What It Is
Professional development (PD) encompasses a wide range of activities designed to improve the skill set, knowledge, and general professionalization of an individual. People pursue professional development to help them more successfully perform their current job or to allow them to transition into related or new work. Professional development can involve the acquisition of hard skills, such as learning a specific technology, or soft skills, such as improving management skills. Professional development can be undertaken gradually and continuously, through occasional workshops, lectures, group discussions of relevant texts, and so on. It can also be pursued in a more narrow and goal driven manner, such as working towards a certification or degree.
For the purposes of this guide, we will look at professional development activities that are supported by the organization at which the individual works, rather than any number of activities that an individual might pursue of their own accord.
Why It Matters
Employees rarely stay with one company for their entire career. Moreover, new kinds of jobs are created constantly, while other fields shrink or become outmoded. Workers are consequently aware that they will have to retool and transition into new areas over the course of their career, even if they stay with the same organization. On the other hand, organizations that help their employees remain competitive by assisting with professional development activities have better employee retention rates overall.
Why is this? Numerous studies have shown that professional development activities improve job satisfaction and employee engagement. Lack of employee engagement can cost organizations serious money, as 2013 State of the American Workforce Report by Gallup has shown. This same study also stresses that developing an employee’s strengths is one of three ways to increase their level of engagement.
Professional development encourages engagement by bolstering an employee’s sense of mastery, providing the employee with a sense of direction in their work, and making them more aware of the connections between their professional and personal interests. When professional development opportunities are balanced between the needs of the individual and the needs of the organization, they can provide the employee with a better sense of the overall workings of the organization and the role that they have to play. Perhaps most simply, employees are more likely to stay with an organization that has invested in their well-being.
Improved retention benefits businesses by reducing the costs of hiring and training new employees. Some studies suggest that replacing an employee can cost as much as 18 months of their salary. High attrition rates also negatively impact workplace morale. When professional development is achieved through cross training and other work within the organization, it can help protect an organization against lost productivity and foster innovation. For example, cross-trained employees can temporarily fill the roles of workers who have left, while an employee who is applying new skills through project work could improve on existing organizational processes or services. Developing existing employees’ skills also allows you to promote and hire from within the organization.
It is also important to create professional development opportunities for non-professional and paraprofessional employees. These employees are likely to have more to gain from new skills and knowledge than a person who already has a strong educational background and familiarity with professionalization resources. For employees performing physically demanding work, this investment can also allow them to transition naturally as they age. For instance, a committed worker performing a physically demanding job will likely reach a point where they can no longer perform that work, either because of age or disability. Rather than letting that worker go when they can no longer perform their job duties, plan ahead and look for ways to build on the employee’s existing talents. This could include moving that person into a training or supervisory role.
For employees that do not have colleagues performing similar work, enrollment in professional organizations and attending trainings with others in their field of specialization can decrease their sense of isolation. These outside connections also allow these employees to serve as conduits for new ideas and practices that could be profitably applied to your organization.
Creating Successful Professional Development Opportunities
Successful professional development programs share a few key features.
First of all, they are employee centric. Employers that focus on the employee’s strengths rather than on their weaknesses are rewarded with improved employee engagement. This often means encouraging the employee to take ownership over the trajectory and shape of their professional development activities, thereby increasing the chances that they will find these activities relevant and engaging.
Secondly, successful professional development requires collaboration and trust between employees and supervisors. Supervisors working with employees on their professional development should act as coaches rather than bosses, and be sensitive to the fact that sharing aspirations and career goals can make employees feel vulnerable. Along these same lines, it’s crucial that professional development programs not be burdensome or punitive. They should not be tied to performance evaluations, and are not the same as training required to perform the employee’s basic job functions.
Thirdly, professional development should be broadly and inclusively defined. Learning opportunities should not be constrained to only specific goals or outcomes. Professional development can be both a mix of incremental, continuous learning experiences and specific goals such as earning a degree or certification.
