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The walls of Alex Browning's office are covered with certificates and degrees. There's an accounting certificate and an MBA, a bachelor's degree in administrative studies and a certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.

All of them were earned through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's professional development program.

Mr. Browning, who started at the LCBO 35 years ago as a store clerk, is now chief financial officer, thanks largely to all those degrees. If his employer were ever to scale back its training and development programs, he would not be a happy man.

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"In this day and age, it is critical that you continually seek to motivate your staff through the use of development," he says.

Earlier this month it was revealed that the RCMP will be spending more than $200,000 on leadership training for three executives.

But such investments in development may be on the decline. In a recent Canadian survey conducted on behalf of the staffing agency Accountemps, 23 of 100 senior executivesinterviewed said their companies' professional-development programs have been reduced from a year ago.

While it is easy to see why such programs are put on the chopping block in tough economic times, experts warn that companies that slash their development programs shouldn't expect to hold on to talent for long.

"Skimping on employees' education can certainly dull a firm's competitive edge," says Anna Montesano, branch manager at Accountemps's Vancouver offices. "It can hinder productivity as well as retention efforts when the economy improves."

Indeed, more often than not it is the high achievers within a company who take advantage of professional development programs. These are the sort of people who expect such programs to exist as a means of boosting their CVs and advancing their careers, says David Soberman, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"When companies which have traditionally provided training to their employees start to cut back, this can be a disincentive for people to continue working there," he says. "The people that you tend to send on these training programs are your best people, but when you cut them back they're the first ones to leave."

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An executive at one of Canada's most well-regarded technology companies, who asked to remain anonymous, says he left his previous job in the past few months because his employer did not place much importance on professional development.

"It was certainly a factor," he says.

There are also signs that some employees, while faced with limited opportunities in the current economy to switch jobs, may be laying the groundwork for a future exodus.

"In the past, employers have paid for all of the tuition fees, and we've had a lot of our students coming in saying, no, they've had to pay for it on their own," says Vinetta Peek, vice-president of marketing and communications at Certified Management Accountants of British Columbia. "They're realizing that they need to take control of their careers."

Professional-development programs can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars for courses that run for a few days to tens of thousands of dollars for advanced degrees.

The cost of such programs can be a small price to pay for companies that want to keep their best employees.

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Organizations often choose to train employees during a recession as part of a "talent management" strategy, says Bernadette Smith, vice-president of learning solutions at the Canadian Management Centre, a provider of professional development courses. "What that involves is increasing employee engagement to retain talent," she says. "It's really demonstrating that they value the contribution of the employee."

Janet Salopek, president of Salopek Consulting, a Calgary-based human resources company, says that younger workers are most likely to leave companies that do not prioritize professional development.

"Generation X and Y are highly motivated by professional development," she says. "And if they're not getting learning and professional development on the job, they will leave."

As well, it is often difficult to recruit talent without an attractive professional-development program.

Ms. Montesano says she has seen several individuals ignore job postings recently from companies that lacked such programs.

Companies that fail to recognize the importance of professional development do so at their own peril, Mr. Browning says.

"At the end of the day, people that are really motivated are looking for opportunities to move [up]in an organization," he says. "By allowing them and supporting them in their desire to get a formal education in a different area really keeps that employee engaged within your organization. If not, you lose them."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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