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Top Places to Work | Career Development

Get ahead

Training programs help workers and companies advance

Alexander, Aronson workers average more than 80 hours of professional training a year. (Michelle McDonald / Globe Staff Photo) Alexander, Aronson workers average more than 80 hours of professional training a year.
By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / November 9, 2008
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As companies scramble to recruit and retain talented employees, many are overhauling their training programs to offer more opportunities for career growth.

Progressive companies are scrapping traditional career development activities, which were often perfunctory and focused on "domain knowledge" in specific industries. In their place are more holistic programs, teaching general management and people skills along with technology. Among our Top Places to Work are companies doing much to rewrite the rules for employee training. Here are three of the best:

SUFFOLK CONSTRUCTION CO.
Headquarters: Boston

Jim Tracey, a vice president who joined Suffolk in 2004, said the company's professional development efforts have been "refocused from scratch." "It changed from just standard operating procedure to management training and soft skills," Tracey said.

"Green training," teaching environmentally friendly construction, is the latest addition.

"In a time when the economy is not great, we're doubling down on training for our people," said David First, vice president of learning and development for Suffolk, which manages projects from Massachusetts to California.

First said the company's professional development programs have an emphasis on teaching managers to work effectively with customers and subcontractors.

"As we've become a larger company, we need to have a system in place for the most qualified employees," First said. "That's our intellectual capital."

Some of Suffolk's training is project-specific, while other programs are tailored to employees at different phases of their careers.

And the training, averaging 50 hours a year per employee, is tied to performance management and pay. "As people develop over time, their compensation increases," First said.

ALEXANDER, ARONSON, FINNING & CO.
Headquarters: Westborough

Employees at the accounting and consulting firm average more than 80 hours of professional training annually, double the minimum set by trade groups. They get formal reviews three times a year.

"That feedback is very important to the younger generation," said Jack Finning, senior vice president. "We tell new employees they're going to continue to develop throughout their career. That's kept our turnover well below the national norm."

Alexander, Aronson has refined its training as trends emerge. The latest focus is on skills like listening, motivating employees, and interacting with clients. To help teach these skills, the firm brings in professors and industrial psychologists. "People come out of college with good accounting skills," Finning said. "But many haven't been exposed to these soft skills."

The firm also matches new staffers with mentors and career coaches. "That lets each individual know that they're important," Finning said, "and that we're a team, like the Patriots and the Red Sox."

Manager Brian Jones, 29, joined the firm seven years ago, after college. "Herb Alexander, the founding partner, is my career coach," he said. "Our coaches meet with us monthly or once every two months to make sure we're on track and to plan where we want to be five years down the road."

EDWARD JONES
Headquarters: St. Louis

Here's a case where help begins even before employees join the company. New financial advisers at the global investment firm must pass a financial regulatory exam, and the company helps them prepare. On passing, the new hires enter a 120-day training program, the first week at a corporate training center in St. Louis.

The new hires return home for six weeks of field training, usually with an adviser from an adjoining city or town. After they've set up shop, they continue to undergo "just-in-time" training throughout their careers, ranging from trust work to retirement planning. It's a blend of e-learning and face-to-face training.

The training prepares advisers for a compensation system that includes commissions of about 40 percent plus bonus and profit-sharing.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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