Lastly, professional development programs should realistic. Establishing clear guidelines about what the company can and cannot offer employees towards their professional development goals and what employees might achieve in addition to their regular job duties is key to keeping expectations measured and realistic.
- Step One: Determine what your organization can and cannot contribute in terms of time and resources to professional development activities.
- Step Two: Encourage all employees to create and maintain professional growth plans (PGPs).
- Step Three: Find ways to create low cost, continuous learning opportunities for employees.
- Step Four: Cross-train your employees.
- Step Five: Allow employees to take on developmental assignments.
Step One – Determine what you can kinds of professional development opportunities you can support.
You will need to consider whether you can allow flexible hours to allow staff to attend outside trainings, time off, or paid time off. You will also need to establish whether or not you can contribute to the costs of trainings, certifications, and membership in professional organizations. Whether or not you provide these benefits may depend on how long the employee has worked for your organization and other factors, such as the relevance of certain kinds of professional organization memberships to your business.
While an expectation of continual learning and development can foster a positive learning environment within an organization, narrowly defined or over-zealous professional development goals can feel more limiting than liberating. If you cannot provide paid time or other resources towards professional development, your expectations of what employees will be able to undertake will also need to be more measured. What’s key here is realism: make sure you are not promising more than you can offer, or demanding more than employees can give given the constraints of their regular job.
Step Two – Encourage all employees to create and maintain professional growth plans (PGPs)
A professional growth plan (PGP) is a plan created and maintained by the employee. It can include any number of features, but often is an expansive document in which the employee describes both short and long term career goals, their current strengths and skills, their desired training and skill sets, and brainstorming about specific ways to meet these goals. Often, PGPs will include a section on personal and life goals, so that the employee can make connections between their professional and personal aspirations.
The goal of a PGP is give the employee ownership over their professional development goals and allow them a high degree of latitude in the design and implementation of their program. This creates a positive model of employees as responsible professionals who are self-directed. This helps ensure that the opportunities they pursue are of interest and relevance to them.
The employee has complete ownership over the PGP. This should be made clear at the outset. You can and should identify which sections you’d prefer the employee to share with their supervisor (such as current skills and strengths and short term career goals). While it might be helpful to understand the larger framework of their long-term career goals and personal goals, whether or not they share this information is at their discretion.
Even if the employee isn’t immediately able to realize the goals they have laid out, the PGP serves as a framework for understanding how even small professionalization steps (such as attending a lecture or workshop) fit into the employee’s larger objectives. Make time to meet with employees one-on-one to discuss their PGP and how they might begin to take steps towards meeting their goals. If nothing else, knowing what goals your employees have will allow you to better match new work opportunities with your existing personnel’s interests.
Step Three – Find ways to create low cost, continuous learning opportunities for employees
Low-cost and continuous learning can include group discussions of relevant texts, guest speakers, and information sessions on how other parts of the organization operate. One goal of these measures is simply to help employees understand their role in the broader organization. This can also provide them with a sense of how they might grow with the organization.
Community organizations that offer talks and workshops on relevant topics may also be a good resource. Topics could range from to cultural diversity to local food systems, depending on the nature of your workforce and industry.
While these low cost measures are likely to be organizationally focused, you might tailor them to smaller groups with shared interests. For instance, an architecture firm might bring an expert on green building to give a talk to subset of their employees who have expressed an interest in this subject.
Step Four – Cross-train your employees
Cross training is simply training employees to perform multiple jobs at your company. The expectation is not necessarily that they will then take on these roles, now or in the future. Cross training is a way for the employee to understand larger dynamics of organization and discover what kinds of work they might also be interested in. Cross training makes your workforce more flexible and less vulnerable to employee attrition and leaves of absence. For instance, if an employee takes three months of parental leave, other adequately cross-trained employees may be able to take over most of their duties during their absence.
