Finding and retaining good employees is harder than ever. With unemployment at an all-time low, employees today have more power and choices than ever before. This means that employees aren’t afraid to leverage this power imbalance for better salary and benefits. It can be difficult for small businesses to compete with larger organizations on salary and health benefits. Professional development opportunities, on the other hand, is where small businesses can compete and win. According to SHRM’s report, 48 percent of HR professionals cited training and education programs as the most effective recruiting tools at their disposal. Udemy reports that 42 percent of employees cited learning and development as the most important benefits when deciding where to work.

While professional development can make your business more attractive to potential employees, professional growth opportunities can do more than that. They can be part of your retention strategy. When employees stop feeling challenged, they begin to feel their careers stagnating and look for other opportunities. By providing avenues for professional growth, you keep your employees engaged and motivated. This increases productivity and innovative thinking as your employees look for opportunities to apply their new knowledge and take on more ambitious and challenging projects.

Options for Small Business Professional Development

Small businesses have the freedom and flexibility to be innovative, but this freedom and flexibility come with much fewer resources, Including time and money. So, how can they implement training and development programs? Below are a few of the many options available to business owners. We’ve sourced traditional and less traditional options to make this article applicable to a variety of situation.


Government Tax Deductions and Grants

There are government grants and tax incentives available all around the country to encourage employee training and development. For example, you can exclude up to $5,250 of professional development assistance you provide to an employee under an educational assistance program from the employee’s wages each year. See IRS, state, and local resources for more details.


eLearning has come into its own. There are now plenty of credible sources that provide education that is flexible and cost-effective. Many colleges and universities have translated a portion of their curriculums to work in an eLearning environment. Along with other eLearning platforms, there are resources out there that can help your employees develop their hard and soft skills. Colleges offer certifications and degrees completely taken online at a fraction of the cost of a traditional course. Platforms like Udemy and SkillShare offer free and paid courses that can range from $10 to a couple of hundred dollars.

Lunch and Learn

A low-cost way to aid in your employee’s professional development and strengthen your team is to have more experienced employees hold classes where they teach something others are interested in or will benefit from. This is a less structured way to challenge your entry-level employees and has the added benefit of empowering your experienced employees to feel confident in their abilities.

Book Clubs

An out of the box idea is to establish programs that facilitate group learning an allow for professional development. You can have employees read, listen to, or view content and then come together to discuss the insights that were gained. A way to take this even further would be to brainstorm how to use the insights they’ve learned to improve internal processes, products or services.



Offering apprenticeships are a relatively inexpensive way to challenge your employees and help them develop their skills. The only cost of this kind of training is time. To get the most out of an apprenticeship program, you should establish a curriculum and plan out the progression. Your mentors will need training in how to teach others. Being great at a skillset does not mean you can effectively teach that skillset to others.

Apprenticeship programs are exceptionally well suited for situations where you have a demand for labor that is not being met by the employee market place. You can recruit individuals who are interested in your work, but who don’t have a fully developed skillset. You can partner those individuals with experienced employees. The apprentice learns on the job while they observe and help the more experienced employee complete their tasks. As the apprentice develops their skillset you can give them more and more responsibility. The department of labor recommends that you have milestones in place to gauge the apprentices’ progress.

You can register your apprenticeship program with the federal government to receive tax credits and become eligible to receive government funds to support your program. You can check the department of labor’s employment and training administration website for more details.

Community College

A big focus of community colleges across the country is to make adult and continuing education programs convenient and affordable. If you are looking for a structured learning environment for your employees that won’t become a large financial burden, community colleges can be a great option. More and more colleges are reaching out to the business community to make sure that their curriculums are consistent with what business owners are needing from employees.

If you choose to offer your employees an educational benefit you can place conditions on that benefit, and you can determine how much you will reimburse. This can be set as a percentage or a total dollar amount. Tired reimbursement systems are popular where the employee is reimbursed a different percentage based on their grade or a pass or fail. You can also require the employee to work for you for a specific length of time before you offer the benefit.

Trade and Professional Associations

If your industry requires special certifications, then trade organizations can be a great source for employee training. They also usually hold events with seminars, workshops, and classes that help members learn and grow in their profession. ​They have study guides and courses that will help your employees acquire the certifications they need to advance their careers and enhance your businesses’ capabilities.

Some popular national associations include:

  • The National Association of Home Builders
  • National Association of Realtors
  • National Retail Association
  • National Federation of Independent Businesses
  • National Restaurant Association
  • Automotive Service Association
  • National Roofing Contractors Association
  • American Chiropractic Association
  • Americas Pediatric Dentists
  • National Lawyers Association

Providing professional development opportunities for your employees make you a more attractive employer, boosts productivity and increases employee retention rates. What you can and should provide will change based on your particular situation. What is universal, is that even small efforts will help you stand out and have a positive impact on your business.