Calling on Career Development

Human resources departments and talent managers struggle to satisfy a consistent complaint from employees: insufficient career development opportunities.

Companies often try to make it a priority to help their workers identify internal opportunities for career advancement. Not only does this encourage a sense of loyalty when workers feel their employers truly care about their skill development, but also it cuts down on the costs incurred from recruiting and training new employees.

Many of these entry- and midlevel employees, however, don’t feel as though the message is reaching them. This was made evident in a 2013 survey of more than 100 companies by consultancy Towers Watson. According to the survey, the lack of career advancement opportunities was cited as the main reason why employees would leave their workplace. Nevertheless, only a third of companies surveyed felt confident that they had the right tools and resources to allow employees to explore career options. And only slightly more than a third said their workers understood how their employers could help influence the development of their careers.

This problem equally affects companies experiencing organizational stability and those going through great change. A 2010 article by the consulting group McKinsey & Co. noted that, “Too often companies simply round up the usual suspects — high-potential employees and senior executives in roles that are critical for business success. Few look in less obvious places for more average performers whose skills or social networks may be critical — both in keeping the lights on during the change effort itself as well as in delivering against its longer-term business objectives.”

Having a strong career advancement pipeline can be the difference between being a company that evolves and grows with its industry and one that remains stuck in its old way of doing business. Telecom company Verizon Communications Inc. and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York are two examples of employers recognizing the urgency of making career development resources more accessible.

Verizon Communications
Verizon Communications was faced with a challenge during the early days of the information age. The company, which was established in the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE, needed a workforce with skills that were in sync with the new digital era. However, the technical knowledge of many employees was developed during the industry’s analog history and had not been updated.

Verizon also knew that its on-the-ground employees — its entry- and midlevel workforce — could significantly benefit from a college education, since growing numbers of future jobs were going to require workers with college credentials. In 2000, Verizon Wireless started a tuition assistance program to help employees earn a college degree. Many of its entry- and midlevel workers were also already in possession of college-level learning from their various life and work experiences outside of a classroom. For this reason, the company also wanted to help employees earn college credit for non-classroom learning — known as prior learning assessment, or PLA.

As part of its efforts to help set up, advertise and administer the program, Verizon worked with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL, a nonprofit adult learning and workforce development organization. (Editor’s note: Author Pamela Tate is president of CAEL.)

Employees wanting to learn more about the program can initially purchase — at a discount — books that explain the concept of PLA and its benefits for adult students. Employees access an internal website that includes detailed information on tuition assistance and PLA, and each year, Verizon hosts college fairs for workers at many of its 30 call centers across the country.

To help even more employees acquire prior learning credits, Verizon recently began using the council’s PLA service, LearningCounts.org. In addition to promoting LearningCounts, Verizon promotes PLA credit opportunities through college-level examination placement tests. Verizon pays the cost of any learning assessment if it results in the student receiving college credit.

“For people thinking about going back for a degree, to be able to get that degree a little bit sooner with tuition assistance is a benefit to them,” said Dorothy Martin, Verizon’s tuition assistance program manager. “And it is certainly a benefit to the company because it helps us to get our workforce degreed quicker and it saves money in the process.”

Not only does Verizon provide educational opportunities for its workforce through the tuition assistance program, but the company also steers workers in the direction of career opportunities through VIVIDFuture, an online telecommunications industry job portal developed by CAEL. Created with assistance from Verizon and a grant from the AT&T Foundation, VIVIDFuture features a career mapping tool that gives workers detailed information and requirements about specific positions in the industry. Workers can also use the tool to be directed to telecom job openings that match up with the positions.

Union-represented employees in one Verizon region also have access to career advising through a program called FutureLink. Through the program, the council’s career advisers conduct one-on-one sessions with employees and host periodic webinars and on-site workshops about career and education opportunities at Verizon. The program also includes a virtual career center, which features career maps, contains sections that explain job interview tips and offers advice pages that workers can use to get help from career experts.

When it comes to providing career development resources, Verizon has been attuned to giving its workforce what it wants since the company’s beginning. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, however, had to do some soul-searching to better understand how the organization could help its employees’ careers.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center was founded in 1884 and is the world’s oldest and largest private cancer center.

The center is expanding, which heightens the need to retain staff, improve employee engagement and support informed conversations about mobility. At the same time, the hospital faced turnover and recognized the importance of clearly communicating career advancement options to improve engagement and help employees take control of their careers.

“We hire between 300 and 500 entry-level positions a year, and a large portion of this talent was feeling like, ‘OK, I’ve been here a couple of years, now what?’” said Alana Silverman, Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s recruitment programs manager.

Like Verizon, the hospital turned to CAEL to help make career advancement resources accessible to employees. The result was the creation of an online career map called the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Career Explorer, which helps employees identify possible opportunities for advancement based on their professional and educational background.

The career explorer is a four-step process that begins with employees selecting their current position, after which they choose among a set of options describing their skills, interests, educational attainment and work experience. Employees are then presented with a range of career options they can pursue, which include promotions as well as opportunities to make lateral or transitional moves into new positions.

After choosing among the available options, they can either follow up on any job opportunity by talking to a manager or by using LinkedIn to converse with a Memorial Sloan-Kettering employee in that position.

The map is also portable across mobile electronic devices such as the iPhone, iPad and various tablets, allowing employees to take advantage of the tool when they are away from the workplace. Presently, employees can choose among 70 job titles when navigating the map, and there are plans to add more positions in the future as Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s expansion continues. The hospital believes that the map is making a significant impact in efforts to retain more of its entry-level workforce.

“The feedback that we have received on this is very positive,” Silverman said. “Everyone agrees that the map is user-friendly.”

Create a Winning Solution
Verizon and Memorial Sloan-Kettering realized there was a need to improve their career advancement pipelines.

Providing education opportunities for high-tech job responsibilities, establishing career mapping tools to identify new opportunities and providing career advisers are useful strategies for employee career development. Each employer will have a specific need that might necessitate one or more of these strategies, and the size and scope of the strategies will also be different depending on the specific workforce issue they are facing.

If employers provide workers with accessible and meaningful opportunities for career development, then those employers will be in position to reap the rewards of increased retention, engagement and productivity.

Pamela Tate is the president and CEO for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.