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An independent software developer explores the cost of training as a career issue

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[Note from The Headhunter: The issues discussed below pertain directly to software developers, but nowadays they apply to almost any professional field.]

I am a PeopleSoft developer, and have been with my company for just over 1 year. They recently instituted a new policy regarding training. If you leave the company within one year, you have to repay the cost of the training class.

My questions:

1. Is this legal and/or fair? I mean if they send me to Alaska to do DOS BASIC programming, I would have to quit!

2. Would some consultants out there please let me know if your company has a similiar policy?

I am refusing to sign the agreement, thus I am not taking any training classes right now. The main reason I joined this company was the policy they had that greatly encouraged training. I gave my honor that I would be here for at least 2 years, so in my mind as long as they treat me well, I will honor my commitment. I don't want to work for a company that has to resort to these tactics to keep thier employees! I want to work for a company because I like them, not because I signed a piece of paper and don't want to lose a few thousand bucks. Any help??

Insider Advice from
Glenn Mandelkern
Independent Interactive Software Developer

Are your skills an expense, or an investment?
The whole mindset about "training" has changed with regards to employment. In a former lifetime when jobs were "secure", the employee was seen as an investment -- and so was the training that was necessary to nurture and develop that employee. Today, that has changed. In an era where jobs are short-term and employees are disposable, training doesn't pay off in the long term for an employer. It, too, is an expense -- and one that's avoided when possible.

What you are witnessing is becoming more and more commonplace. As someone in high-tech, I strongly recommend that you give up the expectation of having an employer pay your way. In this age of downsizing and cutbacks, the first thing that gets cut from many budgets is the expense of training you. That's why it's so important for you to continue to regard your own training as an investment.

Just-In-Time Skills
Realize, too, that in the computing industry a number of major companies are outsourcing significant parts of the work they need done. Companies insist on "just-in-time inventory" to minimize their investment in parts that aren't immediately necessary. Likewise, they outsource the work itself to workers who already know how to do it. There's no need to train employees!

Competitive Times
Why did this happen? The product cycle has shrunk from 5-6 years to 5-6 months. The new approach is to flood the market with your technology to gain enormous market share. Companies think that to have a competitive advantage, they cannot risk training someone to see if he may come up to speed. If the training doesn't pay off as expected, an ever-shrinking marketing window is lost, say top computer company executives.

Coverage of this subject is all over the media, and it includes ongoing debates about an alleged high-tech labor shortage. More than one hiring manager (even in companies revered for positive employee treatment) insists on finding somebody who already has the knowledge now, even if it means going overseas. If they can hire that knowledgeable person, why should they bother dedicating a budget to training?

The Double-Edged Blade
On another front, many employers -- especially in high-tech -- are concerned that a job candidate might accept a job so he can pick up experience, just to leave the project before it's done. More than one hiring manager has been quoted as saying, "I'm not going to let people use my company as a place for stepping-stone jobs." Your employer's new policy may simply be an "implementation" of that attitude.

Consider yourself lucky to have found an employer who still wants to pay for training. Some do have tuition reimbursement programs which specifically say that once acquiring a degree paid by the company, you must stay with the company for as many as 3 years. But there's an irony: when you accept this kind of a deal, be aware that it isn't a 3-year vaccine against being laid off.

Training Companies Fill The Void
This controversy over training isn't all bad. The high tech landscape is awash in new training programs and products. Courses are springing up all over. You see mailings from community colleges and computer training companies who host seminars. Now you can take training via CD-ROM or over the Web. Some even offer certification. As such training programs proliferate, employers wonder, "Why should we bother sending them to training on our dime?"

What many savvy workers are realizing is, "I don't need an employer to teach me what I need to know any more. Why should I indenture myself to a company when there are so many ways for me to invest in my own training?"

Start Your Training Account
Want to get over your fear of spending a few thousand bucks on yourself? Every year, make it a point to go to at least one technical conference where you, not your employer, pays the bill. Pay for all your books, your hotel, airfare and conference package all out of your own pocket. The more you do this, the more you'll realize that you don't need the employer's "gifts" in order to learn something. If this is too much to do at once, then go for the smaller priced items like the college extension courses. Learn how to shop around. Join book clubs. Definitely write it all off as an itemized deduction on your Schedule A.

Because, you see, you're not spending that money. You're investing it in yourself. When your employer asks you to sign away the next year of your career in exchange for a training program, he's ensuring a return on his investment. Why not make your own investment and keep the profits? Sure, you're still parting with the cash. But when you want to change jobs, there's no noose around your neck. Your new salary could more than pay for those courses you took.

Do It For You
One very important warning about this training, especially in high tech. Don't ever for one minute think that just because you're taking these classes a hiring manager will recognize you for it. I have been in too many behind-closed-door meetings in high-tech employment situations where somebody on the hiring commitee looks at a resume and says, "This guy probably listed a whole bunch of classes just so that he would look good. Besides, having the course under his belt doesn't mean he can do the work."

The common advertising gimmick used by some of these training firms is, "If you don't know your HTML from your HVAC, you're sunk. Take this course and get that high-paying job!" Don't fall for it. Get more education because you want to, not because you think someone else wants you to. It's up to you to figure out how to market your new knowledge to an employer, especially in terms of showing him that you can already do the job given your skills and new class knowledge. That's what Ask The Headhunter is all about.

NOTE: The advice provided above is an opinion, not a professional service. Ask The Headhunter and the author of the advice are not responsible for its accuracy, use or mis-use.


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