Multiple surveys have found that in today’s corporate environment, employees don’t view professional development as a “nice-to-have” job benefit; it’s a requirement. For example, in Udemy’s 2018 “Millennials at Work” survey, 42% of respondents said learning and development is the most important benefit when deciding where to work. However, less than half said their employers provide learning opportunities. But despite wanting to grow professionally and advance their careers, a recent Champlain College survey found that only 46% of adults see an opportunity to advance in their current job.

Learning and development (L&D) professionals can help close this gap by creating non-linear career advancement opportunities for employees — thereby reducing turnover; improving engagement; and enabling employees to finish the work day feeling fulfilled, motivated and satisfied in their roles.

Employees Expect Professional Development

“Employees have an expectation of career development now from their employers,” says Shelley Osborne, vice president of learning and development at Udemy. One reason for this expectation is the changing nature of the skills employees need to succeed at work. Osborne says, “Modern employees are recognizing that they can’t just walk out of colleges or universities set to go with their degree. They know they need to have those learning opportunities, and they are asking for them from their employers.”

The first step in helping employees reach their career goals — and remain engaged and fulfilled in their current role — is identifying those goals. Organizations should help employees determine what they “care most about doing,” what their “ultimate life intentions” are and how their job can help support them, says Kathy Caprino, a career and leadership development coach and founder of Ellia Communications.

“The more organizations can provide avenues for professionals to do work that nourishes and supports them [in addition to giving them] a paycheck, the more morale will improve and turnover will lessen,” Caprino adds. For example, at Udemy, employees have access to Career Navigator, a program designed to help them “drive their own careers” by connecting their development to their personal interests, Osborne says.

Although talking to employees about their career aspirations may be anxiety-inducing for leaders, as they may realize an employee wants to grow and develop beyond his or her current role, the risk of not having those conversations is even greater, says Melissa Marcello, associate vice president at Champlain College Online. If leaders don’t talk to employees about their career trajectories, “They’ll not just leave the manager; they’ll leave the organization,” she explains. By implementing career development programs, L&D professionals can help facilitate these conversations. As a result, leaders can better determine how to help employees achieve their professional goals — without leaving the organization.

Career Advancement Isn’t Always Linear

For many, career advancement is synonymous with being promoted, but promotions are not always in the budget. Organizations can, instead, offer employees non-linear career advancement through professional development opportunities like job shadowing, offering spots on committees to less-seasoned employees, opportunities to co-present at a conference or co-author a white paper, and facilitating “cross-departmental work groups” comprised of employees with a mix of tenure, Marcello says.

For maximum impact, Caprino says professional development initiatives must “address the hard stuff,” like how to feel heard, how to handle sexual harrassment and/or gender bias in the workplace, and how to ask for what you want. “It’s the difficult and complex, and often controversial, topics that should be addressed, not the ‘vanilla content’ of how to get ahead,’” she says.

Diane Belcher, managing director of product management at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, says that much of the decision-making process in companies will happen further down the “chain of command” in the future, as organizations continue to shift away from traditional hierarchical structures. As a result, “Making sure development opportunities are available at all levels is not just aligning to learners’ needs but also better positioning your organization for success.”

L&D initiatives should also be available in multiple formats, as not everyone works at the same pace or enjoys learning in the same way, Belcher says. To appeal to a broad range of learners, Belcher suggests a “multimedia approach to learning” so that they can access content in a variety of formats, such as articles, videos and podcasts.

While L&D initiatives can offer employees opportunity to learn and grow within their current role, it’s important to ensure they don’t feel like their organizations are “simply getting extra work out of them without the trappings that come with advancement, such as new titles, raises, and bonuses,” Gwen Moran writes in a Fast Company article. If those opportunities aren’t in the budget, Moran suggests that leaders remove some employees’ “more rote work” so they can focus on the more fulfilling aspects of their roles, such as stretch assignments.

Fulfilled Employees Are Loyal Employees

A recent PwC/CECP study found that 70% of employees would consider leaving their current role for a “more fulfilling” one. L&D is critical in creating this fulfillment; as Osborne says, “When you have the opportunity to grow, develop and learn something new, that’s really rewarding, versus just going in and punching a clock.” By creating opportunities for career advancement through professional development and learning initiatives, L&D professionals can help reduce turnover and create roles employees want to stay in. Marcello’s advice? “Develop employees who have the ability to go work anywhere — but choose to stay with your organization because of the opportunities you provide to them.”