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How one company developed a training program that workers actually like

Can companies train employees to be more productive, successful, and fulfilled in this competitive labor market? More than 54 million people are receiving formal training from employers nationwide--with decidedly mixed results. Some employees, once trained, take their newly enhanced skills off to another company. Others get discouraged by useless classes. That's because many employers still use an outmoded, cookie-cutter approach to training that doesn't encourage creative thinking and self-reliance, says Diane Gayeski, a training consultant and professor of organizational communications and learning at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.

For Julie McHenry, chief executive of Wilson McHenry Co., a Foster City (Calif.) strategic business communications company with 60 employees, it was clear that her mandatory training program wasn't working. In fact, a consultant's survey revealed that employees hated it. They complained they were all forced to take the same classes, regardless of their needs. So last year, McHenry put together an employee task force to come up with an appealing alternative.

The result? Gold Horn University, a voluntary training program where employees register for the courses of their choice each semester by the company intranet. Classes take place over a brown-bag lunch in an informal setting. While no one is forced to take a class, managers, referred to as "advisers," may nudge employees to take courses they feel would be helpful. Sessions, taught by experts within the company and occasionally by outsiders, tend to be practical, such as how to write a press release or conduct a media tour.

It's too soon to judge Gold Term's long-term impact, but McHenry says turnover is down: "Employees are happier, bottom line. Especially here in Silicon Valley, where it's so competitive with employers, we need to keep them engaged."

Gold Horn is a good recruitment tool as well, helping to lure employees like Sean Pate, an account associate.

McHenry has learned some valuable lessons herself: "Training needs to be flexible, and it needs to be done in a way in which staff feel they are in control." To that end, a five-employee committee runs the program.

Interested in trying something similar? Keep classes small, practical, and highly interactive, says McHenry. Above all, make the program engaging and fun, and you might just get an A-plus from your staff for making training a perk instead of a chore.

Learn more about how to train employees. Click Online Extras at frontier.businessweek.com

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