OPINION: The best training is on the job

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust but writes in a personal capacity

In the list of things that I would place in Room 101, meaningless survey information comes near the top. This week's specimen is provided by Agenda Consultancy, a management consultancy that caters for the not-for-profit sector. Its recent People Count survey found that the voluntary sector spends 30 per cent less on training compared to other sectors.

I always feel particularly defensive when the sector is criticised for its training record on the grounds of spend. After all, one of the sector's unsung strengths is the diverse, on-the-job training opportunities that it can offer. Staff may be less likely to attend external, paid-for training than their counterparts from other sectors, but the wide-ranging experience the sector offers can be worth a whole lot more.

Because the voluntary sector is generally less hierarchical than other sectors, staff who show initiative can take on new responsibilities relatively quickly. And the limited resources, in many ways a major drawback for the sector, create a can-do mentality. In this kind of environment the ambitious employee can thrive.

Training surveys often neglect the fact that most work skills are learned on the job rather than on a course. That's not to say that training courses are worthless. But in isolation they teach us very little, unless we get a chance to test out new ideas in practice. Most skills, including campaigning, press work, policy and research, cannot be learned by rote.

Rather than focus on money spent per employee, organisations ought to be judged on whether they assess and meet staff personal development plans.

Even (perhaps especially) in small voluntary organisations there are opportunities to witness and shadow a wide range of skills. The voluntary sector ought to make more of the wide-ranging on-the-job training opportunities that it can offer. Voluntary sector staff may not get the pick of the bunch when it comes to expensive training courses but, more often than not, they are already working in a dynamic learning environment.

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