(Illustration by Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock by Getty Images)

Despite their economic burdens and climbing inflation, many U.S. workers now care as much about career opportunity as they do about compensation. If employers are to hold on to talent, they’ll have to move beyond the short-term shock of the Great Resignation and focus on long-term employee career growth.

“Workers are reassessing their career choices and evaluating whether their employer is really investing in their professional development. Learning new skills is a key sticking point, regardless of generation, for retaining talented people,” said Lydia Dishman, a staff editor at Fast Company, who moderated a conversation on career growth and employee retention, part of From Day One’s November virtual conference on upskilling, coaching and recognition.

The consensus among panelists was this: Chuck the orthodox career ladder and let employees define their long-term success. One of the panelists, Shaun Mayo, the chief people officer for the Arizona Cardinals, brought up the notion of serving the “whole person” in the workplace. What began as a call for the psychological safety of marginalized workers has expanded to include supporting working parents, facilitating better work-life balance, and now, considering employees’ long-term career development. The skills gap is growing, and both employers and employees are increasingly aware of the need to stay current.

Workers aren’t necessarily looking for vertical career growth, the speakers emphasized. The ladder is less relevant now, and professionals are looking for the chance to pursue their own brand of career progress, said Dishman. “This notion of traditional career paths seems to be becoming obsolete, that you're just not there to climb a ladder, that you can spread out, maybe take a few steps back, go forward in a different direction.”

Kaelyn Phillips, director of global talent development at the job platform Monster, noted that this concept of what she called a “squiggly career” isn’t new. To help staff members imagine where they might move within Monster, however non-linear the path, the company has made role requirements and core competencies ultra-clear. For example, if an SEO analyst at Monster wants to transition to sales, they can readily find a list of the skills they should develop and the competency level they need to achieve.

Speaking on career development, top row from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Shaun Mayo of the Arizona Cardinals, and Mark Kaestner of Graphic Packaging International. Bottom row: Kelly Rider of PTC, Kaelyn Phillips of Monster, and Benedek Frank of Bravely (Image by From Day One)

“It gives people the opportunity to go in and make their own career, which is not something that you can do if there's a ladder,” Phillips said. “We're seeing people moving to different types of careers, and it makes it so much better for the people involved because they genuinely love what they've chosen. That means they're going to work that much harder, they're going to be more interested, they're going to be more engaged, and they're going to be more connected to the organization because we fostered their growth and their passion.”

“We have to be careful that career development doesn't equal career progression. Everybody wants to be valued, respected, do meaningful work, and be developed and invested in, but not everybody wants to become a VP or the CEO,” added Mark Kaestner, the VP of talent development, learning, and diversity and inclusion for Graphic Packaging International. “Some people want to grow where they're planted, and some people want to progress.”

Mayo has done the same at the Cardinals, where, he said, the results have been illuminating for everyone. Workers are now looking at their job experiences differently—holistically, as a means to an end they define, he said. “It started to change the conversation and really opened up people's eyes to say, ‘My career path does not need to look like this, it can actually go horizontal to get these different experiences that I know in the long term will get me to where I want to be.’”

When Benedek Frank, a coach and trainer at the coaching platform Bravely, works with clients, he too asks them to define their own success. The further out they can envision their future, the better. “Those people who are able to imagine something and keep to that goal over a longer period of time are much more likely to reach that goal than those people who don't have such an image in their minds,” he said. “Work must start on the individual employee's part by thinking about his or her own intentions and interests.”

Software company PTC’s chief learning and talent officer Kelly Rider said people managers need to be coached in this direction. “We develop that mindset of managers really seeing the benefit and value of honoring somebody’s professional career development,” she said.

That has to be an intentional process, because it doesn’t happen by default. “Line managers are not mind readers,” observed Frank. “The biggest mistake that I see clients making is that they assume the line manager is going to not only guess what they want and what they're capable and skilled to do, but also offer them this opportunity. And this almost never happens.”

When it comes to training employees in ways that grow their careers, Kaestner believes soft skills are most important. “Universal skills and experience are what allow you to move to different areas of the organization. Learning agility, rational risk taking, problem solving, innovative mindset–those are skills that we need regardless of the role.”

At PTC, Rider focuses on adjacent skills. Her company implemented an AI talent management platform, Eightfold, and hopes the tool will help employees find their next career within the company. “We’re trying to use it as talent mobility, so we can get people to see what their skills are and maybe consider a completely different role in a different environment they may not have considered before.”

Sustaining workers’ enthusiasm for career development within your company requires encouraging them to bring to work what they personally value. Rider asks staff to think about what energizes them, what gets them excited about their job, what ignites their passions. Benedek does the same: “I help my clients by saying, ‘Okay, what is it that has caused you great joy and satisfaction in your previous professional lives? Something that interests you so much that you want to move into that area.’ That's where you'll be much more motivated.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.