What Is Career Pathing? Why Is It Important for You and Your Company?

Are you prepared to lose half of your workforce?

According to a recent Bankrate survey, 55% of American workers plan to look for a new job within the next 12 months. That’s bad news for organizations, since replacing a worker costs a median of 21% of their annual pay—and comes with more than a few headaches.

But there’s no need to panic. Smart implementation of engagement strategies like career pathing can prevent employee turnover, ensure your company or team has the skills and resources it needs to meet tomorrow’s challenges, and even attract new candidates.

So, what is career pathing?

Career Pathing: Definition and Benefits

To define career pathing, you can say it’s the process through which a supervisor(s) or talent development professional works with an employee to lay out their potential trajectory through the organization. It involves defining goals and identifying the skills and experience an employee must gain to achieve them.

Unlike the traditional career ladder, which simply lays out “rungs” or levels to climb, career pathing takes a broader approach. A comprehensive career path might include not only promotions but also lateral moves, job rotations, and training opportunities designed to help employees develop specific skills.

While career pathing may require an upfront investment in time and energy by the employer, it pays huge dividends in terms of employee engagement. A 2019 LinkedIn Learning report found that 94% of employees would stay with their company longer if it invested in their careers. On the other hand, employees who are unsure of what role may come next or of what skills they need to attain for advancement are more likely to become frustrated in their positions and seek out employment elsewhere.

Employees who see a path for growth within their organization are not only less likely to leave; they’re also more likely to consistently put their best foot forward. Clear performance benchmarks and opportunities for promotion are invaluable to increasing engagement, and Gallup has found that engaged teams are 17% more productive than their unengaged peers.

Benefits of Career Pathing

For Employers

  • Increased employee engagement
  • Greater workplace productivity
  • Increased employee retention

For Employees

  • Career advancement
  • Hard and soft skills development
  • Opportunities for coaching

Assessing Organizational Needs

While individual career pathing is valuable, companies may see the best results if they develop an organization-wide approach.

The first step is to identify the company’s goals in implementing career pathing. Common goals include:

  • Increasing employee engagement
  • Reducing turnover
  • Increasing rates of internal hiring
  • Addressing skills gaps
  • Creating succession plans
  • Increasing diversity in leadership 

Leadership should consider the company’s growth projections and their implications on staffing needs. Is the company expanding into a new area or shifting to keep up with changing customer demand? Will new technologies require new skill sets? If so, career paths should be designed to address those needs. Since many of the roles organizations will need to fill over the next decades don’t even exist yet, it’s essential to work to identify and develop soft skills (like leadership and flexibility). This will allow employees to adapt and pivot alongside their organizations.

If promoting from within is an organizational priority, career pathing is an excellent tool for preparing the next generation of company leadership. By treating employees as potential future leaders from the time they join the company, organizations can uncover hidden talent and ensure a healthy and diverse talent pool.

Creating a Career Pathing Strategy

After an initial goals assessment, organizational leadership can work with their team to create a career pathing strategy that aligns with existing professional development efforts. Systems for employee education, performance assessment, and promotions may provide a framework for developing career paths—or they may need to be modified to better support career pathing. 

Surveying employees or conducting demographic studies of your employer base can provide essential information about employees’ pain points, concerns, and desires related to growing their careers, while working with employee skill development experts like those at Emeritus can help organizations create action plans to address them.

As that data is translated into policy, companies should strive to communicate openly with employees about career pathing efforts within the organization, since transparency in the workplace is increasingly important to organizational success. It’s essential that employees understand how to initiate career pathing conversations, what processes they can expect, and how their progress will be evaluated.

At the managerial level, supervisors will need training on how to develop and manage their employees’ career paths. Organizations may create standardized assessment methodologies and templates to track progress while minimizing the impacts of personal bias or preferences.

Companies should strive to communicate openly with employees about career pathing efforts within the organization.

