There is no doubt that employee training can be an expensive proposition. Indeed, U.S. companies have budgeted $56.8 billion dollars for formal training, this year, according to Training magazine. Of those costs, $19.3 billion will go to outside training providers. And that's not counting the added costs of transportation, hotels, meals and associated expenses when employees are sent to off-site training locations, as well as the lost production time.

Employers, naturally, are looking for a payback on their training investments. The good news is that spending on workforce training has long been tied to increased productivity and bottom line improvements, along with heightened employee loyalty and morale. Studies show that employees value an investment in their education and think more highly of employers who are willing to spend money to keep their workers' skills up to date.

Unfortunately, however, in an effort to maximize the return on their training dollars, many companies are guilty of being "penny-wise and pound-foolish." In many cases, efforts to save money on training costs can actually end up costing companies more in the long run. Here are some tips on maximizing your company's training investment and on avoiding the some of the most common mistakes.

Not too many
Overenrollment is the number one mistake made by companies when they set up training programs. Companies often think that if they schedule more than the recommended number of trainees per class, they get more value for their money. The opposite, in fact, is often true.

If a course is intended to teach new skills, it should be hands-on, competency-based and incorporate structured activities to enhance new skills. If too many trainees are enrolled, the course becomes lecture-based, rather than hands-on. While this is appropriate for an informational seminar, it does not work for learning or improving skills. Consider that people remember 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, 50% of what they see and hear, and 80% of what they do.

Recently, I was persuaded to allow eight students in a course designed for four. At the end of the course, the trainees did not feel they had sufficient time for learning. Their confidence level was low; they rated their ability to perform the new tasks at an average value of 1.7 on a scale of 1 to 5 (low to high), whereas the scores for smaller classes normally fall between 4 and 5.

The results of the overcrowded class are typical. Instead of having four well-trained employees who could train others, this company had eight employees who only had an overview of their new system but no real application skills. For an employee to learn new skills, he or she must practice and use those skills during a training course -- observing someone else perform a task does not make the observer competent.

Get 'em ready
The better prepared the learner, the better the class. It sounds obvious, yet companies often fail to ensure that trainees meet basic prerequisites. With various responsibilities competing for attention, it is difficult for trainees to find "extra" time to prepare for a course. Attending a class unprepared, however, can severely handicap a learner.

It is not uncommon to see trainees attending an advanced software course without ever having used a computer or a mouse. If students must spend class time learning how to click the right or left mouse buttons -- or finding the location of the left and right mouse buttons -- it is difficult to help them become proficient at using advanced software features. Many trainees have returned to the job without the new skills expected from the course because they were not prepared for the level of the course they attended. On the other hand, a prepared student will not only master new skills, but also learn to apply them.

Before assigning employees to a particular training course, companies should be sure that those employees have the needed prerequisite skills. Further, companies should set aside adequate preparation time for employees assigned to the class.

Virtually all training companies offer facilities for training that provide an environment conducive to learning, and experienced trainers are attuned to the needs of their students. Trainees cannot learn if they are tired, uncomfortable or hungry, for example. This is why trainers cover facilities information at the beginning of a class. Students want to know where the restrooms are and when breaks are scheduled before they need them.

When training sessions are held at the user site, on the other hand -- as is often the case when skills to be learned are specific to a new machine, system or tool -- the importance of the training environment is often overlooked. I have taught courses at customer sites where there were no chairs, the temperature varied from unbearably hot to frigid, it was necessary to speak over the noise of nearby equipment and the room was the size of a small closet. All of these factors create hurdles for the learner, and learning decreases proportionally to the amount of participant discomfort. To get the most for their training dollars, companies must be certain to provide a suitable learning environment for any on-site courses offered.

Let 'em practice
Studies show that without coaching, follow-up or opportunities to practice new skills within the first 30 days of training, employees forget 80% of what they have learned. Remember that foreign language class you took in high school or college -- the one you never used again? How fluent are you in that language today?

Companies will often send an employee to a training class as a "back-up" person in the expectation of future needs. An employee who does not have the opportunity to use the new skills, however, loses those skills.

This is not to suggest limiting the training to only those who have an immediate need. I believe that all training has some benefit, and I subscribe to the theory of lifelong training. What I am suggesting is that employees who do attend training should be provided an opportunity to periodically use their newfound skills. This does not have to be a full-time commitment; occasional practice is often enough to maintain skills. Coaching other trainees or new employees is a good way to reinforce these new skills. After all, "to teach is to learn twice."