I’ve been through 5 recessions in my adult life if I count the double dip in the early ‘80’s as 2. Life experience has taught me that recessions aren’t rare events, in fact they come and go with surprising regularity – at least one per decade since the Great Depression. As I watch people around me start new businesses, refinance their mortgages and buy new cars, it makes me think about another opportunity to take advantage of during this economic revival: professional development and training.

The Great Recession that we just survived was a whopper, but some of the effects of it are as predictable as a rainy day in Seattle. While there are many ways a recession affects the employment experience, the headlines usually focus on unemployment rates and layoffs. Anyone lucky enough to keep a job during a severe recession knows that there is a predictability to what will get cut first as bottom lines and budgets shrink: First the trainer or training department gets cut, then the budgets for training and professional development opportunities are slashed. From there, it’s not too much of a leap for a new way of doing business without training to become ingrained in the culture of an organization or individual, despite best intentions to always be learning.

Rainy Day, 2012

While the rest of the country was pretty well recovering from the Great Recession by 2012, I had just joined a new organization that was still reeling from the effects. The trainer and many other staff had been laid off and the budget was tight. Within weeks after I started, three things happened: the professional development budget was taken to $0, a hiring freeze went into effect, and all supply purchases had to go through director-level approval. I couldn’t even get a calendar, and I was a DIRECTOR.

While I and the organization weathered the storm, I learned the hard way that the staff remaining had not had the professional development opportunities I would have expected for people of their pay grade and responsibility. Basic training in supervision, employee performance management, project management, budgeting, all were slim to none. Despite their confidence, passion, and experience in the field, for the most part these talented people had been left to self-train and “use their instincts” when managing people, projects, and budgets – even when the budget was fat. I realized that I had been given a great gift at my former employer: opportunities for training, leadership development, and conference attendance.

Make Development Hay

This experience taught me a valuable lesson about advocating for training for myself and others in the organization at budget time. Budget battles can be brutal. I admit it can be hard to advocate for a bigger training budget even when times are good, but I know now that that’s exactly the time to do it. It’s a given that the training budget and opportunities will shrink when layoffs loom and belts tighten. I feel strongly that an organization that cares about its future demonstrates its commitment to being a learning culture by proactively investing in the professional development of its staff.

In addition to regular raises and more secure employment, one of the perks of being employed during good times is being able to up the training game, so I’m using this time to get in as much professional development for staff and myself as I can. I’m proud that the organization where I work that has used these last few years to get more staff basic training in supervision and project management. But I’m most proud of the commitment to providing leadership training to as many staff as can be accommodated. Because we are in expansion mode rather than retraction, the organization can afford not only the actual training, but also the time training takes away from the day-to-day work of staff. The dividends for staff as current and future leaders are obvious. Their performance and effectiveness at work improve immediately. They gain trust in an organization that invests in their development. Succession planning is built into the equation as well: Leaders are applying leadership and training concepts in context. Building skills not only builds resumes, it builds confidence and competence, preparing our next generation of leaders for the next opportunity.
Checking the Boat for Leaks

In addition to advocating for and promoting professional development for staff under my direction when the weather is fine, I need to remember to take action on my own behalf as well. When it comes to being prepared for the future rough seas, I need to assess my own skill set and see what holes need plugging. It can be hard for me to add myself to the list of people asking for funds for training at work, but the more experience I have managing through economic cycles, the more aware I am of the speed of change in technology and the market and the need for me to include myself as a student. In the last 12 months, I sharpened specific professional skills by attending a national conference, and participating in a year-long leadership program, both paid for by my employer. It doesn’t do me or my team any good for me to sit back and coast on past experience while they dig in their training oars.

To that end, I’ve also used this time of relative economic and employment stability to pay my own way for a class, immersing myself into a topic that I have an interest in outside of work, earning 40 continuing education credits towards a certification, if I choose to pursue it. I don’t know yet how this training will impact my current career trajectory, but the personal payoff is immeasurable. I know I’m building skills for the future, a future that will most certainly include the next recession.

Recommended Reading:

The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey: Winning Over the Next Generation of Leaders/Deloitte Touche

This annual survey reveals what the new generation of workers thinks about work. The results show that they are eager to be developed as leaders and think that twice as much time should be devoted to their development than is actually happening.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t/Simon Sinek (2014)

From tribes to the Marines to teams at work, Sinek explores the Circle of Safety where leaders sacrifice their own comfort for the good of the team. As always, he uses compelling examples to illustrate his point, which makes this a good read. While it’s important for me as a leader to make sure others get served first, when it comes to training and professional development, I’ve got to remember to get in the chow line too.