Are you throwing away training dollars?

By August 9, 2021 No Comments

By Dave Johnson, Phylmar newsletter editor

Total expenditure on workplace training by U.S. companies totaled a whopping $82.5 billion in 2020, according to Statista. Organizations with 10,000+ employees annually spend about $1,046 per employee. The majority of the training spend is directed at internal training taught by staff members. External training providers are more commonly engaged to assist with technology and gather feedback from trainees, also known as learning support.

Businesses invest not only big dollars but time on workplace training. Larger companies in the U.S. have been increasing their investment in staff training over the past three years, with the average number of training hours provided annually per employee increasing from 42.2 in 2017 to 102.6 in 2020, according to Statista. Small companies provided an annual average of 41.7 hours and midsize companies 34.7 hours per employee

Lack of data leads to waste

Ironically, many companies do not know if their training expenditures and time are being put to good use, says Cass Ben-Levi, director of the Phylmar Academy. Relying on quizzes at the end of the course can measure short-term memory, but it does not measure understanding, long-term retention, or successful implementation, she explains. “The absence of more in-depth effectiveness studies is a reason many companies may be blindly throw away money on training,” she says.

Why do companies struggle?

“The vast majority do safety training on compliance alone,” says Mark Katchen, managing principal of The Phylmar Group, Inc. “They are content to do check-the-box training with a quiz at the end and leave it at that. Compliance training is going-through-the-motions training.”

Many companies treat safety training more superficially than other training because safety is perceived as a cost center with no return on investment. In comparison, customer service training, sales training, leadership training, communication skills training, time management, conflict resolution, team-building and other courses increase business effectiveness and reputations, talent development add to the bottom line.

There is another factor at play. Many companies go beyond safety compliance training to mission critical safety training (perhaps tied to behavioral or cultural issues), but they are at a loss to determine effectiveness. “They know what they don’t know,” says Katchen. “The fact is training effectiveness methodology is a hidden resource that gets little publicity or promotion.” The demand exists for effectiveness studies that are more in-depth than end-of-course quizzes, especially for mission critical safety training. Many training departments do not want to throw away money, but they don’t know what types of effectiveness evaluations are available.

Model for studying training effectiveness

“Are You Throwing Away Money on Training?” is a new 2,000-word white paper by Cass Ben-Levi that you can access at

The paper explains Phylmar Academy’s model for determining training effectiveness:

  • Pre-evaluation of training course by an instructional designer (optional)
  • Survey of trainees, analysis and report with recommendations – the core of the effectiveness study
  • Interviews with a strategic selection of survey respondents (optional)
  • Post-study evaluation of the impact of improvements recommended by the study (optional)

Training course pre-assessment

A qualified training instructional designer reviews the proposed course and makes recommendations if needed prior to rolling out the training. Perhaps the course has too many bullet points before checking for trainees’ understanding, overwhelming trainees. Are there too many or not enough learning objectives? “Many courses do not establish learning objectives, the actions a trainee should be able to take upon course completion.  They should be a roadmap to the training,” says Ben-Levi, an instructional design expert.

Determining the effectiveness of your training

Immediately after trainees complete a course, you want to know: Did the trainee learn the material? Were learning objectives met? Answers to these questions can be obtained using an exam or other means to learn if trainees understood key course content/concepts.

But don’t stop with a post-course quiz or exam. An effectiveness survey conducted after some time has passed provides data that can help you know whether you trained the right people; the training was “sticky;” and if it was beneficial.

“Stickiness” (trainees have retained course knowledge, information, skills) is an important factor of effectiveness. Many times, learning is often forgotten as soon as a course is completed, says Ben-Levi. Memory fades, especially if not reinforced by refreshers and reminders. Supervisors may not support training behavioral objectives because the changes called for take too much time to implement and can slow down productivity. If the trained behaviors are used only once every few months, learning falls off due to lack of use.

Beneficial outcomes of training include use of the new learning on the job and the new learning has proved useful in accomplishing your goals.

The core of an effectiveness study is a brief survey for all trainees to take.  Questions should allow respondents to indicate who did not use the learning at all, who used it with mixed results, and who used it successfully.  The timing of the study after the training should take into account whether all training took place at the same time or over a longer period, when trainees may encounter the opportunity to use the training, when outcomes may be observable, etc.

Post-training studies aimed at analyzing longer-term effectiveness, say six months to a year after training, can prove difficult in terms of obtaining acceptable response rates. “You need an entire campaign to get the percentage of responses you want from trainees months after course completion,” says Ben-Levi. Response rates can increase significantly when the company emails survey recipients in advance requesting participation and sending reminders prior to the close of the survey.  Make phone calls to participants. Don’t just roll out a survey, drive it with a marketing campaign.

To get honest responses, trainees should be informed that their answers are confidential, will not be shared with their company, and only be used in aggregate form. The key to the effectiveness results is to find those trainees at both ends of the success continuum (i.e., those who didn’t use the learning at all and those who used it successfully) and find out more from them.

The survey should be able to pinpoint where problems may be occurring and why: lack of understanding, lack of motivation, lack of support, lack of appropriate controls, etc. “Why” is at the heart of effectiveness.

The answers to the survey questions may provide you with enough information to determine whether the problems are in the training itself or other influences and to recommend changes to correct them.

An example of other influence: training on slips, trips and falls prevention will be less effective if the company does not provide adequate lighting, spill signage and slip-resistant footwear if needed.

Non-training conditions are important contributors to effectiveness. This includes supervisory and senior leadership support for training goals and providing necessary equipment (such as ergonomic workstations as a component of ergonomics training). Studies indicate 80% or more of training that fails to achieve results is not caused by flawed training, but rather contextual and performance system factors, according to Dr. Robert O. Brinkerhoff, an internationally recognized evaluation and learning effectiveness expert.

Brinkerhoff has written that the importance of effectiveness studies is not the results but how a company makes use of them. One application: effectiveness studies are valuable because what you learn about one training program is probably true of other training efforts, he says. For example, if a supervisor believes the behavioral change of one safety training program interferes with meeting production benchmarks, it is likely he or she feels that way about other safety training topics.

Conversely, discovering what elements go into successful training and outcomes can be lead to greater use of those elements and more widespread successes.

One more element of effectiveness studies: You may want to develop measures to analyze the financial cost of successful training. Your data may show that the training successfully reduced the injury rate, but not enough to justify the expenditure in time and money. Perhaps the money would be more wisely spent on equipment modifications and physical job aids (e.g., posters in the work area) or other awareness campaigns. You don’t know if you don’t perform the evaluation.

Evaluating training effectiveness can be a useful tool for demonstrating program return on investment and as a basis to seek future funding for new training initiatives.

Wondering about your upcoming training?

Phylmar Academy is offering a free Pre-Review assessment on one training topic to the first 10 requests received.  Contact us at

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