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Maximizing the ROI of Soft Skills Training for New Hires

Soft Skills are Critical to your Company’s Success

Soft skills are critical to the effectiveness of your workforce. Numerous studies have shown that employees with effective communication and soft skills are more productive and make more money for their companies. If you want a refresher on what soft skills are and why they’re important, watch this VIDEO that I developed to explain the issue. The challenge for many companies is training employees to develop these soft skills or finding new hires who already have soft skills.

Universities Struggle to Provide Soft Skills Development

Many companies hire new graduates straight out of college. They can find talented new employees who are excited to learn and be molded into what a company needs. But the truth is that most colleges and universities do only a very modest job of preparing students to develop soft skills. Faculty members are great at delivering lectures, providing awareness and knowledge, but true soft skills development takes practice and a critical feedback loop. And this takes up valuable class time. Many schools are working to remedy this soft skills “gap,” but it’s tough, and most faculty members don’t have time to devote to this time-consuming process.

From my experience teaching at three state Universities, several factors affect this. In many universities today, budgets are getting tighter, even if class sizes are increasing. Professors often don’t feel able to provide feedback to students when the class sizes get up into the 40s, 50s, 70s, or even hundreds. At one major state school, I served as a graduate teaching assistant in a class of about 250 students. A more common class size, though, is 40-90 students for a single faculty member. Faculty members most typically teach 3-4 classes and are also expected to conduct high-quality research and serve on university committees. This is at a mid-level State University.

Faculty at research-intensive universities may only teach 1-2 courses per semester, but they are correspondingly required to publish more and must do so in the most prestigious journals, while also mentoring PhD students. The primary focus of these faculty members is to generate research output and gain tenure. These instructors have little time and energy for developing traditional undergraduates’ soft skills. And to be fair, they aren’t really rewarded for this either. Many of these instructors have graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) that grade papers. Faculty at small private schools perhaps have the best opportunity to provide feedback, as these schools often have a lower faculty to student ratio. But these faculty often get bogged down in committee work, accreditation visits, and are required to wear many hats to make their universities function.

Imagine if you were a faculty at any of these situations.  How feasible would it be for you to provide individualized writing feedback to 150 students? Or to role-play a communication situation with this many people? These examples illustrate the challenge from a faculty member’s perspective.

The point of all this is that companies must expect to take a greater degree of ownership for training for new hires, especially students with little experience in the industry. But how to do this most efficiently is the real question.  

Students will need mentoring & training to speed up ROI

The companies I work with tell me that a typical new hire will take anywhere from 6-18 months to provide a return on their investment. I primarily connect with smaller companies that have between 5-100 employees. The capital investment for these smaller companies is significant to their productivity. In other words, the stakes of a new hire working out are high. New college graduates need to be trained, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay longer than a year. HR managers and CEOs may get burned when they trained a new college graduate, only to have them leave for another company after 8 months.  In 2018, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average tenure at one company for employees between the ages of 25-34 was 2.8 years.

So how do you provide training that speeds up the ROI of your new hire but doesn’t break the bank if they leave after a year or two? Any training you do should involve some combination of the awareness-practice-feedback loop. Employees gain awareness, practice the concept, and get feedback on their performance. The following are several options that should stimulate a discussion with your HR manager or business partner about which methods are right for your company.

