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'Thanks for the Training, I'm Outta Here.' Why Companies Get Burned by Their Own Programs

New research shows that employees who take advantage of company-sponsored career development opportunities expect promotions to follow.

Professional development has long been considered a sound business investment, and American businesses dutifully spend billions training staff—as much as $134 billion annually, in fact, according to some estimates. After all, the logic goes, not only does development keep your employees in top form, but it also helps retain workers, who appreciate the opportunity to learn new skills.

Not so fast. A recent study by researchers at University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business indicates that many of these programs might actually increase turnover. The missing ingredient? Career advancement. In the survey of 246 pairs of employees and supervisors at a Fortune 500 company, the researchers found that employees who participated in professional development programs were more likely to say they would stay with their employer only if they saw opportunities to advance their career there. Otherwise, they would have no hesitation about taking their enhanced skills elsewhere.

How can you be sure that your professional development dollars are well spent? Here are a few takeaways from the study:

1. Make sure your company offers clear, attractive career advancement paths for high-value employees enrolled in training programs. The University of Iowa study indicates a discrepancy between employees' and supervisors' perception in this area, so ensure that your employees understand the opportunities available to them—and that those opportunities match their ambitions and expectations.

2. Evaluate your internal career advancement opportunities against recruitment strategies and advancement paths offered by other firms in your industry and geography. Monitor the changing marketplace to stay competitive for talent.

3. Understand what "career advancement" means to your employees. According to the study, employees value mentoring and job rotation programs as well as a strong relationship with their immediate boss, in addition to traditional raises and promotions. These "perks" can help employees feel like career opportunities are available for them.

The bottom line? If you're going to spend time and money developing your staff's professional skills, make sure they know there's room in your organization for them to grow.


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