If they don't know about them, they can't participate, and the study also shows that those who have participated in training and/or education programs are more likely to see the value and believe it will contribute to their career advancement than those who didn't participate in those programs."

Indeed, "when employers are able to connect lower-wage workers with training opportunities, the workers generally find training programs helpful for career advancement," says Benz, noting that a majority of workers (57 percent) who have taken advantage of employer-sponsored job training programs or benefits said that job training is important for career advancement. 

Still, the companion polls found some disparities in how employers and low-wage workers view the significance of training and education programs. Eighty-three percent of employers said job training is extremely or very important for upward mobility, with only 50 percent of low-wage workers feeling as strongly about additional training. In addition, 77 percent of employers said they consider education as extremely or very important, with 41 percent of low-wage earners saying the same.

Low-wage workers' lack of awareness about training and education is likely a factor behind these figures, but employee perceptions about their own career arcs are another concern for employers and HR, says Orndorff.

"In my experience, employees - when thinking about upward mobility or career advancement - will oftentimes impose self-limits in thinking that their career advancement would be in their current organization," she says.

"Of course employers want to retain employees," continues Orndorff, "but employers should also recognize that an employee's career advancement may not be within the walls of their organization. The employee may need to leave to fulfill their career aspirations, especially if the advancement opportunities just don't exist in their organization."

The thought of investing coaching and training into an employee, just to see him or her leave, naturally doesn't sit well with the company, she says. But departing employees also "open up opportunities for the employer with the new hire."

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The ideal situation, of course, is to hang on to these employees and spur them to take advantage of opportunities to grow within your company. Holding up standout employees as examples of how development opportunities and programs can benefit everyone is a solid step toward doing just that, says Kim Ruyle, president of Coral Gables, Fla.-based talent management and organization-development firm Inventive Talent Consulting.

"There are many ways employers -- especially the immediate boss -- and HR can motivate employees to take advantage of development opportunities," says Ruyle. "One of the most effective is through the use of stories. Publicize the stories of employees who demonstrate the behaviors you desire in a way that clearly and realistically communicates the behavior and the consequences."

For instance, a short article in an employee newsletter recognizing an individual employee's achievement can be effective if it sets realistic expectations, he says. "Promoting success stories provides recognition -- an engagement driver for the one being recognized -- and provides an antecedent for other employees that can encourage them to follow good examples."

In some cases, a failure to clearly define on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching programs may be hampering HR's efforts, says Ruyle.

"We have to acknowledge that there is probably a difference in how some employers and employees define 'programs" such as on-the-job training and coaching," he says. "I think it's likely that some employers state they provide on-the-job training, for example, but the reality is the programs are not well-structured and understood by employees. Perhaps the employees benefiting from the training or coaching don't even realize that's what it is."

Making low-wage workers more aware of the training and education opportunities at their disposal is ultimately "a shared responsibility ... supported from the very top of the organization through the ranks," says Orndorff. "The CEO and all levels of management and supervision need to be aware of the value of training, [and] how it relates to retention and employee engagement.

"Employees really need to know what's in it for them, [and that] they will be given the time and resources to take the training without any repercussions from their supervisors," she continues. "[This goes back] to instilling the value and necessity to provide and allow participation in training not just for low-wage earners, but for all who are seeking professional development."

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