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March 9, 2022


6 min read

Here’s why your career development programs aren’t working

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Why is it that despite an annual $177 billion expenditure on formal training and an additional $28 billion on tuition assistance, are corporations seeing less than 2 percent engagement with their programs? 

Because the programs aren’t delivering what employees need for an effective learning experience — namely accessibility, relevance and a clear upside to the investment of time or money.  

To be fair, it’s a challenging assignment. Learning and development (L&D) for an enterprise workforce must deliver opportunities that accommodate the complexities of life for adult learners. Most employees are already managing a full-time job and family responsibilities, and the sheer logistics of adding learning to their schedules stops many before they start. 

But accessibility is only one piece of the puzzle. For success, the learning options have to be relevant to what the employee currently does or dreams of doing. Perhaps they’re interested in advancing to a management position or want to shift from engineering into technical sales. In all cases, the end goals bring purpose to the learning, providing tangible career outcomes that benefit the organization as much as the employee.

Ultimately, creating L&D programs that give employees the opportunity and agency to engage in learning that matters to them results in an employee who feels empowered, motivated and happy in their work.

In this article, we’ll be looking at the link between career development and employee performance, understanding why your career development programs might be falling short and offering solutions for how to address these challenges.


The effects of career development on employee performance

In a recent study of workers, managers and business leaders, thirty-three percent of respondents said they believe their current skill set is quickly becoming insufficient for the demands of their job. Those who do not feel confident in their skills reported that their job is more stressful, their mental health suffers, tasks take longer to complete and work is of lower quality. 

Career development plays a crucial role in the well-being of employees. When people feel that their skill sets are becoming insufficient, that can translate into lack of job confidence, which then decreases motivation and overall engagement. 

Employee fears of becoming obsolete are not unfounded. The World Economic Forum estimates that 85 million jobs may be displaced by automation by 2025. Offering career development paths to sharpen skill sets or change career directions altogether bring the possibility of vibrant growth and long-term engagement. 

Companies can facilitate this by responding to aspirations employees already have. Survey insights demonstrate that 80 percent of employees want to go back to school and finish a degree or certificate while working. This includes veterans of the workforce who want to upskill their current competencies, workers looking to change up their career paths and historically disempowered individuals who may be getting affordable access to education for the first time. 

Further research shows that critical investment in employee development can boost performance and productivity. Organizations that spend $1,500 per employee on L&D benefits are as much as 24 percent more profitable than competitors who don’t. 

The numbers are clear: When employees are engaged in L&D and feel supported by their company to advance on their career path, it boosts morale, productivity and even retention.  


Assessing your current career development programs

It’s clear that effective career development initiatives can have a major impact on employee morale and overall performance. That’s why it’s critically important to keep a pulse on your current programs and continuously evaluate whether or not there is room for improvement.

Here are a few questions you can ask while evaluating your current efforts:


Are employees engaging with the program?

If you’re seeing low engagement numbers, it may be helpful to take a step back to determine what’s contributing to the low participation. It may be an issue of employee interest, communication or the program itself. Keep these in mind as you consider the subsequent questions. 


Do employees know about the program? 

Just 40 percent of employees surveyed know their workplace offers a career development program. This indicates a lack of effective communication on the part of the organization. Of the many challenges to L&D programs, internal marketing is one of the easier to fix. Use every channel available to make your career development opportunities known, especially to your high-potential employees

Additionally, don’t underestimate the power of people managers. Train management on available career development programs and provide them with the necessary resources to inform their direct reports about these opportunities.


Are we clearly defining expectations? 

Employees want to know what they’re going to get out of career development and how they’ll be expected to complete it. The term “career development” can mean anything from a 2-hour seminar on confidence at work to pursuing an MBA for a leadership track. Make sure you are explicit in defining what your program offers, how it works and the benefits that will help employees justify their investment.


Are we leveraging relevant technologies?

SHRM found that just 45 percent of employers engage technology for their career development efforts, yet many programs for adult learners occur entirely online. Traditional approaches to L&D are leaving hours of learning on the table.

In a twist, COVID-19 has become part of the answer by forcing many companies to immediately embrace new technologies to keep their businesses running. Organizations who bring this same sense of urgency to embracing online learning will enable maximum engagement for their employees, strengthening their internal talent pipeline with every skill learned and every course completed.

These technological improvements can be used to shorten the runway for successful career development programs considerably.  


Is the program accessible to all of our employees? 

Access not only means physical accessibility, but also the time, support and resources to adequately and effectively engage the program. Single parents working from home, employees doing continued education around 14-hour shifts and employees with medical disabilities should all be able to make use of your program.

Take financial barriers into account as well. Employee education programs that follow a tuition reimbursement model put the burden of payment on employees. They may have to wait weeks, sometimes even months, to be reimbursed. Instead, consider a workforce education program that follows a direct bill model and removes that barrier to engagement. 


Is the program aligned with broader business goals? 

Career development has traditionally been handled as a discrete employee benefit rather than a strategic aspect of organizational planning. Your team needs to consider how to leverage career development to fill your leadership pipeline, close skill gaps and plan for succession as an integral part of the day-to-day.


Putting employees first for a winning outcome

To work well, L&D has to be mutually beneficial, with a level of autonomy for employees to choose their path. A program driven solely by business goals forgets the key to making this whole thing work: your people. Effective L&D can tap into what matters to your employees, give them a platform to pursue their interests, foster curiosity and creativity and give them the space to grow into the doers, innovators and leaders you need.

Ready to take your career development programs to the next level? Take this 5-question assessment and receive a set of custom tools to help you visualize what a workforce education solution could do for your business.