- Employees who pursue professional development in their careers tend to have higher productivity and job satisfaction.
- Employers should create opportunities for formal and informal professional development.
- Some professional development programs include “lunch and learns,” internal mentorships, company or industry expert speakers and online programs.
- This article is for small business owners, HR managers and team leaders who want professional development ideas to help employees learn and grow.
It’s mutually beneficial for employees and employers when team members commit to growing their skills, broadening their knowledge and taking advantage of learning opportunities both inside and outside of the workplace. As an employer, encouraging professional development cannot only help you fill skills gaps in your workplace, but also support and elevate your employees to help get them where they want to go in their careers. That support translates to a happier workplace with more loyal employees, so it’s in every employer’s interest to encourage professional development whenever possible.
This guide will help you better understand the concept of professional development, the benefits of creating a culture of ongoing development and how to implement career development plans in your workplace.
What is professional development?
Professional development is the ongoing process of improving one’s skills and knowledge to better perform in their existing role or to attain the skills needed to perform at a high level in a new role. It is a critical part of advancing one’s career and contributing more to a workplace as well as boosting morale, productivity and satisfaction.
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. This doesn’t necessarily mean formal classroom instruction ― it could also mean on-the-job training for a new skill or role. As long as employees are engaged in continual learning and evolution, professional development is happening.
“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.”
Research suggests that career success is related to a willingness to learn and apply lessons to common situations in the workplace. Professional development can prepare employees to be more dynamic and adaptable, setting them up for continued success in their careers.
Training vs. professional development
It’s important not to confuse training and professional development when working to implement a culture of ongoing growth in your workplace. Training is specific and related to an employee’s current role, whereas professional development is more holistic and helps support an employee’s ability to adapt to ever-changing situations at work.
“Training fills in a gap, but development looks to the future and growth of the company and employee,” Hawter said.
Most companies provide training to new hires ― after all, it’s essential to help them perform their role effectively. Training is based on the needs of the organization at the time, so it is easy for most employers to prioritize training from the start.
But many fail to offer professional development opportunities, which enable employees to think beyond their role into the future of both the organization and their own career. Professional development may seem far less immediate and pressing than training, but it is just as important.
In a healthy company, elements of training and professional development will both be present. Each should start from day one, according to Miner.
“For company longevity, there should be a clear career path,” she said. “My overarching belief is that more money has to be invested in self-management, ethics, communication (written and verbal) and leadership skills.”
How can you encourage employee professional development?
As team members, your employees can work both individually and together to reach a common goal. The personal growth of each employee contributes to the success of the entire business.
According to Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com, the acknowledgment of an employee’s talents and successes in fulfilling their job responsibilities builds their confidence, which increases employee retention and morale.
An Akumina study showed that millennials and Generation Z favor changing jobs frequently. Empowering employees, especially younger workers susceptible to job hopping, to succeed in their current roles and ultimately move up could reduce this turnover.
There are numerous ways for employees to pursue professional development. Follow these steps to find the program ― or combination of programs ― that works best for your team.
1. Consult employees about their developmental needs.
Addressing skill gaps among employees is essential for business owners and managers. You and your team managers or human resources representatives should meet with your 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, showing the employees that the company cares about them and their future.
Additionally, 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. He added that employees should feel free to suggest academic or professional development programs.
2. Form partnerships with other companies and industry speakers.
Businesses should consider forming partnerships or providing access to workplace education, such as online lessons and in-house training sessions, Ridner said. You could also turn to online industry offerings or connect with experts in your field.
3. Use technology to your advantage.
It’s 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.
“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,” Ridner said.
4. Create an internal mentorship program.
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,” during which the company forms small teams to discuss ideas, create prototypes, improve tools and more. [Related article: How to Find a Mentor]
5. Start an ongoing lunch-and-learn program.
Get an expert speaker or knowledgeable team member to teach your employees in an informal lunch setting. The expert can present to the team and then employees can engage in a creative discussion with the expert, gaining front-row knowledge on a specific topic. This is a great monthly event that can help educate employees without taking up too much of their time. Many companies pay for lunch for the employees to eat while listening to the speakers, which gives staff an incentive to come and an even more positive association with the sessions.
6. Encourage active participation.
While some staffers welcome professional development opportunities, others might be reluctant. As an employer, you should encourage educational pursuits in and out of the workplace. You could also organize initiatives to stimulate new ideas.
Your professional development program can only be effective if employees want to participate. Encourage them to engage in career development opportunities using the tips above to make sure your team takes advantage of everything your program offers.
Benefits of professional development programs
Many employers shy away from professional development programs, thinking they are unnecessary. However, there are several ways these programs can benefit not just your employees, but also your business.
Employee knowledge and advancement
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.
Development 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.
“Becoming irrelevant is the fastest way to lose your job or, if [you own] a company, have your business decline,” Smith said.
Employee job satisfaction
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.” This confidence can translate into higher overall job satisfaction, which in turn increases employee performance, productivity and morale.
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.”
Interesting, challenging and career-enhancing education is becoming an employee “expectation,” said Hawter. Companies that don’t invest in a culture that prioritizes educational training programs for their staff run the risk of losing them to employers that do.
It’s not enough to just hire the best employees ― you also need to keep them happy and engaged. Professional development programs can go a long way to reducing employee turnover, but if you want to improve your employee retention rates check out these other perks that keep employees happy too.
Foundations of a strong professional development program
The key to a successful professional development program is motivating employees to engage with it and take charge of their own growth. Even the most impressive professional development program is destined to fail if a participant does not “buy into” the initiative, said Hawter.
Every successful professional development program should have two characteristics. First, it must offer continual development. Second, it must allow employees to determine the pace and direction of their educational path.
Consider the following characteristics as well if you’re aiming to create an effective development program for your team.
Continued microlearning opportunities
According to Hawter, “microlearning” is a big buzzword in the learning and development universe. Microlearning means an educational opportunity that focuses on small concepts.
One example of this niche learning is teaching a staffer how to connect with the mobile generation.
In particular, that knowledge 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.
Formal and informal learning opportunities
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 give the participant total control over when they seek 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.”
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.
Professional development helps everybody
Professional development is a win-win for both employers and employees. Employers get more engaged team members who feel supported and continually develop new skills that can benefit the company, while employees acquire knowledge and abilities that will help them take charge of their own careers and get to where they want to go. It all starts with crafting an effective professional development program and encouraging employees to participate. And with the insight in this guide, you’ll be able to do just that.
Tejas Vemparala and Skye Schooley also contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.