Step Five – Allow employees to take on developmental assignments
Look for natural opportunities within organization for the employee to meet their professional development goals. If the employee has a clear sense of what kinds of skills they’d like to acquire and has shared that information with you, you can brainstorm about possible developmental projects they could undertake to acquire those skills. Development projects are projects that stretch the skill set of an employee to allow them to learn new skills or information. The goal is to match your company’s needs with the aspirations of the employee. This could be achieved in large and small ways—for example, if your receptionist has in interest in managing social media, could they take over your company’s neglected Twitter account?
- Step One: Create written professional development policies, and advertise them.
- Step Two: Create a professional development committee or team.
- Step Three: Involve human resources in crafting professional development opportunities.
- Step Four: When appropriate, train employees for new roles in the organization.
- Step Five: Meet employees half way with the time and financial resources required for professional development obtained outside of the organization.
Step One – Create written professional development policies, and advertise them
Document your professional development policies and make them available to employees and new recruits. You might also create models of PGPs or examples of successfully undertaken professional development opportunities. These might be theoretical examples or actual examples shared with permission. These can provide concrete models for thinking about what’s possible and how a person might achieve their goals. Since supervisors will likely work with a variety of employees on their professional goals, they may have a better sense of what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past. Supervisors can formalize these observations into some form of written guidance.
Your policies should be fair and uniform, but not one-size-fits-all in terms of the specific training they prescribe for employees. Professional development options are unlikely to be adopted with much enthusiasm if an employee feels that it does not have direct value to them or to their current job. Similarly, decide how and when to evaluate progress on professional development goals. While having set objectives might be helpful, it’s best to disentangle these objectives from the regular work expectations of the employee and not include them as part of a performance evaluation.
Step Two – Create a professional development committee or team
Creating a professional development committee ensures that professional development measures are not just top-down initiatives. A committee-designed approach is likely to balance individual and organizational goals. The committee could design surveys to get feedback on desired professionalization opportunities, recruit speakers, develop workshops, or create a centralized resource for employees on internal and external professional development opportunities.
Step Three – Involve human resources in crafting professional development opportunities
Your human resources person or department, if you have one, will be able to point you towards best practices for fostering professional development. They should also be able to give presentations to your workforce on a variety of topics relevant to their personal and professional lives, for example, about leave and medical benefits.
Step Four – When appropriate, train employees for new roles in the organization
When it makes sense for the organization and the employee, it may be appropriate to train the employee for new or more advanced roles in the organization. Maintaining a dialogue with employees about their goals and interests is the necessary groundwork for identifying these opportunities and providing the time and training to allow for a transition.
Step Five – Meet employees half way with the time and financial resources required for professional development obtained outside of the organization
It may not be feasible for your business to pay for the full expense of outside trainings and certifications. However, there are number of ways to support employees pursuing these educational options. This includes allowing flex-time, paid time-off, or partial reimbursement of expenses. There might also be ways to align professional development and organizational goals in cost effective ways. For example, if an employee has expressed an interest in learning how to maintain websites and you currently contract this work out, paying for this training could save you money in the long run.
- Step One: Provide tuition benefits for continuing education, certificate programs, online courses, or college coursework.
- Step Two: Hire consultants to provide employees with specialized training.
- Step Three: Pay and allow time for participation at professional conferences, meetings, and related workshops.
- Step Four: Create and maintain a professional development resource center.
Step One – Provide tuition benefits for continuing education, certificate programs, online courses, or college coursework
Decide on a set dollar value that you will award employees for educational expenses. This could be for a specific period of time or over the course of their tenure with the organization. Allow this credit to be used for a wide-range of educational opportunities so that most employees can take advantage of it if they choose to. That said, setting standards about how the credit can be used may protect you and the employee. For instance, you might decide to only pay for continuing education opportunities provided by accredited universities, or other similarly reputable programs. If you have a number of employees seeking similar kinds of training, you might be able to get a group discount.
Step Two – Hire consultants to provide employees with specialized training
This would be most cost effective if you identified a group of employees with similar interests who could benefit from this training. Bringing in a consultant might be one part of a larger project that allows employees to apply the knowledge and skills that they are developing.
