The Hidden ROI of Continuing Education

Continuing education, online learning and attending a trade show can give your sewer and drain cleaning business — and employees — an edge up on the competition.
The Hidden ROI of Continuing Education
There are more than 100 educational sessions annually at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show in Indianapolis.

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It’s always a good time to consider the importance of continuing education in the sewer and drain cleaning industry. For some states, classroom hours are a requirement for licensure renewal. For others, investing in continuing education is a personal and professional decision.

Adherence to safety regulations and first-aid knowledge can be the difference between life and death, so it’s easy to argue the case for a simple CPR class. But continuing education should go beyond that and, done correctly, can lead to business growth. Ongoing training can increase employee certifications, inform of regulatory changes and improve code knowledge that might give you a competitive edge in your market. It also can enable you to grow your service base and adopt new revenue streams.

These are the obvious and clear business cases for continuing education — the things that are easy to put into a spreadsheet. And there are a plethora of opportunities out there for a plumbing company to consider. So much so that it can be difficult to prioritize.

Continuing education can also take on a variety of formats. It can be as simple as a one-day local seminar, as long-term as committing to an online class or attending an industry trade show or conference. But these formats aren’t created equal. On paper, it can sometimes be difficult to weigh the cost of an online class against all the incidentals of a conference, which requires time away from the job.

The difficulty with local seminars is sometimes the limitation of the subject matter. Depending on your area, you can exhaust this resource fairly quickly. Meanwhile, higher education is still very much on the fence about the effectiveness of online learning. The biggest concerns seem to be how well the information is absorbed and the engagement of the individuals taking the classes. In reality, online classes often get relegated to something that we do in our “spare time,” which means we cram content into our brains at the last possible moment to pass a test. This is truly ineffective learning and doesn’t provide any residual benefits.

So, while there is a time and a place for online learning, given the opportunity, I’ll choose the conference every time. These events become more than just checking the boxes of continuing education. There is a unique infusion of energy, ideas and engagement that is sparked at these events. The chance to meet, learn from and interact with peers outside of your usual circle of influence is a potentially powerful growth tool.

Often, it’s what I see, learn and who I meet outside the classroom that ultimately provides the value in these trips. This time away from the office, from our families and from daily operations makes conference attendance a high-stakes undertaking. Because of the intense investment in time and money, there is a pressure to get maximum value. We have to choose these events carefully.

Because of this, it can be tough to measure the exact return on investment (ROI) from conference attendance. You, or your employees, may not come out of every event with a new revenue opportunity or certification. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a success.

In fact, some conference benefits don’t always have a clear or immediate ROI. I’ve listed some of my favorite, hard-to-quantify advantages below. First, for owners and managers:

  • The Expo Edge – Yes, there is a lot to learn from the educational sessions, but just as much can be soaked up on the expo floor. Companies manufacturing cutting-edge technology are showing off their latest products for you to touch and, often, try. This is your opportunity to be the first in your market. Don’t be afraid to ask about conference specials. Sometimes the best prices are available if you are willing to make a deal on the spot.
  • Networking – Vendors and suppliers are obvious targets for conference networking, but stretch yourself to go beyond that. Seek out like-minded business owners and managers who can act as sister companies outside of your competitive region. Having someone to bounce ideas off of and get advice from, who isn’t worried about competing with you, can provide a huge benefit to your business for years to come.
  • While you are at it, stretch yourself to meet people who are where you want to be in business, rather than where you are. Someone once told me that you are the average of the people you surround yourself with. Raise the bar and you will rise with the tide. You might even be able to lay the groundwork for a mentor relationship, if you make a good impression.
  • Competitive Intelligence – As local servicers, we usually think of doing competitive analysis in our own markets. We are concerned about how much the guy around the corner is charging for the services they are providing. This is a valuable tool for success, but don’t think there is nothing to be gained at a national conference either. People are a lot more relaxed and willing to share the details of their business when their local competitors aren’t around. You can get some really interesting information about everything from marketing to recruiting tactics. Not everything will be translatable to your particular situation, but it helps to break out of your bubble and get fresh ideas.

Then, for employees:

  • Bonding Time – Trade show attendance affords moments of socializing amongst co-workers that isn’t usually available in a regular work day. These individuals are going to come back closer and more engaged with each other and the business. True friendship amongst the staff is a powerful tool in retaining employees and keeping up morale.
  • Employee Engagement – Employees lucky enough to get sent to a conference are going to come back excited to share what they learned. That excitement is contagious. It also makes employees who did not get to go this time eager to step up so they are eligible the next go-around. Studies show that employees who feel their employer is investing in them stay longer and have a higher degree of job satisfaction than employees who don’t. Just be careful to share that wealth, and make the eligibility for travel fair across the board.

These residual benefits might not fit tidily into a column on a spreadsheet. That doesn’t mean they aren’t vitally important though, especially if continuing education efforts have become a chore to your employees. Subject matter, expense and time commitment are all important metrics, but so is engagement and residual value.

Next time you are considering your continuing education events or classes, look beyond the spreadsheet ROI. Ask yourself what intangible benefits can be gained and what is going to make the biggest impact on your entire organization, not just you or that single employee. Often, it’s those residual benefits that add up to the most influence and effectiveness.

About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at


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