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Career Development: What is a "dual career ladder"?

A dual career ladder is a career development plan that allows upward mobility for employees without requiring that they be placed into supervisory or managerial positions. This type of program typically serves as a way to advance employees who have deep technical skills and/or education but who are not interested or inclined to pursue a management or supervisory track.

Dual career ladder programs are most common in scientific, medical, information technology and engineering fields or fields that typically exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Require substantial technical or professional training and expertise beyond the basic level generally recognized by national credentials or licensure.
  • Are known for rapid innovation.
  • Are in industries where retaining top employees is critical to business success. 

One advantage of a dual career ladder is that it gives companies an alternative career path to offer employees in lieu of traditional promotions to supervisory or managerial positions. Some employees have no desire or aptitude for management, so the dual career path provides upward mobility. In addition, a dual career ladder program can potentially reduce turnover among senior staff by providing expanded career opportunities, and it can allow employees to remain in their chosen careers and not be forced to move into managerial jobs just to get a pay increase. If well managed, this type of program can also decrease pressure to create special jobs just to give pay increases to retain and reward talented employees, and can encourage employees to continually develop their skills and enhance their value to the organization.

To be effective, it is critical that a dual career ladder program be well managed to prevent the program from becoming a dumping ground for poor-performing managers. In addition, there may be resentment from employees not chosen for the program or from managers who feel the employees in the dual career ladder program aren't "earning" their pay because they are not managing other employees.

Recommended steps to implement a dual career ladder program include the following:

  • Determine the factors used to evaluate a technical position—for example, knowledge and skills, technical expertise, decision-making ability and innovation.
  • Identify the range for each factor being considered—for example, under the innovation factor, determine the degree of skill that is needed to get from entry level to expert.
  • Develop job descriptions for each career level and include the steps required to get to the next level. Ensure that job descriptions designate whether the role is part of the managerial track or technical, professional or scientific expert track.
  • Build salary ranges for each position. Use market data to benchmark salary midpoint. Also consider the length of time employees are expected to remain in each level—the longer the time at a career level the wider the range of pay.
  • Ensure internal equity between management and alternate career track employees. For example, if you have an employee who is promoted to a management position and moves to a higher salary grade with additional benefits, then an employee who is promoted to a higher salary grade in a professional, technical or scientific track should receive a similar raise and increase in benefits.
  • Roll out the program. In communicating to staff about the dual career ladder program, make it clear that employees are free to move about the career path of their choosing as their goals may change at any time during their careers.  

A well-managed and well-executed dual career ladder program can be a positive asset to an organization struggling with the loss of experienced technical employees and searching for ways to attract, retain and develop these key career ladder employees.


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