I recently let slip a comment to the effect that corporate trainers might be due for extinction within a decade, and, understandably, the assertion was instantly challenged. I know that I am sometimes guilty of being provocative in order to move an argument along, but usually there is some substance behind my comments. In this instance, I believe there is a lot of substance, and I am far from happy about it. While I would be happy to see the currently popular career of Instructional Designer burn bright then die, I think in-house trainers still bring a heck of a lot of enduring value to a company.
There is no doubt in my mind that the activity of corporate learning will be around for a long time, but the role of the corporate trainer in that activity is becoming increasingly unimportant. This may not be as apparent in the UK as it is in the US, but since most American organizational evolutions (good and bad) eventually find their way across the pond, the potential demise of the corporate trainer is worth taking seriously just about everywhere.
What evidence do I have to support the contention that many trainers’ careers may be in jeopardy? First, I look at my own personal experience of corporate training over the past three decades, in which I have worked as an outside consultant to dozens of big companies in Europe, the US and around the world. I have seen the scope and scale of training activities of an awful lot of corporations, and I know how rapidly those empires are shrinking. The days of “corporate universities”, residential training facilities, and extensive training support services started slipping toward the end of the 1980’s, and the decline has accelerated ever since.
As more and more training is outsourced, in-house trainers are becoming vendor managers. At the same time, the attitude of large companies toward the development of their employees has turned from nurturing to dismissive, if not outrightly abusive. Once the notion of “human capital” took hold, and employees mutated from people to units of production, it was inevitable that the usually inappropriate concept of ROI would creep in as a simplistic gauge of training’s worth. When the CLO position materialized and training finally got a seat at the table, the Pareto optimization of training followed rapidly, urged on by the false promise of e-learning economies. The marginalization of the in-house trainer is a natural result.
I recall a time, not so long ago, when a company in trouble would seek to re-train its employees rather than fire them. That sense of responsibility, albeit paternalistic, is rare today, with employees seen more as perishable resources than as long-term investments. Satisfying shareholders’ quarterly lust for results undermines the commitment to investment not only in the business, but in its people. Recently, the CEO of General Motors was ardently assuring employees that the company had no plans to go bankrupt and that management would pull the company through. Soon after, just a few weeks before Christmas, he announced that in order to make good on that promise 30,000 people would be fired. No thought of retraining there.
While I am aware that one man’s perception is hardly a body of evidence, I have seen these concerns echoed among many of the people considered to be thought leaders in the learning field. There are currently two relevant growing discussions. The first, and by far most extensive discussion, centers on the future of learning and how to make sure that, as learning becomes less formal and devolves to individual employees, the learning needs of the corporation do not get subsumed by the often conflicting personal needs of the individual. The second discussion is about what, if anything, trainers can do to evolve and stay relevant. Neither of these discussions assumes a future role for corporate trainers, or training departments, as we know them today. It is alarming that as corporations allegedly place increasing emphasis on human performance as a critical success factor, one of their traditional drivers of that performance – trainers – are dying on the vine.
Finally, studies done recently by Ambient Insight (referenced by David Grebow, one of my co-authors in the Learning Circuits blog) examined the role of the corporate trainer and tried to extrapolate into the future. I am inherently skeptical about most studies, since way too many of them are inexpertly designed and executed, and even the best are sometimes badly interpreted. But this one resonates with my own observations, so of course I give it the benefit of the doubt! In a nutshell, the study says that corporate trainers have been in numerical decline for several years. As companies cut overhead, trainers are moving from influential positions within the organization to less influential external vendor positions.
If the study is correct, in the US, the number of corporate trainers is predicted to drop from 75,000 last year to 45,000 in 2008, till by 2012 there will be only 20,000 in-house trainers left in the US. When an occupation is set to lose three quarters of its members in only six years, current incumbents should be a little concerned. Some of those who leave will become employees of, or contractors to, outsourcing operations; those who stay will become vendor procurement managers.
While trainers may be comfortable with that, does it mean that learners will have to make do with more and more of their formal training coming in generic mass-market product form? And what does it do to the idea of training as an important strategic driver of company performance?