Who's in Charge of Career Development?

A recent study shows a disparity in worker versus manager perceptions regarding their roles in career planning. What can HR leaders do to help employees move forward more effectively in their careers?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
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In the past, it wasn't unusual for workers to stay with the same employer for decades. But those days are long over.

"Career planning is self-service today, but employees are looking for help," says John Zappa, vice president of product development in the Chicago office of EdAssist, a provider of tuition-assistance-management services and a member of Bright Horizons' family of employer-sponsored work/life and dependent-care solutions.

Zappa recently spearheaded a study, in conjunction with University of Phoenix, which explored perceptions of the role of employers, workers and post-secondary institutions in career development. The results revealed that few organizations help workers map their formal education to specific job skills and career paths, or measure the impact of tuition assistance on individual or organizational performance.

"It's up to the worker to figure out how to navigate the right education, and there's reluctance on the part of employers who don't want to invest too much in an employee who might not stick around," says Zappa. "Every worker is a free agent. They're stitching their skills together, and after they go through training, they will likely move on at some point."

The researchers surveyed 533 workers from diverse industries, who were pursuing company-sponsored higher education, as well as 501 of those workers' managers. Participants considered various aspects of career development; including educational attainment, skill acquisition and career planning, with a major focus on the career-development responsibilities of individuals, employers and institutions of higher learning.

"Who's responsible for driving career development? It's the employee," says Zappa. "But employers and higher education play an important role."

He says the innovative ways information can now be delivered has brought about fundamental changes to the landscape of higher education and employers must consider how best to leverage that innovation to help meet the needs of their workforce.

"This is a great time for employers to work with educational institutions to develop a curriculum that specifically meets their needs," he says.

The study shows that, even though most workers already acknowledge their responsibility in the development of their own careers, they're still looking for a path that will get them moving in the right direction.

Zappa says employees who are willing to commit their time and money are a solid investment.

"You know they're making sacrifices in their lives," he says. "They're already committed. Don't miss the opportunity to engage those folks more fully."

Counseling and Career Development Professor Rich Feller, of Colorado State University's School of Education, says HR has become increasingly focused on legal issues and protecting the employer, "and they have dropped the ball relative to the employee. They don't ask employees what they want to do with their careers, and that's critical."

As past president of the Washington-based National Career Development Association, Feller says career guidance needs to be embraced by universities, and colleges also need to work with employers to ensure their future alumni have enough career-development opportunities after graduation.

"But it's a natural tension that's gone on forever," he says. "Universities are not a labor-supply system. They're a finishing school."

Elliott Masie, a technology, business and learning consultant and leader of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based think tank The Masie Center, agrees with Feller. "Part of the problem is that a lot of what happens is dominated by compliance and regulatory requirements," Masie says.

"This means that employees have to take certain courses every year," he says. "We've become good at dispensing content with learning management systems, but not at customizing content. We should be focusing on what the learner needs, what gets them their next job. But we've moved into a mode where there's a lot of low-motivation learning at a high price point. I think there's a misalignment between how training dollars are spent and the subsequent yield -- both to the company and the individual."

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According to Masie, personalization of the learning process will reap rewards for all involved.

"The element is not the technology," he says, "but how well do we create a more personalized view toward getting employees what they need?"

EdAssist recently shared an overview of the best-in-class career-development program for one of its clients, Rockwell Collins, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based provider of communication and aviation electronics. Each employee is given a development roadmap and access to Rockwell Collins University, which is organized into eight schools of learning, each chaired by a senior executive. The university also provides computer-based and instructor-led trainings. 

All salaried employees at Rockwell have access to an e-mentoring system, and the company's tuition reimbursement program provides financial assistance to eligible employees who enroll in undergraduate or graduate level courses, as well as professional development opportunities. Rockwell also provides free education counseling services to their employees through EdAssist.

Feller notes that he works as a consultant to AARP, which launched "Life Reimagined" last May. The web site features a customizable roadmap designed to guide people through life transitions and also serves as a social network. "Companies are no longer paternalistic; something like this can help people design their own careers," he says. Social networking can also be utilized by companies to promote success stories and further engage employees through their colleagues' efforts.

In addition to everything else a company does to further workers' career development, one important factor should not be overlooked. "Measuring what's happening with your education investment is a powerful thing, and it's a practice that can be done today," says Zappa. "Any organization that spends a lot of money on tuition assistance benefits must have clear goals for the program and communicate those to the employee."

Zappa says clients that do this have data showing their employees stay twice as long, and their job performance is positively affected.

"Retention, performance and mobility results will demonstrate to the company that they're getting a return on their investment," he says. "And it helps them to understand what they need to tweak about the program to make it stronger. Manage the program. Measure it."

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