Training budgets might seem vulnerable in a recession, but contractors that innovate can improve staff performance and the bottom line

All across the industry comes the sound of budgets being torn up and business plans being redrafted. Not surprisingly, training expenditure is under pressure as companies try to cut overheads and trim every item of non-essential spending.

But it’s also a truism that staff represent a construction company’s biggest asset. If companies want to invest in the future that lies beyond the recession, there’s also a compelling argument that they should maintain their training spend.

The findings of a soon-to-be-published Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey illustrate this dilemma – and perhaps a few answers.

The War on Talent: Talent Management in Uncertain Times questions 700 human resources directors and senior managers about their training plans for 2009. While it confirms that budgets will be under scrutiny, the CIPD also points to some positives.

‘Organisations are clearly thinking about innovative ways of responding, and in ways that don’t need to cost very much money – for example, using senior managers as mentors or coaches instead of external coaches,’ says Claire McCartney, adviser for organisation and resourcing. ‘Maybe companies didn’t scrutinise their programmes in enough detail in the good times, but if they’re clever, they can now do things differently.’

One company taking just such an innovative approach to training in the recession is Oxford-based Beard, a medium-sized family-run contractor with 180 staff. Since last October, the company has switched its focus from off-site training sessions that take managers away from their jobs, to on-the-job coaching.

Managing director Mark Beard says coaching equips managers with skills and strategies directly related to their working life, meaning that the annual cost of £25,000-plus has an immediate impact on business performance in these difficult times.

‘Coaching is about making our managers better leaders to deliver projects to a higher level of customer satisfaction,’ says Beard. ‘It’s very much focused on project delivery, a way of differentiating ourselves in the recession.’

Through Henley Management College, Beard has hired Chris Matchan, an HR professional with experience in consumer goods and banking, to work with 24 senior managers. He meets each individual for two hours every three months, and is also available for informal chats to respond to any immediate problems.

‘At a lot of meetings, the penny drops and they say: ‘I’ll go and try that. It’s about helping them get the solution they need, it’s not about form filling and checklists,’ Matchan says.

Recessions can sharpen thinking and speed up learning

Mark Beard, Beard

The sessions are also linked to a set of competency targets agreed by Beard’s directors. These set out three levels of performance – essential, desirable and excellent – for each job role. ‘I ensure the basics are in place, and that people are moving towards level three,’ says Matchan.

So how are other construction companies responding to the recession? Kier, winner of a National Training Award 2008, will be spending the same on staff development and leadership training this year as it did in 2008.

‘In times of trouble, leadership skills are even more important than when things are going well,’ says Paul Sealy, head of organisation development and training. ‘We’ll make sure that our training spend is focused on maximising performance and we’ll also look at presentation skills and bid winning, which will be absolutely critical.’

In 2009, Willmott Dixon is introducing development goals on sustainability, and setting up a training module for senior staff on change management. ‘It’s to help proactively manage changing client requirements,’ explains head of human resources Richard Lee.

‘The important thing is we’re not standing still, but updating our skills in line with how the market is moving.’

As the CIPD’s McCartney says, maintaining training could also be vital in preparing for the upturn. ‘The organisations that do continue to train will bounce back faster than their competitors when the economy picks up.’

And there is agreement from all three construction companies that training in the recession is crucial to maintaining commercial performance and staff morale.

‘In a downturn, people need to be motivated to give discretionary effort, to go the extra mile,’ says Matchan. ‘It’s managers who create that environment, and make staff work a bit harder.’

Despite predicting that his company will face a tough trading environment for the next two years, Mark Beard is looking hard for a bright side. ‘Recessions sharpen people’s thinking, and all organisations need to speed up the process of learning. It’s a beneficial by-product of difficult times.’