As the worldwide business landscape evolves, responding to the whims of technology and increased competition, so does the importance of professional development programs. Designed to arm employees with new resources to succeed in their positions, even preparing them to accept additional duties within the company, these programs are gaining in popularity, complexity and necessity.
According to Steve Hawter, vice president of learning and development at The Learning Experience, professional development "controls an employee's readiness for contributing to a company in new ways, whether the company adopts a new strategy, expands or needs change."
To keep up with the rapid pace of change in the business world, employees must be encouraged and supported to seek refresher courses and accept new challenges.
"It is less important to learn a topic or skill than to be able to adapt to new and evolving workplace challenges," said Nanette Miner, Ed.D., owner of The Training Doctor. "It is important not to remain a dinosaur in your industry to keep your job and remain valuable."
Training vs. professional development
There are definite differences between training and professional development, said Hawter. "Training fills in a gap, but development looks to the future and growth of the company and employee."
Professional development begins on day one of a new job, in Miner's opinion. "For company longevity, there should be a clear career path," she said. Conversely, training is based on the needs of the organization at the time. While employees can also co-train on a mutually agreed topic, professional development budgets have shrunk in the past few years.
"Companies are not investing in their talent," said Miner. "My overarching belief is that more money has to be invested in self-management, ethics, communication (written and verbal) and leadership skills."
Businesses that do not offer career-building educational opportunities for their staff tend to see greater employee turnover than those that do provide those resources. Miner said that disinterest correlates to "why companies are finding hiring and retention so hard. They are not investing in professional development, and employees leave." [Read related article: Build a Culture That Increases Employee Retention]
Importance of professional development programs
Beyond the benefits of supplemental training for one's job, professional development enhances an employee's value and ensures they remain relevant in their career field, said Steve Smith, founder and CEO of GrowthSource Coaching. Professional development can also involve an employee becoming certified in a field complementary to their current position.
Certification is one way for staffers to demonstrate they can perform bigger and better things, upping their value to their employers and the workforce in general. [Read related article: Best Corporate Training and Development Certifications]
"Becoming irrelevant is the fastest way to lose your job or, if [you own] a company, have your business decline," said Smith.
Interesting, challenging and career-enhancing education is becoming an employee "expectation," said Hawter. Companies that don't invest in educational training programs for their staff run the risk of losing them to employers that do.
According to Smith, many people pursue professional development to bolster their confidence in what they do at work, "which is a noble reason to continue to develop yourself."
Foundations of a strong professional development program
Even the most impressive professional development program is destined to fail if a participant does not "buy into" the initiative, said Hawter. These are the two pillars of a viable professional development program:
- It must offer continual development.
- It must allow staffers to determine the pace of their enrichment, giving them control over their educational path.
According to Hawter, "micro-learning" is the current buzzword in the learning and development universe. Micro-learning occurs when an educational opportunity focuses on small concepts.
One example of this niche learning is teaching a staffer how to connect with the mobile generation. That knowledge in particular is all the more important since an ever-increasing number of millennials and Gen Zers work remotely. Because the modern workforce comprises three or four generations, a one-size-fits-all approach to employee enrichment is simply outdated, Hawter said.
Therefore, the availability of both formal and informal professional development opportunities is imperative in today's modern workforce. Webinars and podcasts are examples of informal learning that gives the participant total control over when they seek the assistance. That is partly why informal professional development programs are more impactful when combined with formal offerings.
The best professional development programs are overseen by professional organizations, such as Dale Carnegie Training, because those workshops "focus on leadership," said Smith. "Those programs are designed to teach new things but also provide game plans to help [companies] implement professional development in the workplace."
However, even companies that start with the best of intentions might stop fully supporting learning and development efforts over the long term, Smith said. Regular follow-ups are necessary to ensure employees are using everything they have learned to improve their performance.
Hawter urges companies not to minimize the importance of employee development, largely because "PD ensures employees know of the company's investment in them and demonstrates the company's real concern" for their welfare.
Encouraging active participation
Every employee is just as valuable as the next, offering their own skills, insights and personality. As team members, your staffers can work both individually and together to reach a common goal. Personal growth of each employee contributes to the success of the entire business.
While some staffers will welcome professional development opportunities, others might be reluctant, despite the importance of the experiences. These are some ways to encourage professional development in your company:
- Encourage educational pursuits in and out of the workplace.
- Address skill gaps by empowering employees to expand their expertise, and therefore their usefulness to the company.
- Organize initiatives to stimulate new ideas.
Having a secure job doesn't mean professionals should stop learning academically. If employees are interested in furthering their educations, their employers should encourage them to do so, whether by finishing college or simply building their skills with a class or two.
"The baseline of professional development is a college education, yet there are more than 30 million Americans that have partial college credit but don't have a college degree," said Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com. Earning a college degree allows workers to perfect their skill sets, which benefits the company as well, he added.
Employers should consider additional programs for their employees to continue higher education at a lower cost. Companies can form partnerships or provide access to workplace education, like online lessons and in-house training sessions, Ridner said.
"With the advent of technology and online learning, it's easier and more inexpensive than ever to foster a culture of learning in the workplace," he said.
Addressing skill gaps among employees is essential for business owners and managers. They or their representatives should meet with employees regularly to discuss each one's job performance and areas where professional development would benefit them and the company. The conversation should include suggestions for improvement so the employee knows the company cares about them and their future.
The acknowledgment of an employee's talents and successes in fulfilling their job responsibilities builds their confidence, said Ridner, which increases employee retention and morale. A recent study showed that millennials tend to favor moving from one job to another. Empowering employees, especially younger workers susceptible to job hopping, to succeed in their current roles and ultimately move up could reduce this turnover.
It's also crucial for employees to keep pace with societal and technological developments. Since rapid technology advancements impact most industries, professionals armed with diverse skills and abilities offer more flexibility and value to employers than those whose learning has stagnated.
According to Ridner, employers should arrange brainstorming groups or mentorship programs to help staffers connect with one another. For example, Study.com organizes 24-hour "Rockethons," in which the company forms small teams to discuss ideas, create prototypes, improve tools and more.
Bouncing professional development ideas around the office empowers employees to play an important role in the program while encouraging personal and professional growth.
"Creating a culture of learning in the workplace is a shared responsibility," Ridner said. "If your employer doesn't have any academic or professional development programs in place, feel free to suggest it."
Sammi Caramela contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.