Professional Development as an Employee Retention Strategy for Your Association

Employee retention is an ongoing issue for associations. This summer’s Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives (CESSE) conference features a session on building a magnetic employee value proposition (EVP) to retain high-performing talent. The description says an EVP should include “benefits and resources that resonate with employees, enabling them to be productive and thrive.”

Associations are education providers. It's only natural that they'd offer professional development as a benefit to employees. But many don’t give their staff the time or money to pursue professional development. No wonder many organizations can’t attract or hold on to their best talent. If that’s a problem for your association, consider offering professional development as an employee retention strategy.

Employee retention strategy: provide the budget and time for professional development

92% of employees think having access to professional development is important or very important

The research is clear. If you give employees the time and money for professional development, you’re more likely to recruit and retain high-performing talent.

Budget for every employee’s professional development

74% of Millennial and Gen Z employees are likely to leave their current job within the next year because of a lack of skills development opportunities

Professional development policies must be fair, consistent, and transparent. Early-career association staff lament not having a budget to attend conferences or take online courses. Yet they see others at work given the money for professional development. They fear their employer doesn’t see them as a worthy investment. 

75% of employees with access to professional development are likely to stay for another five years.

Employers shouldn’t worry about staff taking advantage of education benefits and then leaving. Employees leave if you don’t invest in them.

Employees feel a sense of security, trust, and loyalty when their employer invests in their growth. Professional development is a transformative benefit. It increases the fulfillment employees get from their job and career.

Give all employees the time for professional development

83% of employees rank upskilling as their top priority for 2023.

Allow employees to spend time ‘on the clock’ pursuing professional development each week or month. They can work out a good time for professional development with their supervisor. Or your association can assign certain hours or days as organization-wide professional development time. 

The online learning platform Udemy sets aside a few hours each month for Drop Everything and Learn (DEAL), when employees take a Udemy class on anything they wish. The company picked Wednesday at 3 p.m. because that’s the most popular time to learn at work according to the patterns of 18 million Udemy users.

Each month, Udemy selects three courses for employees who want to learn with a cohort instead of on their own. Each of the three cohorts gathers together to take the class and then discuss the topic they chose. 

professional development as an employee retention strategy works for these three women sitting around a table at work

Help employees find professional development opportunities

Employees with access to professional development have a 34% higher retention rate

Some people are resourceful. They figure out what they need to learn and where to get it. But others need help. Show them where to find free and paid professional development opportunities for association professionals:

•    Association Brain Food calendar of events, which includes professional development offerings from membership organizations, communities, and industry partners
•    Traditional membership organizations like ASAE, Association Forum, state SAEs, MPI, and PCMA
•    Online learning providers like Coursera, EdX, LinkedIn Learning, and Udemy

Several association membership organizations and communities have arisen in the past few years. These groups regularly provide free and paid education. 

•    Professionals for Association Revenue
•    Non-Dues-A-Palooza
•    Association Women Technology Champions
•    Fridays@4
•    Association Academy
•    Product Community
•    Association Chat Facebook Group

You have lots of options!

Cultivate a learning culture

Organizations with a strong learning culture benefit from higher rates of employee recruitment and retention, as well as: 

•    Enhanced employer reputation in the association community
•    Ability to attract lifelong learners, who are more strategic, curious, change-tolerant, and flexible
•    More agility, which better positions the organization to handle disruptions
•    Reduced employee turnover costs
•    Increased productivity and innovation

Culture is set at the top and carried through an organization by its managers. Through their actions and words, executives and managers must demonstrate how highly they value professional development. At Udemy, the CEO takes part in the monthly DEAL and talks in Slack about the courses he’s taken.

Learning rituals, like dedicated days for learning, help make professional development a habit. Other proven rituals include:

•    Monthly book club
•    Conference, course, and webinar debriefings at lunch-and-learns
•    Monthly recognitions of employees’ educational accomplishments, such as certifications, certificates, articles, and speaking gigs

Offer regular career path guidance

63% of employees quit their jobs because of a lack of advancement opportunities

Someone must look out for the growth of every employee, either their supervisor, HR, or a more experienced colleague/mentor. Employees should meet at least twice a year with this person to:

•    Discuss career goals, strengths, and areas for improvement.
•    Sketch out a career path and steps along the way.
•    Find professional development resources.

Your association may only be one step on someone’s path. As people grow, they have to find the next best position, which, if it’s not available at your association, may be elsewhere. But take heart, you may see them again. I’ve lost track of the number of people I know who’ve returned to a former association employer in a more advanced role.

Make professional development part of job expectations

Learning is key to your resilience as a business. If you invest in curiosity, learning, and agility for your workforce, you will be able to bounce back from setbacks, adapt to change, and be more ready for whatever comes next,” said Cat Ward, Vice President at Jobs for the Future.

Only hire people who are lifelong learners. Include professional development expectations in every job description and performance review. Establish learning goals, alongside performance goals, for every employee.

You may need to raise the awareness among some employees of the importance of professional development. It’s worth the effort because learning can transform a mere job into a meaningful career. 

Set an example for employers in your industry. Make them understand how essential professional development is for their employees’ and company’s success—and watch how the participation levels in your educational programs increase.

association career
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