Bike KidI’ve written about this in the past, but a new eBook on employee engagement and retention by HR-tech company iCIMS proves this particular conversation isn’t over: the American workforce really wants career development and training opportunities. “Typically, it’s one of the top things that candidates and employees care about,” says Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer of iCIMS. “While some folks assume that salary is the only thing that people care about, or a good relationship with management, [career development is] really one of the top workplace perks that appeals to candidates.”

As the eBook — “Increase Employee Engagement and Retention” — points out, 49 percent of employees prefer to work for organizations that “emphasize mentoring and nurture their career development.” Offering development opportunities can lead to more productive, engaged, and loyal employees.

And yet, here’s the problem: while most employers believe they are offering development opportunities (e.g., 63 percent say they offer internal training programs; see the eBook for more specific stats), 50 percent of employees report that their employers do not offer sufficient career development training. Part of the reason for the dissonance between employer and employee feelings on this subject stems from employer anxieties, Vitale says. “I think some employers might be nervous that an employee will go learn a new skill or technology and then jump ship and go somewhere else, because that’s something else to add to their resume,” she explains.

But, she goes on, these anxieties are often unfounded: “In reality, a lot of time employees are far more loyal than employees give them credit for. Once they learn something on behalf of the company, on the company dime, they really do want to use that within their walls, assuming that they have a good relationship otherwise and are engaged.” (Bonus point: career development opportunities that teach employees these new skills and technologies are exactly the kind of things that keep employees engaged, so there’s really no reason not to offer development opportunities.)

However, employer anxieties are not the major source of dissonance, Vitale says. Rather, the employer/employee divide on sufficient career development training largely stems from miscommunication. That is, a lot of companies do offer development opportunities — but employees may not know exactly what they are or how to access them. “I think that communication is probably at the core [of this issue],” Vitale says. “It’s either communication about what’s available, or what people really want, or about really making sure that people realize what kind of development opportunities are at the core of what the company is expecting.”

Bridging the Communication Gap

One thing employers have to do is make sure they’re on the same page as employees regarding the types of career development available at the company. “In some cases, employers might feel like they’re giving those opportunities in softer ways. Maybe it’s not formalized training,” Vitale says. “But maybe the employees are looking for development opportunities to get them on a management path, for example, and employers just aren’t doing that. Instead, they’re giving functional training.”

It is crucial that employers make clear what they mean when they say “development opportunities” — e.g., formal conferences or informal training; leadership pathways or functional skills. That being said, employers need to be careful that they are not simply dictating what counts as career development in their offices — that’s a good way to lose employees who can find the kinds of opportunities they want elsewhere.

While making current offerings explicit, employers also need to listen to what their  employees want. “I think that employers are offering development opportunities, but sometimes they’re just not keeping up with what employees view as development opportunities,” Vitale says. “They need to kind of peel back the layers a little bit and make sure that everybody understands what is described as development opportunities.”

The burden of creating and delivering development opportunities does not need to be entirely on employers’ shoulders. “Oftentimes, organizations have line items … for training opportunities,” Vitale says. “But maybe the managers or the directors of the departments aren’t proactively sharing that with the employees.”

If an employer does have development opportunities in the budget, they need to make sure employees are aware of this. This way, employees can find conferences, classes, and other desired opportunities outside the walls of the office. “Certainly a manager should be on the hunt for those opportunities for employees, but I don’t think a lot of employees realize that, they can serve something like that up to a manager and say ‘This looks like a really good opportunity. I’d love to go, because I think it will be useful for me, and I’ll come back with X, Y, Z,’” Vitale says.

Employers may allow these sorts of things, but their employees might not know that. So organizations need to be clear with employees about policies regarding external career development opportunities. If an employer does not currently a lot money for such training, it would be wise to start doing so — that is, as long as the employer wants to retain great, engaged employees.

The Power of Mentors in Particular

While all manner of career development opportunities exist, there is one that employees find especially desirable: mentorship. Despite this, very few employees can lay claim to having a mentor. “We’ve seen that about half of employees think that mentors will help them develop, but only about 17 percent report having a mentor today,” Vitale explains.

Vitale says that mentors are so important to many employees because they can offer valuable, frank insights based on personal and professional experiences. Mentors can offer “candid feedback about not just the employee, but the employee’s career plans, what’s happening at the company, etc,” she says. “I think it’s somewhat desired because, often times, you might go home after a rough day and complain to your significant other, or a roommate, or parent, or whomever, but they can’t really dial in on how to address the problem in the same way that somebody whose been there, done that can. Being able to have not just someone to vent to, but someone who can give really critical feedback — things that really are constructive for and individual’s growth — is really important.”

Many a top executive and business expert would concur with Vitale’s beliefs about the power and importance of the mentor. As Warren Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, told Fast Company in 2003: “[My mentor] pulled qualities from me that I didn’t know were present. He not only recognized my potential, but he also gave me confidence. And he made it clear to people that I was a guy to watch.” (The whole article is worth a read, with leaders from a variety of fields weighing in on their experiences with mentors.)

Some companies help employees find mentors by pairing newcomers with seasoned vets through a formal program. However, companies lacking such a program can still help by encouraging managers to act in mentor-esque ways. This is especially helpful for new hires. “An employee can have a better new-hire experience, from an onboarding perspective, if their manager is not just the process king, but instead is somebody who helps you develop, who understands what your challenges are, and really is seen as a bit more of a mentor,” Vitale explains.

While managers can certainly help employees grow and develop, Vitale points out that they can’t exactly fulfill all of the functions of mentors. Sometimes, a competitive office setup, where promotions are limited, can prevent managers and employees from having mentor/mentee relationships. Even lacking such a competitive structure, mentors and managers still play very different roles. “You want to have a separate relationship with your mentor than you have with your manager,” Vitale says. “The mentor should be able to tell it like it is, how it is, maybe even tell you when they think your manager is doing something wrong or maybe could do something better, and your manager could certainly have clouded judgment around that.”

A mentor needs to be able to be a little more “transparent” than a manager is allowed to be by most companies’ standards. “To get a truly authentic mentoring experience, I personally think that a non-manager might be the right person for that,” Vitale says.

This, however, does not mean that employers should not encourage mentor-esque relationships between employees and managers. The manager-as-mentor may not be able to do everything a mentor can, but they can still be valuable assets to employees. “A lot of folks assume that you can only have one mentor, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having more than one,” Vitale says. “Sometimes you have an internal mentor who helps you figure out and navigate the bureaucracies or the politics of an organization … and helps ensure that you get properly onboarded, understand the culture, and understand the nuances within a particular organization.”

Other times, an employee may need to look to an external mentor: “The reality is, employees don’t stay within one company forever,” Vitale says. “More often than not, they jump around every couple of years, so to have one sort of constant external mentor — outside of your personal manager — for ongoing development, somebody who can give you a bit of outside perspective, I think is tremendously helpful.”

Again, as important as mentors are, some companies do not have formal mentorship programs. For employees looking to find non-manager mentors, Vitale suggests initiating a relationship with a potential mentor. “The challenge, I think, is that employees expect mentors to go up to them and suggest being their mentor,” Vitale says. “In reality, a lot of that falls on the individual, to go out, find a mentor — more importantly, make sure that they’re not wasting the mentor’s time. Asking a mentor to lunch, an then just saying ‘What kind of advice do you have for me?’ is really not productive. Instead, asking very specific questions about somebody’s previous experience, or about the challenges the individual faces, can go a long way.”

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