  1. Do Nothing. This option allows new hires learn by watching and observing other employees. This option is one that lets new hires learn by making mistakes. Depending on whether you have abundant leads or the mistakes are not very consequential, this one lets the student learn on your dollar. The benefit is that it doesn’t take time off of your plate or your colleagues’ plate. Your investment in the employee will be slow to mature. Further, new hires without support may feel lonely, isolated, and discouraged. If they stick with the company, most new employees will eventually learn the business. But they also may form habits aren’t as professional as you’d like. If you do have valuable leads, you may not want to risk anything with these new hires, relegating their contribution to behind-the-scenes work.
  2. Mentoring. This option offers new hires a regular interaction with a mentor. This could be an owner, HR manager, or a colleague you wish the new hire to learn from. Several professionals I’ve interviewed recommended new hires to “find” a mentor. The problem with this is that it puts the burden on the new hire to reach out to someone. This may not occur to new hires, and that someone they pick may be too busy. The new hire may feel bad about taking up their colleague’s time if there isn’t a mentoring system. If there is no structure in place for allowing the mentor to be rewarded for spending time with the new hire, this could lead to frustration on the mentor’s side. If done properly and systematically, this could pay off in a big way. And different options can be considered that are more or less time-intensive.
  3. Consultant Coaching. This option involves hiring an outside consultant to work with your hires on a one-on-one basis. It is like mentoring, but without burdening your current employees. Given that this is expensive, this is typically only done for employees you are grooming to take on important management roles or managers who are struggling. This specialized approach is not likely the best choice for most entry-level employees.
  4. Conferences. Conferences are another way for new hires to get exposed to industry ideas, thinkers, and to network with others in the field. They have the chance to attend panels and speakers to learn more about a topic. The challenge here is twofold: expense and the business model of conferences. Chances are, conferences will be a great place for your employees to gain “awareness” about products and ideas. But awareness is just the first step towards practice. Not all conferences help develop skills. Further, depending on where the conference is (in town, out-of-town), this can be expensive per person. The ROI for this for all new employees can be expensive. But if you only have a few new employees each year, this might make sense. For skills learning, the better conferences will include a description of workshops and key, practice-based takeaways.
  5. Onboarding. For most small companies, the HR manager or Talent Director works to prepare training that all new hires must complete in a whirlwind at the beginning. This may include a blend of E-learning, videos, quizzes, and mandatory compliance trainings. But how much time is available for soft skills and communication topics? Onboarding tends to have a “mandatory” and “compliance” feel for obvious reasons—it is required. There is little time left for the higher-level development. And at the beginning of the job, new hires may not have the bandwidth to absorb and apply additional material. Part of the challenge here is the timing—spreading out training over the first 60-90-120 days may prove more effective if content is rolled out a little at a time.
  6. Workshops. In this scenario, a trainer or consultant is brought in for a Friday “Lunch and Learn,” and a cohort of employees can benefit from a brief exposure to industry expertise. The benefit of this method is also that employees can benefit from the group and learn from one another. If the facilitator is good, they will get employees to interact with one another in a collaborative and non-threatening way that builds team cohesion. It helps establish a company culture of ongoing learning, which is fantastic. The challenge here is getting everyone in the same place at the same time. There is also the expense of bringing in outside experts to facilitate. A company could save money by having the HR manager or trainer facilitate the learning sessions.  This method could be combined with the mentoring, onboarding, or e-learning options.
  7. E-Learning. E-learning provides your employees access to online lessons, videos, books, and resources to work at a self-paced way. The cost per user of online soft skills courses or books is much less expensive than sending employees to a conference or bringing in an outside facilitator for a workshop. The price per user of a course can range from $20-$300 per person depending on the quality of the content and the qualification of the instructor. This option is also time friendly because managers and other employees are not spending as much time teaching new hires. New hires can do the work on their own time. This option is great for employees who are highly motivated to learn.

The challenge here is that not all employees will be motivated enough to complete the lessons. It may require managerial-level incentives and rewards for completion. This could be positive feedback on the annual evaluation for completing certain modules or courses. If you want a process will weed out those who are not self-motivated, this might be it! New hires may not take these optional trainings seriously unless there is some measure of accountability—whether a mentor or an accountability partner. New hires will be so busy focused on getting the essential functions of the job done that they may not prioritize the communication and soft skills that seem “obvious” and “common sense.”

So which one is right for your company? Which method or methods will maximize the ROI for your new hires?

Clearly the Do Nothing option will mean the employee will make the most short-term mistakes and the company can expect a slower ROI. The new hire may feel thrown in the deep end and unsupported. But they’ll eventually learn. Conferences early on may not be worth the investment because new hires are just trying to get a grasp on the field and are not likely ready for advanced learning. They just need the basics. The high cost also may warrant saving this option for employees in their second or third year. Executive Coaching would be great as a form of outsourced HR training, but this is expensive enough that you’d only want to do this for employees who are clearly earmarked for significant leadership roles. Onboarding is a given at most places, but the question is whether adding communication and soft skills training will be absorbed amid compliance and ethics training. It may be that soft skills training could be rolled out as a part of a longer onboarding process. Workshops are great at fostering group learning and building company culture of learning. This could also be combined with onboarding, mentoring, or e-learning options. But the challenge here is getting everyone in the same place at the same time. Further, if the HR manager isn’t comfortable facilitating, you must factor in the cost of a consultant to lead the session. E-learning and online soft skills courses offer promise because these methods cost effective and time friendly to all involved, but the challenge is that without rewards or accountability, new hires may not be motivated to take advantage of the content. For these to be most successful, there needs to be some feedback and accountability in place.

So which method to use? There simply is no one “right answer.” Every business is different. Training new hires to develop soft skills is incredibly important to the success of your company, but it’s also a delicate balance of getting the best ROI for your efforts. The takeaway from this article is to encourage you to evaluate what you’re doing to develop your new hires’ soft skills. If the answer to that is “nothing,” then you might consider some of the options above. If you can maximize the ROI for your training program, your new hires can speed up their learning process and become more productive for you sooner.

Have you read?

# Top 500 Best Universities In The World For 2019.
# World’s Top 50 Universities For Medicine And Health Science Degrees, 2019.
# World’s Top 50 Universities For Life Science Degrees, 2019.
# World’s Top 50 Universities For Physical Science Degrees, 2019.

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Dr. Benjamin Garner
Benjamin Garner (Ph.D.) is an assistant professor in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia. Dr. Garner's research focuses on soft skills, communication, and local food consumption. Dr. Garner also helps employees develop better soft skills through his video training courses at his company, The Soft Skill Professor, LLC. Dr. Benjamin is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.