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       ARTICLE

Good lessons in bad times

By Yvonne Fontyn
14 August 2009

The strong economy through most of the 2000s meant there was a generous budget for training, for both hard and soft skills.

But in recessionary times, HR and training departments have to make do with tighter budgets. And while some believe this is the time to restrict training to technical skills, others are doing the opposite. They see an opportunity to grow market share by developing people. And there is another priority: the need to bone up on financial management.
"Though companies cut back severely on training budgets in the first half of 2009, they are now trying to use training to improve staff efficiencies and beat debt," says Liza van Wyk, CEO of management & executive training company AstroTech. "Demand for training courses on financial management is rising as companies realise more than ever the dangers of financially illiterate staff."

Like the university business schools, Van Wyk's company offers several courses with a financial focus, including finance for nonfinancial managers and a course on the National Credit Act (NCA).

She adds that companies need to protect themselves. In line with finance minister Pravin Gordhan's stated intention of an increased focus on compliance, "government is sure to take harsher steps against those that fail to deliver on Vat and tax returns".

AstroTech has experienced a rise in clients putting their staff through the course on the NCA "to use its mechanisms as an aid to reduce recessionary pressures and encourage staff to become more financially astute in the workplace and at home".

Van Wyk cites a number of factors driving the increase in financial courses, including the economic "green shoots" reportedly appearing in the US and Europe, and "the realisation here [in SA] that endless staff-cutting starts impeding the ability of companies to recover and grow. What is needed is highly skilled, motivated staff to steer a company through troubled waters."

Knowledge of the NCA can help cut bad client debt, she adds. Also, "the negative impact of people being hounded by creditors or losing their vehicles or homes is that productivity in the workplace collapses. Major companies like Woolworths, BMW and Absa have programmes to assist staff and clients avoid the consequences of bad debt."
Dunne Edelstein, cofounder of training consultancy QualityLife, says though one of his larger clients, a major bank, cancelled a tranche of courses it had booked, other clients are concentrating on inhouse training as a cost-saving measure. "Whereas last year we could take orders for business, relying on the fact that we have a well-established niche in people development, this year we have had to be more aggressive in our marketing."

Renelle Kader, a professional development analyst at Accenture, confirms the management consulting, technology services & outsourcing company is using outside consultants less. "We get more value out of our inhouse department. We are able to purchase material from service providers like SAP and Java and customise it for our staff. Also, our global training department distributes material to all the branches."

Some learning areas are obviously too confidential to outsource and must be done inhouse, as head of group learning & development for Absa Group Ronald Ramabulana points out. He adds: "Though the bank has not reduced the number of training courses for staff, our focus has been more on ascertaining a better return on investment and optimising economies of scale."

Rand-Air GM Louwrens Erasmus is one of those business leaders who believes recession is the time to invest in people development. "Though we have had to reduce and be more selective about which courses we send staff on, we still believe that when you develop individuals you get a better result."

Rand-Air fields about 800 compressors and generators across Southern Africa and employs 100 people. Apart from the obvious need for technical training, Erasmus believes it is vital to equip staff for change and help them be more resilient.