An effective workforce needs high quality training.We need to look at staff training urgently if we’re going to tackle a skills deficit fuelled by underinvestment and lockdown, says Kevin Flemen. This is my twentieth year working fulltime as an independent trainer in the drug sector. Two decades of flipcharts, the odour of marker pens and the slow shift of technology from OHPs, through projectors to Plasma TVs and Zoom training. In that time I’ve gone from the full-scale training lunch menu in hotels to half a packet of biscuits in a training room with no working heating! I’ve survived austerity, COVID lockdowns and more Home Office drugs ministers and drug strategies than I care to remember. I dread to think how many trees’ worth of flipcharts I’ve gone through or how much coffee I’ve drunk. I’ve also never been busier. People looking to book training now are crestfallen when I say that I’ll probably be booking them in for March…2024. Experience deficit While it’s good to be busy, it’s not ideal. As a sector the gap between training need and halfway decent trainers to deliver it has never been greater. This has serious implications for any expansion of services or enhanced delivery. The days when there were so many trainers out there that they had their own supplement in DDN are long gone. The need has grown in part due to COVID. The sector, which had been losing workers rapidly anyway, lost still more during lockdown, and so many of these were older experienced workers who took with them years of knowledge. Posts were frozen and then as lockdown continued, recruitment resumed. But as numerous services will attest, it’s not always easy to recruit staff, especially those with experience and especially outside urban areas. I’ve had so many people on courses who are recent graduates, have changed careers or have limited experience in a related sector. These workers in a normal working environment would learn on the job – shadowing, team meetings, supervision, training sessions and conversations with colleagues in the kitchen. But being recruited in lockdown, they had no chance to do these things. There might be some reading material, videos online and dialling into meetings on Teams. Some did lots of their own background reading, looked things up and did their best to figure it out. But in short-staffed services with high caseloads, these new workers were needed quickly and so were seeing clients. In lockdown this was likely to mean seeing people online, with no chance to shadow or nip to ask a colleague’s advice. Complex cases No surprise then that some of these workers left within months. They hadn’t been recruited with the required skills and weren’t properly trained. Given complex cases with limited training and support they felt under-skilled, unsupported and anxious about doing the wrong thing. The relief of those attending live training sessions (whether online or face-to-face) was palpable. Trainers too have had to learn and adapt. Whether it’s getting to grips with online training platforms, investing in new equipment, or getting back to training in the real world against a backdrop of strike chaos, it’s neither easy nor straightforward. Economic downturns and COVID meant that a fair few freelancers couldn’t adapt their offering and dropped out. I’ve been relatively lucky. There’s a cohort of purchasers with whom I have worked for a number of years, whose support during lockdown was invaluable. It was mutually beneficial – we kept each other going through lockdown and we’re still there for each other on the other side. Now however, there are lots of people getting in touch, desperate for training with unspent budgets to spend and desperately looking for trainers with capacity. Training matters Training matters so much to organisations – now probably more than ever. It’s a shame that for too many organisations it’s been relegated to a video, an online pack or being directed to some TED talks. The people you recruited deserve better and the people that you provide services to need more. Sooner rather than later Earlier purchasing of training is more likely achieve successful outcomes and a more organised process. 1. Ask around about trainers. They’re not all the same and availability does not equal quality. It’s a false economy to run bad training – it takes staff away from their roles and you need to repeat the training later on. Buy good training first time. 2. Ensure your staff know you are valuing them by getting good training. And invest in the event. A cluttered messy room, knackered projector, no biscuits and a lack of flipchart says you don’t care about the training – so why should participants? 3. It’s not face-to-face or online It’s a mix of both, and hybrid courses where required. Some courses run best face-to-face (such as safer injecting courses) and others can happily run online (like our drugs and the law course). 4. Plan for the next two years NOW Yes, I know you need your staff trained next month but we should have started this conversation last year. Develop a training programme across the team, discuss it with your trainer(s) and schedule it now for this year and next year. Then you know you have the dates you will need. 5 Use a balance of in-house and external training For all your internal processes and induction-related training, in-house courses are the best. But be careful of using in-house courses for everything. External trainers are the butterflies of the sector. We flit from service to service, learning about what’s going on and cross-pollinating ideas. And that external perspective can add huge value – we can see the gaps you’ve stopped seeing. 6. You shouldn’t just be getting the training It’s the discussion before, the engagement with participants during and after the course, the resources and all the other elements that give the session life beyond the six hours of the actual session. 7. Whenever you can, get training to take place off-site. When training takes place in the project group workroom, staff inevitably get drawn back to their desks at lunchtime or pulled away to take calls or see clients. This detracts from their ability to immerse themselves in training. 8. There are some good trainers and some mediocre ones There are also a few that shouldn’t be allowed near a flipchart. Find the good ones. Build a relationship. Don’t treat them just as hired help. They will get to know your organisation, your staff and your issues. They can help you with these issues more than you realise. And the good trainers can choose who they work with. 9. Invest in your future trainers now! Few posts have a training component built in. It’s a useful tool in its own right. Training is communication and it helps workers in group work, in presenting to colleagues and partner organisations, and in their career development. Take the workers with a passion for their jobs. Enhance their training skills. And they will become the next generation of amazing trainers to maintain skills in the sector for the next 20 years. Kevin Flemen runs the drugs training service KFx (www.kfx.org.uk). He’s booked up a fair way into the future but you can email him at email@example.com. He occasionally tweets @kfx news.