A few months ago, I was speaking to corporate training executives about career pathing as a creative solution to the employee retention challenges caused by record-breaking low unemployment rates.

Unfortunately, our reality changed dramatically in a matter of weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded — and with it the unfortunate ramifications for millions of Americans and their employment status.

However, the driving forces behind voluntary turnover are not solely dependent upon employment rates and often come from uncovered weaknesses in retention strategies and opportunities to mitigate talent flight. Though we face a challenging ascent back to previous employment rates and a landscape that will forever alter several industries, the need to retain and develop talent will remain a constant, perhaps more so now than ever.

Why Are Employees Leaving?

While reports vary, the Work Institute’s 2019 Retention Report states that 27% of employees voluntarily left their jobs in 2018 — almost 90% higher than in 2010 and costing employers an estimated $617 billion. Projections indicate that by 2023, it will rise to 35% — a staggering $800 billion. Even in a potentially volatile economy, in-demand fields will continue to struggle with voluntary turnover.

At 22.2%, career development represents the largest preventable cause of voluntary turnover. Specifically, employees indicated that a “lack of growth & development opportunities” was among the most frequently cited reasons for leaving, an increase of 170% since 2010. Employees also cited “type of work,” “job security,” and “no advancement or promotional opportunities” as additional reasons for leaving their jobs.

How has a preventable, costly problem spun out of control? How can employers be more creative in their approach to this issue? And how can higher education institutions collaborate with employers to help?

Career Path Systems Are Just One Piece of the Turnover Solution

About five years ago, I was introduced to the notion of software as a service (SaaS) career pathing platforms, which can be cloud-based systems or integrated into existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. When used correctly, they can increase employee engagement, foster transparency of internal employment opportunities, identify skill gaps at individual and organizational levels, and provide employees with learning opportunities aimed at preparing them for their next step (or several steps) within the organization.

What kept me up at night, however, was a noticeable void in these systems: the lack of on-demand, modularized and stackable learning content that organizations could plug directly into the system and make accessible and contextual to each employee. Career pathing solutions are intended as a framework, with the onus to deliver content on the organization and its education vendors. When working with organizations, however, I inevitably encountered a lackluster library of homegrown learning content; a disconnect between third-party learning content and the actual needs of the workforce; or a complete absence of robust, relevant, academically sound and dynamic content.

If the idea was to promote retention and development through career-relevant learning, where was that learning? Sure, the system could show employees where they were deficient, but was it truly supporting their ascent to the next level? Was it doing so with content designed and packaged specifically for that purpose and application? Did it allow for bite-sized learning to gradually build into a badge, then into a stackable certificate and then into a degree? The answer was, resoundingly, “No.”

Higher Education: The Missing Piece in Career Pathing

If career pathing systems don’t offer the learning content needed, what’s the solution? First, I recommend that all employers use career pathing systems or other related solutions. These systems offer a plethora of real, measurable impacts that can shift the retention needle back in your favor. Secondly, and most importantly, organizations must partner with higher education institutions that can use the data from these systems and provide the necessary content to carry out their suggestions.

If one of the most pressing issues related to voluntary turnover is the absence of growth and career development opportunities, why leverage career pathing without dynamic content from a trusted and recognized institution? Why not work with recognized higher education institutions that are capable of delivering exponential value to the learning being created and delivered?

Imagine the power of embedding higher education content — custom or off the shelf — into a career pathing tool. Go a step further: Imagine if the higher education institution you are working with could assess your existing internal training for college-level credit and embed it into the system as well, as part of a custom badge or certificate. Imagine if your employees could achieve a lifelong goal — and perhaps become the first in their family to do so — by earning a degree over time, simply because they engaged in the learning that was provided to them as part of their desired career trajectory. Now, imagine if all of those cylinders were firing in such a way that addressed retention, employee engagement, job alignment and productivity.

While the figures presented at the beginning of this piece offer a bleak picture of the workforce for employers — with high employee turnover and high costs associated with re-hiring and re-training — partnerships between higher education institutions and organizations, using career path systems, provide a strong solution. Career path systems will identify the opportunities for career growth for employees, and higher education partners will provide the content to make that growth a reality. This approach means a more positive experience for employees and cost savings for an employer. In order to meet the needs of the current and future workforce, higher education and businesses must work together and adapt to the changing workforce to ensure success for everyone involved.