Skip to content

Upskilling on a Budget? Ditch Subscriptions

The subscription model of training is dead. If you’re a talent leader and your inbox is anything like mine, you get constant spam from companies peddling subscription-based training. 

“Only $20 a month per employee!” “Access to thousands of self-paced training modules!” 

Why wouldn’t you buy something that makes your life that much easier? The problems arise when you take a closer look. Inevitably, the format doesn’t offer as much flexibility or value as other training options.

But wait, don’t many companies rely on subscription-based training? What are the true advantages of these models? It seems simple. For a low monthly fee, you’ll have access to a massive library of courses and content. There’s a single, centralized location for you to find support for all the training you could ever need — all in one easy purchase! Plus, these services often include self-guided training plans. All these benefits are intended to save you time, money and headaches compared with finding individual courses or creating custom development programs.  

In reality, many of these advantages‌ benefit the provider more than the customer. The subscription-based model aligns perfectly with other software sales models, especially SaaS, meaning it’s easy to enroll in these services. They’re often so simple that you might even forget you enrolled before an auto-renewal continues your subscription for you. It’s also difficult to gauge the value of the training material because there’s so much available, yet employees aren’t likely to use most of that content library in their personal training.

Problems With Subscription-Based Training

Now isn't the time to neglect your training strategy. Learning and upskilling are more essential than ever, but subscriptions aren’t the only — or best — way to go for most organizations. Trust me. 

Here are three main reasons not to buy a corporate license for training:

It’s Expensive as All Heck 

Most subscription-based training companies offer tiered pricing that changes depending on how many employees you sign up. This pricing might look cheap, but it can be deceptive. Let’s say you have 500 employees, and a platform such as LinkedIn Learning offers you per-employee pricing of $10 a month. Holy cow, all that content for only $10 a month? 

Unfortunately, $10 x 500 employees x 12 months = $60,000. That’s a big chunk of change, and will burn through even a large training budget.

There’s Too Much Content

Yep, much like the million appetizers at a steakhouse, the menu is too big. What you actually need for your company gets buried under a mountain of mediocre content. (Just bring out the ribeye! Enough of these soggy brussels sprouts.) As a training leader, you’ll have to watch thousands of videos to find the training that fits your needs. The alternative is to assign modules at random and hope something sticks.

There’s Also Too Little Content

Most companies have so much variety in the training they need that no one platform can contain it all. Your sales team needs completely different training than your product engineering team, which means you’ll still have to spend time and money creating in-house training or shopping for another provider in the marketplace. So that $60,000? That’s just the starting point of what you’ll have to spend.

Finding the Right Training

So here’s what you — the talent leader at your small company — will need to do instead. First, ignore everyone who whines that they want a license for subpar learning. Really, Shareef? You want me to spend $500 so you can spend 30 minutes searching for the perfect course through some big subscription provider and then give up? Not a chance. 

It’s my job as the talent leader to find that perfect course for you. So the question you have to ask every single person who comes to you wanting training is, “Why?”

Let me give you an example: Everyone at my company is required to take an Amazon Web Services (AWS) certification examination. I'm not a technical person, so when I started at Mission Cloud and people asked for study materials, I gave them access to the corporate license my predecessor had purchased. I didn’t know any better, and it certainly made my life easier! 

After a while, however, I started to get requests for certification study materials from outside the licensed provider. “Why?” I asked those engineers. “Isn’t the corporate license giving you everything you need?” 

As it turns out — no, not even close. The study materials quickly became outdated, the practice exams didn’t reflect the actual exam, and — crucially — not everyone learns in the same way. On these large platforms, information is almost always packaged similarly for every course. By only offering one study platform, I was excluding and ignoring everyone who couldn't absorb information that way.

Here’s what I did instead: I decided to examine as many different study materials for the foundational level certification as I could, assessing for myself which provided the best materials. I polled everyone at the company who had taken a certification course and asked for their favorites, too. 

After a couple months, I had a wonderfully comprehensive list of the best courses and practice exams out there — most of which retailed for under $50. From that list, I could give my team the best options and let them see what worked for them. (I also canceled that corporate subscription!) 

Now, when Shareef comes to me and says he wants a personal subscription to a particular training platform, I can ask, “Why?” Maybe he really needs it for long-term study of a particular technical subject that’s important for his role. In that case, I’m happy to fund his request. Or maybe he wants to study for an AWS certification, and I can tell him to purchase something cheaper and better. Regardless of the learning or training our employees need, I’m no longer locked into providing only one source.

