5 steps to build better internal talent pipelines

Scaling up an internal talent pipeline is not an easy feat. But a strategic approach and proven practices can set up your business for long-term success.

Months ago, I sat down with a CHRO of a mid-size professional services firm. During the conversation, she mentioned she told her head of recruiting that the posting duration for jobs was getting ridiculous. Then she said the thing that stuck with me: “There’s not enough of a recruiting process we can put around it to fix this posting duration problem,” she said. “The name of the game is pipelines. We’ve got to do better at building talent pipelines.”

Although she already had ideas in place to find talent, we were meeting because she wanted to figure out how to build pipelines specifically for existing internal talent. Building an internal talent pipeline at scale cannot be done overnight. But approaching the process strategically and with proven practices can set your business up for long-term success. Here are five critical steps to help you get started.

1. Identify priority roles and create internal career pathways

To start building talent internally, you first need to prioritize the most important roles. The easiest way to figure this out is to speak with business leaders who can help you understand the broader landscape to see which roles are expected to be critical based on business strategy.

In addition, look at the time it takes to hire for roles, the cost of talent acquisition, the demand for the role, and the time and cost it takes to upskill. These critical inputs can be modeled out using labor data. You should also consider where campus recruiting may see declining numbers, how local inter-industry competition may be high, or when a role is easy or hard to upskill into.

Once you identify the roles you need to fill, begin to build the pipeline — identifying the entry-level roles that can serve as starting points for the career paths to those roles. These will likely be front-line roles and can include jobs that tend to have high turnover, high volume or a good foundation of skills. For example, a customer support representative can be skilled into another support-oriented role, such as an IT support specialist. You’ll increase retention in those front-line roles while upskilling them to in-demand roles in a way that is cost-effective for both stakeholder groups.

Afterward, map those roles to areas of high need to create career paths. From these starter roles, consider what upskilling opportunities are needed for an employee to take the next step on their given career path. Here are some questions that many companies miss when architecting this kind of pathway:

  1. Will the changes slated for our business strategy impact our business needs?
  2. Where is automation likely to eliminate roles in our organization?
  3. What new platforms and infrastructure are going in place in the next 12-24 months?
  4. What transition or “gateway” roles exist as a midway stop on this pathway that will be our critical stop for developing and harvesting talent for reskilling?

2. Curate learning opportunities that align to pathways

The next step is to choose the right learning options to support employees along their chosen career paths. Ideally, your employees can earn credentials along the way that enable economic mobility both within the organization and outside the company, should they leave. Additionally, here are other qualities to look for when considering learning opportunities: 

  • Skills-aligned programs: The education options you offer should help provide the disposition (durable skills), knowledge (semi-durable skills) and abilities (perishable skills) needed to help employees get to the next level in their careers. In addition to credentials like degrees, consider bootcamps, certificates, career diplomas and other short-form programs. These offerings should be complemented with real-world experience to apply knowledge, whether through skilled volunteerism, mentoring or stretch projects.
  • A range of options: If you want to power internal mobility for every employee, you must provide a range of options that meet employees where they are in their career journeys. For example, many front-line employees who haven’t yet formed their occupational identity can be reluctant to begin a robust education program. Providing “starter” offerings in language learning, high school completion, digital literacy and other short-form credentials can help them build the confidence they need to see their work as a part of who they are and pursue greater opportunities within the company.
  • Quality outcomes: Learning providers should set employees up for success. To confirm this, look at data such as retention and completion rates (especially for your employee demographics), how upskilling opportunities are funded, earnings after completion and career mobility data after completing the credential.

3. Market opportunities to employees so they can find the right programs

The most well-designed, intentional career pathways won’t help if people aren’t aware of them. Business leaders should reach all employees wherever they are in their learning journey and provide guidance with selecting programs that are the right fit for them. The key to this is marketing.

Successful launches for opt-in upskilling programs use a multichannel approach with strong leadership advocacy that pushes for meaningful adoption. Best-practice tactics include:

  • A special CEO/CLO announcement (video, town hall call out, email).
  • Features across internal channels: intranet banners, newsletters, blogs, videos.
  • Talking points and resources for managers and leaders.
  • Advertising through employee resource groups.
  • Internal career fairs.

While technology such as a learning experience platform or learning management system can help employees evaluate career paths and learning opportunities to find what interests them, the most impactful lever in these kinds of programs falls in one place — direct manager support. Managers must see themselves as, and be rewarded for, talent factories for the organization as a whole.  Manager assessments and career-first program enrollment can help employees set career objectives and identify programs that meet their needs.

4. Support employees from enrollment and beyond through coaching

You shouldn’t expect your employees to figure out their new career path alone. To create internal talent pipelines that help people advance their careers, you need to complement technology and learning with human support. This means offering more than a help desk that answers technical questions.

Your workforce is composed of working adults who are juggling numerous responsibilities while trying to pursue opportunities and further their careers. The odds are already stacked against them. Your employees may have caregiving duties, some may have had negative experiences with formal education, and others might be the first in their family to go to college.

Successful internal pipelines support each individual learner across several dimensions. Having a coach to provide career and education guidance — along with the nitty-gritty on course options and how to access programs — can keep employees motivated and accountable. Coaches can provide emotional support to individuals who aren’t the typical self-driven student or learner, too.

This solution doesn’t have to be done in-house. Organizations are approaching this from multiple angles: hiring coaches, chat support or AI-enabled bots, to name a few. As you build out internal pathways, ask education or technology partners if they provide this support and make it readily available to your learners.

5. Measure performance and strive for continual improvement

Putting career pathways in place is just the beginning. To truly execute and yield results, you must continually track and manage the program to see if it’s working.

What are your completion rates? Are program participants applying for jobs? What are their retention rates vs. nonparticipants? What is the promotion rate for program participants? Do you see trends with engagement scores? Does all of this hold up when scores are disaggregated by gender, race, ethnicity, level, business unit, etc.?

Measuring performance can help you see where employees are encountering friction in the process and how well the program is serving the individual and the organization. Only by critically evaluating the program and its ROI will you be able to know if things need tweaking. Maybe you need to bolster coaching or mentoring support, market the program more proactively, or make sure the program is better connected to the next job.

You also need to evaluate business needs to see where you need to add new pathways. Technology changes, industries get disrupted and the shelf-life of skills is decreasing. New pathways can help your business adapt to a changing market to ensure the talent pipeline stays healthy and robust for future roles. It also ensures that you can pivot as needed for whatever may come next in the tumultuous environment in which we find ourselves.