Business owners may think they can’t afford to provide their employees with professional development beyond the skills training needed to perform specific jobs. But in today’s competitive job market, providing ongoing training and development opportunities is essential to keeping employees satisfied—and attracting well-qualified new ones. Obviously, developing new competencies, especially in areas such as digital marketing, is also critical for companies’ competitiveness and ability to keep up with the pace of business.


And that’s especially true at small companies, which are always at risk of losing out on talented people to larger businesses and can easily fall behind the learning curve. One recent survey found that 34 percent of small business owners have trouble hiring people with the right qualifications, which means they have to train many of their employees in-house to get them up to speed.


“Millennials are not staying around any place where they don’t feel like their professional career is being developed,” says JoAnna Brandi, an executive leadership and culture coach in Boca Raton, Florida. “Especially if a small business wants to grow, it has to be an organization that values learning.”


Small companies have the advantage of being nimble. They can use their resourcefulness and creativity to find low-cost ways to train their employees. Here are some strategies Brandi recommends:


Start a book club.


Bringing in professional coaches and trainers can be expensive. It may be worthwhile for a select group of managers or employees, but the cost for all staff members may be prohibitive. On the other hand, buying books is generally quite reasonable. Think about books that tie in with the professional development ideals you want to instill in your workforce—whether that’s improving customer service, sales, innovation or emotional intelligence. Invite your employees to join the book club. Buy enough books and give them an incentive, such as free lunch. “Whenever there’s food, people come,” Brandi says.


“Earn and learn.”


Consider paying employees a small stipend to research a subject of value and then report their findings back to their colleagues. For example, Brandi suggests a small business could pay an employee to eat at a local restaurant known for stellar customer service and then report back on what made the experience great. But it can also pay for one employee to attend a conference or training seminar and share what he or she has learned with other employees.


Take field trips.


Getting employees out of the office and into the field, such as visiting a top customer to learn about its operations, can provide valuable first-hand experiences.


Look at affordable or free online training courses.


Almost every industry has a trade organization that provides low-cost courses specific to that industry, Brandi says. Companies should also look at massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are often geared toward professionals looking to build skills, such as computer programming and web development through Udemy or marketing analytics through Coursera. Certain websites, such as, specialize in providing training for a wide range of industries. And the Small Business Administration offers a learning center with useful information for owners and employees on a variety of topics, including cybersecurity, conducting market research, and financing.


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