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Career Development Challenges and Possibilities

Strengthen the workforce by integrating supports for employees' well-being

A smiling man in a suit and tie.
​Spencer Niles, Ed.D.

​The COVID-19 pandemic's effects on the workplace have underscored the mandate for career development and the need for workers to take more control of their career destinies.

What were once recommendations to workers—that they demonstrate the capacity to adapt to changing conditions, new developments and emerging challenges—are now requirements. It is now a necessity for workers to take responsibility for ongoing engagement in learning. They must demonstrate their ability to collaborate, work effectively in teams and communicate in culturally responsive ways.

These new requirements intersect to create questions that workers carry with them each day: How do I maintain my marketability? What new learning should I pursue? How do I assess the impact of recent events relative to my career options? What strategies should I use to ensure that I am valued by my employer and perform at a high level? How do I increase my cultural competence? How can I find a job that values my skill sets? How do I find opportunities to grow and develop? How can I strengthen my ability to cope with ambiguity and change? What is the best way to respond?

These questions arise within the context of a pandemic that is challenging HR professionals to clarify employees' current skill sets, as well as the skill sets most needed by the organization.

Workers Have Valid Questions

Historically, many of these questions would be written off as irrelevant or frivolous. Today, however, these questions are legitimate, valid and essential. Employers and HR professionals who ignore them run the risk of diminishing employee engagement, satisfaction and retention. HR professionals, therefore, must devise strategies to help their workers find ways to address these questions.

Fostering an environment that elevates employee well-being and career development presents employers and HR professionals with an opportunity, when the pandemic ends, to strengthen engagement and productivity in their organizations and elevate worker morale.

Three tactical approaches to achieve these goals are presented below, in alignment with the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK), the foundational document of SHRM certification.

1. Create a Supportive Learning Culture

Learning new skills, especially when one's occupation may depend upon it, creates anxiety and can lead to questioning one's worth. Workers need to know that their workplaces offer clear avenues for skill development. Employees are often eager to do whatever they can to help the organization succeed; their employers can reassure them by creating a supportive learning culture.

It is essential, therefore, to employ skilled trainers who know how to create effective learning experiences for workers. By actively engaging workers and supporting their success, these experts understand how to scaffold their learning experiences. Trainers serve a crucial purpose as the employees develop new skills to address the employer's developing needs.

These tactics align with the SHRM BoCK's technical competency, HR Expertise, particularly the functional areas Learning & Development and Employee Engagement & Retention.

2. Initiate Transformative Conversations

Helping workers manage their career development can be approached randomly or systematically. I encourage the latter, which requires HR to have focused conversations with employees to identify reasonable new directions for them.

While HR professionals needn't become career counselors, the following career counseling competencies would be useful to layer on existing HR skill sets: 

  • Affective and effective listening, paraphrasing, and summarizing (without advising and directing).
  • Linking and referring to helpful resources (including actual career counselors).
  • Acquiring a framework that empowers employees to conceptualize and manage their careers effectively while working with HR.

Tactics relating to the initiation of transformative conversations align with two behavioral competencies described in the SHRM BoCK: Communication (specifically, the subcompetency Listening) and Consultation (specifically, the key concepts of listening, empathy, communication and follow-up).

3. Activate Hope

HR professionals and practitioners in adjacent fields can help employees and others address their essential career-planning questions—current as well as emerging—within the framework of the Hope-Action Theory.

The Hope-Action Theory highlights the importance of using environmental experiences to inform one's career planning through the practice of mindfulness, or self-reflection. Self-reflection develops a clearer understanding of personal priorities and self-clarity. Self-clarity informs consideration of emerging possibilities and visioning. Through visioning, one can identify pathways (such as goals and plans) for taking actions that will achieve desired career outcomes.

All career decisions are based on information that is incomplete; we don't know what our next job situation will involve. Therefore, it is crucial to consider how the additional information acquired with a new career choice will inform one's subsequent choices. This is also known as adapting. Adapting enables one, through continued self-reflection toward self-clarity, to develop a future vision to crystallize new goals, implement new actions and so on. It is a continuous cycle of adapting, reflecting and enacting career plans.

These tactics align with two of the SHRM BoCK's functional areas of HR Expertise: Learning & Development and Employee Engagement & Retention (specifically, the key concepts of developing and maintaining a positive organizational culture).

My colleagues and I at the University of British Columbia and Pennsylvania State University developed the Hope-Action Theory to help people address current career questions.

At organizations where HR professionals help employees learn strategies for addressing their current work questions and challenges, the employees see HR as being in touch with them, and they see their employer as caring about their well-being and career development. These are essential outcomes toward developing a satisfied, committed and productive workforce.

Spencer Niles, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is professor of counselor education and co-director of the THRIVE Research and Intervention Center at the William & Mary School of Education in Williamsburg, Va., and senior vice president of career planning and development at Kuder Inc. in Adel, Iowa. He is a past president of the National Career Development Association. 


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