The first step in career pathing is knowing where the path leads

If career pathways are built upon solid ground, they can lead to greater employee engagement, retention and growth and a clear destination for employees and companies alike.

Everyone working in talent management today knows how difficult it has become to recruit and retain workers. More companies are turning to a more effective and often lower-cost approach to fill their talent gaps and improve their employees’ lives: career pathways.

Simply put, career pathways are clearly defined routes that employees can take through an organization. These trajectories are usually based on interest, ability and values. Training and education are embedded in the process because employees must gain new skills to keep progressing in their careers. Career pathways are enormously important for startups and mature companies alike: a recent LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report found that 94 percent of employees said they would stay with a company longer if their employer invested in their career.

But building effective career pathways for employees can’t happen in a vacuum. Before a company can launch career pathing efforts for its employees, it must know where it’s heading, and the work needed to get there. After all, what good is building career paths if they don’t lead to someplace useful for both employees and the company?

This journey starts with a roadmap. To create effective career paths, organizations start by defining their strategic direction — then identify the mission-critical positions they need and that their employees desire. 

My own organization, Opportunity@Work, partners with businesses to help them recognize the skills and potential of STARs — the more than 70 million U.S. workers who are “Skilled Through Alternative Routes,” such as community college, certificate programs, military service and on-the-job experience rather than a bachelor’s degree. We’re working to practice what we preach, so we intentionally hire people based on skills instead of pedigrees. Long before the hiring process begins, we have put in the work to ensure that all new hires have opportunities to grow and advance throughout the organization regardless of where they start. 

Organizations should take part in some self-examination. Is it best to go with traditional career ladders that promote employees upward through the organization? Does it make more sense to use job redesigns, job rotation and dual career ladders to ensure employees stay engaged and productive? Or should career ladders resemble lattices that enable lateral movement across the company? 

Organizations also should identify core competencies for each position and invest in training and education so employees can master their current job and prepare for their next one.

Next, organizations must remove roadblocks that hinder employee development, erode their morale, and ultimately could cause them to leave. 

The college degree remains one of the biggest barriers to mobility within a company. In fact, according to groundbreaking research from my colleagues, 60 percent of job transitions over the past decade made by STARs were lateral or downward moves into jobs that paid less. Worse, Black, Hispanic and women STARs were much less likely than their white and male counterparts to be promoted into better-paying jobs.

Organizations should inspect their hiring and promotion practices to remove paper ceilings that prevent trained and experienced workers without college degrees, alumni networks and other advantages from landing a job and moving up through the ranks. Resume screens, hiring algorithms and false stereotypes can undermine an organization’s search for top talent. 

One way to tear the paper ceiling: identify gateway jobs that serve as an entry point to upward mobility into destination jobs that offer higher pay and more responsibility. For example, common entry-level jobs such as cashiers, receptionists and retail salespersons can lead to a gateway job such as customer sales representative. The skills learned in those jobs can elevate someone into a better-paying destination role such as manager or sales representative. 

Opportunity@Work’s recent “Navigating with the STARs” report identified 51 types of gateway jobs that can lead to destination jobs. As part of their career mapping process, organizations should connect the jobs that require the least skill and experience to both gateway and destination roles.

Finally, organizations must communicate with their employees. 

Companies should show their employees in multiple ways and over multiple instances what internal career pathways look like and identify the onramps that put them on these roads. Organizations should clearly note the potential progression from origin to gateway to destination jobs. Talent managers should talk regularly with employees to gauge their interest in new company roles and tell them the best way to prepare for new company opportunities.

Before these one-on-one conversations can take place, organizations should construct career paths internally based on their future needs, goals and priorities. If these pathways are built upon solid ground, they can lead to greater employee engagement, retention and growth and a clear destination for employees and companies alike.