Step Three – Pay and allow time for participation at professional conferences, meetings, and related workshops
Let someone else be the professional development expert: professional organizations exist to help workers stay current in their field and network with other professionals. Paying for membership and making accommodations for participation signals your investment in that employee and allows them to the opportunity to bring outside ideas and innovations into your workplace.
Step Four – Create and maintain a professional development resource center
A professional development resource center would be a helpful addition to any human resources website. Do your best to keep it current and relevant. This could also be used as one way for employees to submit feedback and suggestions about available opportunities.
Tim’s Cascade Snacks
Located in Sumner, Washington, Tim’s Cascade Snacks has been recognized with a Premier Employer Award from the Northwest Food Processors Association and the Hitachi Foundation.
One exceptional feature of Tim’s Cascade Snacks track record is their high employee retention rate. Its achieve this high rate of retention through programs and policies that demonstrate their commitment to employees. For instance, new jobs are posted internally, and interested employees are trained to allow them to move into new roles. Tim’s also “trains the trainers,” expanding the roles of skilled employees by teaching them how to train other workers.
Tim’s has a diverse workforce that speaks a total of 11 languages, and so it has placed a premium on ESL training. It partnered with World Vision to provide this training, which was paid and took place during work time. Managers also attended so that they could better understand the cultural diversity of their workforce.
Tim’s also cross-trains employees and provides a $4,000 educational benefit for every employee. All employees are familiar with the various operations of the plant, and understand their place in the larger organization. To avoid redundancies, Tim’s trained existing employees for new roles that matched the growing needs of the company when it updated its equipment and production processes.
Underpinning all of these programs and policies is a culture that encourages open communication between employees and managers.
Komar, Amanda. “Interview with Tim’s Cascade Snacks.” Are You There Yet? Podcast. Accessed 21 June 2013. http://gogreenplus.org/latest-news/new-podcast-employee-programs-with-tims-cascade-snacks/.
Northwest Food Processors Association and the Hitachi Foundation. “Premier Employers in the Pacific Northwest.” Premier Employer Project (January 2013): 13. http://www.jrcollaborations.com/uploads/4/4/6/2/4462230/nwfpa_executive_summary__final.pdf
Parkway School District
Attendance at annual workshops to improve their teaching skills and subject knowledge is an expected part of most K-12 teachers’ summer “vacation.” But one school district in Chesterfield, Missouri has recognized the importance of professional development activities for all of its staff; not just its teachers. Parkway School District introduced measures to allow all employees to take part in professional learning opportunities. The district added tuition reimbursement benefits for employees who had been employed for over a year. To accommodate tight budgets and varying work schedules, the district scheduled elective workshops on the same days as required trainings. Workshops were tailored to staff requests. For instance, a district-wide survey revealed that large numbers of staff wanted computer skills training. The district has also created a website that serves as a development resource for employees looking for more educational information relevant to their professional and personal lives.
Mayes, Elizabeth. “Ongoing Learning.” National Staff Development Council 26, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 27-30.
Resources for More Information
- Managing Talent Retention: An ROI Approach by Jack J. Phillips and Lisa Edwards
- HR How-to: Employee Retention by Jennifer A. Carsen
- The Employee Retention Handbook by Stephen Taylor
- Training in the Knowledge Economy by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
- Comprehensive Intellectual Capital Management: Step by Step by Nermien Al-Ali
- State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for US Business Leaders by Gallup
Professional development is a powerful way to bolster employee engagement and affective commitment to your organization. The best professional development programs are employee centric and focus on the employee’s strengths. Since professionalization can happen in a number of ways, fostering learning opportunities need not be costly or overly time intensive. A measured approach that grows with your organizations will allow you to manage and meet expectations while demonstrating a continuing commitment to your employees’ professional well-being.
