SI Review: November 2011

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Teaching Your Temps

Training temps can set staffing firms apart

By Margaret Steen

In a competitive staffing market, with customers demanding specific skills, some staffing firms are training their temporary workers to stand out from the crowd.

Although the idea of training temporary workers is not new — some firms have been doing it for decades — it has become easier with advances in technology. Still, it’s not the right answer in every situation, so firms need to consider carefully whether a training program is the right approach for them.

“It’s still a huge area of opportunity and an area where staffing firms can provide value where it’s not being provided in a lot of places,” says Scott Wintrip, founder and president of StaffingU and the Wintrip Consulting Group, which helps companies, including staffing and recruiting firms, grow.

Training for temporary workers goes back a long way: Clerical staff have often gotten training in computer skills, for example, and some firms that place light industrial staff have set up training specifically for their customers’ production lines.

And the reason companies do it is clear: “If you can enhance the skills of your temporary workers, then you can charge more,” says Barbara J. Bruno, CEO of Good as Gold Training.

Today, several trends are shaping temporary worker training: pressure to cut costs, competition among staffing firms and the rise of online learning.

“We recently have had a lot of interest in what kinds of courses we have for temporary or contract employees,” says Amy Munroe, chief operating officer of Staffing E-Trainer in Atlanta. Some want to educate personnel about a particular industry; others want to fill gaps in workers’ skills. “I think it’s due to the widely known gap between available workers and the job requirements and skills that are needed.”

How to Do It

There are many ways to deliver training to temporary employees.

Some staffing firms build libraries of training materials such as books and DVDs. Others provide access to more customized training. For example, when staffing firm ABBTECH Professional Resources in Washington D.C. had a client that wanted workers with a particular security certification, it worked with a local training company to provide the training to workers at a discount, according to the firm’s president, Threase Baker.

Online training, however, is one of the most popular delivery methods, and its typically lower costs have helped staffing firms ramp up their training programs. Many online programs are selfpaced, which allows the workers the most flexibility in deciding when and where to take it. Others, such as webinars, are more interactive. These have the advantage of letting the attendees ask questions, but they do require participation at a specific time.

At Robert Half Technology, training has been an important benefit for contingent workers for years. “All of our training has changed dramatically. People want the flexibility to do training on their own schedule,” says John Reed, executive director of Robert Half Technology. “That’s why you’ve seen such a strong migration to online and virtual classes.”

ManpowerGroup, too, uses its library of more than 6,000 online courses as the main training vehicle for its temporary workers. The courses include everything from leadership training to basic computer skills to specific IT training. These courses account for about 90 percent of ManpowerGroup’s training, says Becca Dernberger, vice president of the Northeast Division for ManpowerGroup. The company also offers training specific to certain customers. “We’re seeing an uptick in that as well.”

The online model will likely continue to evolve.

“I think the future is self-paced learning with some kind of follow-up behind it,” Munroe says. For example, staffing firms could offer a conversation with an expert, either one on one or in a small group, after a worker has completed the self-paced training online. “Retention is critical, and understanding the material from the perspective of the customer is also important, so I think it’s important that the staffing company has a touch-back point.”

Reasons to Train

For staffing firms that offer training, there are two key reasons: to set their services (and workers) apart from their competitors’, and to attract and retain the best contingent workers.

Both these reasons come into play for Robert Half Technology, Reed said. The company offers all of its candidates access to online training, as well as a repository of white papers and other technical information.

Perusing this information can help a candidate ace an interview, for example, or even excel once on the job.

For instance, training helps workers contribute from their first day. Some staffing companies have even started training contingent workers in the culture of the company where they’ll be working so they fit in and make a difference from the onset.

“That little learning curve pretty much disappears because the firm has taken the time to do onboarding for them,” Bruno says. “If somebody’s got a good client and they’re hiring multiple temps, it’s in the best interest of the staffing firm to do onboarding.”

Training temporary workers helps staffing firms do more than stand out to clients. It can also help staffing firms attract and retain their contingents, Wintrip says. “The cost of recruiting is still very, very high. It’s easier to keep somebody than to have to replace them. This is one good way to keep them.”

Offering training also makes it easier for a staffing firm to sell temp work as a lifestyle, not ust a stopgap between jobs.

And workers like the training because it gives them an advantage in interviews — it gives them the opportunity to demonstrate skills potential employers are looking for.

“It’s a little incubator, an opportunity to show that they have the self-discipline and motivation to work on their own to get through that training, and that’s what so many worksites need right now,” Dernberger says. More than 9 million ManpowerGroup workers have taken at least one course through the company.

Accounting for Risk

Despite all the benefits, training may not be the right answer for every staffing firm or every situation. Experts advise considering the following questions when deciding whether — and how — to offer training:

Demand. Is there demand for this skill — and will training fill it? “Every firm seems to have around three core positions that they fill most often,” Wintrip says. Those are the positions that may work best for training since there is a better chance of being able to place workers on multiple assignments.

Wintrip also recommends running a pilot training program to see how workers and employers respond before starting large-scale training. That way you can assess whether the training actually fills a need.

Cost. How much will it cost, and who will pay? Cost effectiveness is critical in any endeavor, and especially in a situation where many of the workers who benefit from the training are likely to leave. “You’re investing in somebody,” Wintrip says, but they are under no obligation to take the next placement you offer.

Determining whether training will be cost effective is complicated, partly because staffing firms can charge more for better qualified workers. “Bill rates are based on the credentials and qualifications of the people we place in jobs,” Bruno says.

And if a firm’s temporary workers aren’t well trained enough to impress customers, then training may be a business necessity.

Nonetheless, firms with very low margins that compete largely on price may not find it worthwhile. “This isn’t for everybody,” Bruno says.

Worthwhile? Consider whether the training that is required is worthwhile. Sometimes, a staffing firm cannot realistically provide the training workers need. Some types of training are easier to provide than others.

“We’re in the staffing and recruiting business; we’re not in the training business,” Reed says. That means that if a candidate needs more in-depth training than RHI offers, they would need to go elsewhere to get it.

At The Winter, Wyman Companies, a technology, finance and human resources staffing firm in New England, training is limited to skills such as interviewing — something staffing firms are well-equipped to offer. “Many people are just not prepared to interview,” says Scott Ragusa, president of contract businesses for Winter, Wyman. “We spend a good deal of time talking people through” the process.

But because the firm places workers with advanced skills, offering technical training is not an option.

“Our clients are looking for a certain level of experience that it takes years and oftentimes degrees to get,” Ragusa says. The firm’s customers want workers who have on-the-job experience, not just classes. “If I’m placing an accountant and they’re not fresh in their accounting knowledge, they can’t learn that in an afternoon.”

Despite the risks these issues suggest, a wellthought- out training program can be beneficial in many cases.

“Providing training for the sake of training is not a good idea,” Wintrip says. But cost-effective, focused training that improves temporary workers’ skills and makes them more desirable to customers — at the same time making the staffing firm that helps workers gain those skills an attractive place to work — can be a good deal for everyone.

“If you’re not providing training for your contractors or temps in this competitive marketplace, you have to ask yourself why,” Bruno says. “If you’re not providing training, your competition is.”

Margaret Steen is a writer in Los Altos, Calif., who writes frequently about the workplace.

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