Best Practices for Career Pathing

Identifying the roles an employee might aim for in the future is just the start of the career pathing process. Supervisors and talent development professionals should be prepared to have frank discussions with employees about goals and specific areas of growth. Areas for supervisors and employees to consider in a career pathing conversation might include:

  • What are the employee’s career goals (e.g., move into management, switch to a different department)?
  • What hard skills (e.g., technical skills, certifications) does the employee need to develop to move forward?
  • What soft skills (e.g., communication, teamwork) does the employee need to develop?

Supervisors should be transparent in highlighting employees’ growth areas but should keep feedback constructive by providing resources or pathways to help employees move forward. These might include coaching sessions, mentorship, and internal or external professional development courses

The specifics of a career path will vary depending on the industry and type of role—for example, a business analyst might be able to learn more on the job than a scientist—but in nearly all cases, success will come from a balance of formal education and hands-on experience.

Career Pathing Examples

Career paths can vary greatly both across industries and between individuals. For some employees, a career path can be a linear upward trajectory. For others, it may involve lateral moves to gain skills or even an apparent step back to explore a different pathway. While every employee’s journey will be unique, these examples of career pathing demonstrate some types of paths that are available. 

Rising Through the Ranks in Marketing

A pathway through a large organization’s marketing function might include the following steps over years or decades:

  1. Marketer joins the organization at the entry level in a generalist role
  2. Lateral moves to brand marketing and social media
  3. Coursework in digital analytics and brand strategy
  4. Promotion to team lead
  5. Promotion to executive team

A Career Pivot to Coding

Fresh from a coding course or program, an entry-level web developer might work with their manager to identify the areas that will require the most skill development and to identify goals for career progression. 

  1. Entry-level web development role 
  2. Mentorship and training around the company’s preferred tools
  3. Associate-level role focusing on a specific functionality or tool (for instance, WordPress development)
  4. Increased responsibility for client projects
  5. Training and coursework on additional coding languages
  6. Promotion to full-stack developer

A Product Manager Moving Into Leadership

An established product manager looking to move into a leadership role might work closely with their manager to gain the skills needed to work at a higher level in the organization. Steps might include:

  1. One-on-one mentorship within the product manager role
  2. Training program in effective leadership
  3. Promotion to senior product manager with one direct report
  4. Ongoing management coaching
  5. Assignment of additional direct reports

While paths can diverge wildly based on individuals’ needs, it’s essential that managers work closely with their employees to develop career paths that align with the employee’s expressed desires, strengths, and weaknesses. Regular check-ins and access to a range of training and growth opportunities will set employees up for success.

Career Pathing for Individuals

If you’re looking for more direction in your own career, you don’t need to leave it up to your employer. By proactively working to identify goals and make a plan, you can set yourself up for career pathing success. Steps to take include:

1. Conduct a self-assessment and set goals. 

Take the time to review your career and your goals. What are your core values when it comes to your career—learning, making strong contributions, working on projects that make a difference? Consider how those values align with your existing skill sets and areas of interest for future growth. 

2. Reach out to your network.

If you have an existing mentor or others in your network who work in a role you’re potentially interested in, reach out to set up an informal conversation. Ask about what they wish they knew as they grew their career and what skills they think are most important to develop. 

3. Work with your manager.

Once you have an idea of the direction you’d like to move forward in, set up time with your manager to talk about your future with your organization. Ask about what skills and experience you need to gain to move upward or laterally into a different role. Work together to make a plan to develop those skills.

4. Supplement with outside study and training. 

If your target skills can’t be acquired on the job, consider looking externally to organizations like Emeritus for formalized online training programs. Whether you receive organizational sponsorship or seek out courses on your own time, they are an affordable and convenient way to develop the skills you need to meet your goals.

How Emeritus Can Help

What is career pathing’s role in your organization? At Emeritus, we work with leading universities to develop online programs that help organizations upskill and reskill their employees. Our experts can work with you to identify the coursework and professional development opportunities that best align with your organization’s career pathing efforts. Together, we can increase your employee engagement while preparing your business for the future.

By Rachel Hastings

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