Glossary of Related Terms
Professional growth plan: A professional goal plan (PGP) is a plan created and maintained by the employee. It can include any number of features, but is usually an expansive document in which the employee describes both short and long term career goals, their current strengths and skills, their desired future training, and brainstorming about ways to meet these goals. Often, PGPs include a section on personal and life goals, so that the employee can make connections between their professional and personal aspirations. The goal of a PGP is give the employee ownership over their professional development goals and allow them a high degree of latitude in the design and implementation of their professional development opportunities. The employee has complete ownership over the PGP. You can and should identify which sections you’d like the employee to share with their supervisor (such as current skills and strengths and short term career goals). While it might be helpful to have in mind the larger framework of their long-term career goals and personal goals, sharing this information needs to be at their discretion.
Soft skills: Soft skills are behavioral competencies, and include a range of interpersonal skills that shape how a person relates to other people. This includes friendliness, personal habits, politeness, written and verbal communication skills, and other social skills. These skills greatly impact a person’s ability to work well with customers and colleagues. These skills can be taught and developed.
Hard skills: Skills required to perform a specific task or activity. This includes technical and physical competencies, such the ability to use certain software or tools. Hard skills are generally easier to measure and define than soft skills.
Continuing education: Continuing education generally refers to training undertaken by professionals post-baccalaureate. Many colleges and universities have continuing education programs designed specifically for professionals who already have a degree. These programs might allow a person to earn a certificate after completing a set of coursework or be more free-form.
Expansive roles: Expansive job roles are a counterpoint to formal and strictly defined job descriptions. They often are given to employees to encourage bottom-up innovation. They allow employees to work broadly and tailor their work to their interests, and to find teams at their place of work that best fit their skills.
Industry specific turnover rates: Some industries are more prone to high turnover than others. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes monthly data on turnover and quit rates in selected industries that you can access online.
True turnover rate: This is your turnover rate adjusted for unavoidable turnover. Unavoidable turnover includes unavoidable reasons for leaving a position. This includes retirement, death, disability or family circumstances (for instance, moving to a different city because of a spouse’s job). Once you have worked out your true turnover rate, compare it to industry specific turnover rates to get a sense of whether or not your rate is unusual. Look at who is leaving—is there a noticeable demographic that leaves more or less often– younger employees, or men but not women, and so on? Look for trends over time and red flags such as turnover soon after hire to determine what might be causing employees to leave.
Developmental assignment / developmental stretch assignment: A work assignment that is suited to the abilities of the employee but that also allows them to learn something new.
Cross training: Training employees to perform multiple roles at their place of work.
Organizational development activities: This include activities that are organizationally specific, rather than employee specific. There can be a great deal of overlap between professional development and organizational development activities, but in the latter the organization’s needs are foregrounded. For instance, training that teaches employees to use new equipment that the organization has purchased may be a form of professional development, but is undertaken with the organization and not the employees’ needs in mind.
Employee engagement: Gallup recently defined “engaged employees” in the following way: “Engaged employees have well-defined roles in the organization, make strong contributions, are actively connected to their larger team and organization, and are continuously progressing.”
 Starrin Shafer, 2010, Professional Development to Promote Employee Engagement: A Multi-case Study, PhD Dissertation, Clemson University. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI (Publication No. 3402550): 1-4.
 Gallup, State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for US Business Leaders, 2013. http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx. A summary of the findings is described by New York Times blogger Timothy Egan here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/checking-out/?smid=tw-nytimes
 Gallup, State of the American Workplace, p. 46-49.
 For more on coaching, see Bruce W. Dearstyne, “Coaching for Professional Development,” Career Path (July/August 2010): 36-40. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace has particularly scathing words to describe most middle managers in the US and their impact on employee engagement.
 The following article is particularly good at describing how employees react to well and poorly designed professional development programs: Tara J. Fenwick, “Professional Growth Plans: Possibilities and Limitations of an Organizationwide Employee Development Strategy,” Human Resource Development Quarterly 14, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 59-77.