Seek out extra-curricular activities to boost your skills. Taking charge of your own training makes you look good, too.
Be creative, embrace a multi-faceted approach, and communicate to employees that training and professional development is a shared responsibility. Many enriching opportunities exist in our local communities and are available to public-sector employees across the country, not just in the major metropolitan areas.
A Lifetime of Education
Our society places a high value on education. It is still considered the gateway to success, happiness, and a long, prosperous life. To prepare us for reaching that lofty position, for the first 18 years of life, the primary emphasis is on developing well-rounded kids: learning the basics of math, biology, chemistry, art, civics, fitness, and playing well with others—the list gets longer with each passing year. In addition to the standard formal academics, parents invest their hearts, souls, evenings, and weekends to ensure that children participate in organized sports, summer camps, and a variety of clubs.
One strong motivator for this frenzy of activities is to prepare kids for the next major stage of life: college and professional life. At about this same time, kids are suddenly deemed adults and parental coaching, monitoring, nudging, and scheduling drastically tapers off.
Young adults are in the driver's seat, but frequently do not know where to go or how to get there; the same holds for many mid-career employees. They need help translating vague interests into an action plan for growing their professional life. The need for assistance continues, especially as public organizations struggle with tighter resources.
Look to Community Resources
This is a complex situation, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Tight budgets are a huge constraint, but we find some of our best solutions when we embrace constraints rather than fight them. Our local communities, networks, and hands-on activities served us well as kids; maybe they deserve a fresh look again to help us grow as adults. Are you up to the challenge?
Too few employees take an active role in developing and managing their professional development. Somewhere between the structured learning environment we experience as kids and our new role as an employee, we seem to shift the accountability for self-development from ourselves to someone else (such as the training officer or our supervisor).
The issue is not just about who pays for work-related training. It seems to be larger, and includes the beliefs that our employers should develop our individual development plans (IDP), monitor our progress, pay for items that cost money, and give us leave for hours spent learning, and that learning should mostly occur during regular business hours.
Closely related to this is the belief that IDPs should mostly include items that cost money, and if the organization has little or no money for training, then staff development will be put on hold until the lean times (hopefully) pass. This set of beliefs is in stark contrast with those that prevailed while we were successfully navigating those formative years through high school, when we engaged in many enriching experiences that might not be part of our standard "work" day. Employees need to be actively involved in professional development, not just in lean times but in prosperous times, too.
Free and Low-Cost Options
Great training does not have to cost hundreds of dollars. The free and low-cost options mentioned below will likely require more blood, sweat, and tears from the participants than a formal classroom setting, but they also deliver greater returns. Here are several examples of opportunities that just about all public employees have access to in the local community, but may not have considered as providing valuable experiences that translate to the workplace.
Volunteer for a board, commission, or even a one-time public-service event with your local government. Many public-sector employees chose to work for government because they are motivated by the public spirit. There are great opportunities to get close to public service and maybe even "renew vows" that tend to tarnish over time.
Regardless of your technical expertise, many of these volunteer opportunities can offer substantive experience coordinating events and people, reviewing formal documents, making decisions and observing how decisions are made, and weighing priorities. Cost: free.
Become active in a professional organization. Professional associations, especially those related directly to your chosen career, are always begging for help to coordinate events, prepare newsletters, mentor students, judge competitions, maintain websites, serve on committees, and more.
Membership fees are usually nominal or small enough that even the most junior staff can afford them. Plus, the benefit of volunteering sometimes includes reduced fees for those events that do have a fee. Other benefits of membership often include newsletters, social media, networking events, and professional resources. Cost: typically under $100 annually.
Actively participate in a Toastmasters club. This is a supportive group of people working to improve their own public speaking and leadership skills, and who have a desire to help others, too. It combines professionally prepared formal materials and processes with the personal interaction of local colleagues and neighbors.
Though this organization has been around for many years and has more than 14,000 clubs in more than 100 countries, many people are not aware of it and it is often overlooked as a viable training option. Cost: about $100 annually.
Engage a career coach. Career coaches can be found in many communities, but their fees can be fairly high, putting them out of reach financially for most of us. Instead, learn from the recognized experts that write books and post on the Internet about career development, management, and other self-help topics.
Aside from lower cost, this approach means you can read, reread, listen, and relisten as many times as necessary to understand the message. It also allows you to pick and choose the approaches that appeal to you.
Many of these resources also provide actual templates that help you customize your own IDP (but do not feel constrained to address only your work-related professional development; these resources can also help improve your non-work life, too). The public library offers a wealth of appropriate books in paper, audio, and e-book formats. Cost: free.
The above suggestions apply to employees in most professions, especially to individuals that want to become official leaders and managers. Several interesting outcomes of this approach include: some employees decide they really do not like leading people in an official capacity; others may choose to lead from an unofficial capacity; and quite possibly several will discover they have natural leadership abilities that were previously buried deep within.
So before lamenting the lack of funding for training, look deeper into your wallet. Challenge yourself and your colleagues to exploit the rich opportunities these options provide. The value of a training opportunity should not be measured by how much money it costs or how easily it fits into an automated tracking system.
The above opportunities require engagement and a longer-term commitment than many standard training sessions that cost. This approach also moves much of the training burden back to the employees and provides evidence of self-starters, creativity, genuine interest, managerial ability, and long-term commitment—all traits that managers and human resource professionals want to identify and reward.
What's in your training wallet?