Moving Beyond Subscription-Based Training

If you’re reading this far, you might be wondering, “If I want to move past subscriptions, what do I do next?” Start by assessing what you already have. You might be surprised at how many resources are already available, which means your team might also be unaware. Here are tips to help you create effective training opportunities without pricey subscriptions.

Reassess Your Budget

Before you look at alternative training options, know how much money you have to work with. Start with your organization's training budget. Take note of existing subscriptions or services — and how they’re being used. Use those findings to develop a budget that accounts for these expenses and sets aside funds for alternative training options.

If all your budget is going towards one training center and you don’t have the option to cancel it yet, that’s cool too. Make it a priority to curate content within that center. Assign team members to take different modules and report back. Make the most of what you have, and plan to reassess when contracts are up.  

Identify Skills Gaps

It’s hard to know what to buy unless you know what training you need! The best way to do this is through informational interviews with your delivery teams. If you’re talking to an individual contributor, ask them: What do you need to know, and how do you want to learn it? Then verify that information with the manager. “Tanya told me she needed more experience with containers, but Sergio said he’s desperate for information on databases. What is most important for your team?” Managers will often have more in depth information on what skills their team will need in the future. This also changes all the time, so you need to make a regular habit of talking to department heads. There have been several occasions when I prioritized finding specific tech training, only for it to be obsolete the next quarter — CloudFormation is in one month, and Terraform the next!

Research Free Learning Resources

There are a ton of free learning resources available online, but you still need to be a content curator. Do your research into reputable sources that offer high-quality content. Take note of the provider’s reputation and whether the material is comprehensive and relevant to your organization. OpenCourseWare, tutorials and webinars can be great supplemental training resources that don’t deplete your budget. Just keep in mind that these may not be a permanent alternative to paid resources, since they may not have things (like labs) that paid training does. 
Consider Different Training Formats
Not everyone learns in the same way, and not every skill should be taught in the same format. Instructor-led training, for example, can be effective for complex topics that require hands-on demonstrations or interactive activities. Self-paced learning can be more effective for employees who prefer to learn at their own pace and want control over their learning experience. 

Format options are especially important to consider when moving away from subscription-based models, which often have limited options. However, instructor-led learning is the most expensive, so you’ll want to limit that to essential training. I usually reserve instructor-led formats for high level technical courses, and I work with managers to make sure the training is a true priority.

Allow for Individualized Learning

Individualized learning can be a powerful way to engage employees. This approach lets them design their learning — which topics they want to study, which resources they want to use, and how they want to approach their learning. 

Balance this autonomy by ensuring that employee training and learning tie back to the organization’s needs and goals. Employees can pursue aspirational training that doesn’t necessarily connect to their current role, but it should link to another job role or opportunity within the organization. Also, feel free to say no. One of the benefits of saying “yes” as often as possible means that your team understands when you say “no”, there’s clear reasoning behind it. If the training isn’t going to provide tangible benefit to the business, explain that in a direct way.

Upskilling Your Team in a Smarter Way

If you’re already mentally canceling your corporate subscriptions, just know that while subscriptions might be less rewarding, they’re often less work. Most talent and learning and development departments are pretty lean, and you may not have the bandwidth or the staff to curate content for every possible subject.

But here is where all your savings pay off. Once you aren't locked in to one learning provider, you can afford to be more generous and inventive. Give your employees a wider range of training opportunities, and learn from the results. Send them to workshops, let them purchase training one time, and follow up to find out how valuable the training was. 

I can’t tell you how many trainings I’ve purchased that have been duds — but who cares, it was worth knowing whether we should ever use that provider/instructor/company again.

Once you go down this road, you’ll also be surprised at how repetitive people’s learning needs are. Even in tech, the same topics come up repeatedly, and you’ll quickly develop a solid list of recommended courses and instructors. You’ll also find out where your training gaps are and what types of training external vendors don’t do well. By identifying those gaps, you can focus your time on building internal training.

As talent leaders, we're never the subject matter experts in all things that our teams need to learn. But we are the experts in training. We know what good training looks like, and we definitely know what bad training looks like. It’s up to us to make smart choices about where to invest our time and our money. If you’re only looking at subscription-based training, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to upskill your team — even on a budget.

Author Spotlight:

Keri Barnett-Howell

Keep Up To Date With AWS News

Stay up to date with the latest AWS services, latest architecture, cloud-native solutions and more.