Our Responsibility to Create Talent Mobility

How do we enable a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace by enabling talent development programs to accelerate internal mobility?

ou may have heard it said, “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” After working on learning and talent development in nearly a dozen Fortune 200 companies, I believe this axiom needs a deeper dive. While opportunity is definitely not equally distributed, the talent side of that equation is more complex.

Talent is not a mystical quality that workers inherently possess; talent—the skill you need to execute your business strategy—blossoms wherever you invest in it. To reframe the familiar saying in more nuanced terms: The capacity for talent is equally distributed, but companies often do a terrible job of developing that capacity.

This neglect leaves billions of dollars in potential value on the table. Ideas, skills, and labor languish in front-line jobs without a clear pathway to our organizations’ highest-need roles. If you want to know where “systemic inequities” exist in your company, take a look at your learning management system (LMS), where only leaders get access to the best programs. Take a look at your learning experience platform (LXP) that is most likely inaccessible to non-exempt employees. Examine your education benefits that require an up-front investment of thousands of dollars, money your front-line employees most certainly don’t have in the bank.

Our talent development programs and processes are designed to maintain continuity. The problem with this is that we all know the future is not status-quo-friendly—it is primed for significant disruption. The future brings pandemic cycles, regulatory changes, natural disasters, unexpected and unwanted “viral” moments of the digital variety and transformation. The future demands agile responses that help shift thinking and incentivize creative change.

The Narrowing Campus Talent Pipeline Will Require Internal Talent Mobility

Let’s take a look at how projected changes will impact our talent pipelines in the years ahead. According to research from EAB in 2019, college and university enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds is set to decrease by 12 percent over the next decade—by 400,000 enrollments between 2025 and 2029 alone—due to a fertility drop in the wake of the Great Recession. Even worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an additional decline—enrollment among Black students is down 8 percent, among native students by 6 percent and 11 percent among international students. While a change in response to the pandemic could lead to increases in 2021, expect an acceleration of the downward trend forecasted above.

Talent mobility may seem like a “nice-to-have” organizational capability today. The leading indicators, though, are  that your organization’s talent pipeline will face growing pressure over the coming years. That’s particularly true if you are trying to build a diverse workforce that reflects the customers you serve. Organizations that are actively involved in creating talent mobility, especially for front-line employees, are likely to create their own talent pool for the hard years ahead, driving recruiting costs down and engagement and retention up.

Talent Mobility Requires Humans

If there’s anything I’ve learned through implementing learning technologies for Fortune 500 companies across a range of industries, it’s that technology never fixes culture; it only amplifies it. There is no magic tech wand, like an LXP or talent mobility platform, that you can wave to enable people to stay and move around more easily. People and their careers can’t be automated like a purchase recommendation on Amazon or a movie recommendation on Netflix. They’re human beings in desperate need of responsive coaching and dedicated champions. They are bewildered by the plethora of off-the-shelf low-impact micro-courses, the divergent career choices they see ahead, and the complex challenges involved in applying for jobs, finding stretch assignments, and building relationships.

Creating talent mobility in your organization requires a systematic approach to coaching that is akin to talent development “concierges.” These coaches should be certified and will still need assessment tools and use data inputs such as salary and education options to map the future. But by helping employees identify promising long-term prospects within the organization and plot the training and projects that could get them there, coaches can play an enhanced learning and development (L&D) role that boosts retention and reduces recruiting costs.

This personalized approach yields undeniable results. Consider your “opt-in” talent development content as a comparison. What is the persistence rate for your learners? If you’re lucky, learners are completing 25 percent of the learning journeys created for them, and often only half that. Recent numbers, though, showed that when development paths are paired with success coaches, the persistence rate can exceed 80 percent, and almost every successful learner attributed their achievement to their coach. In a world brimming with remarkable innovations in artificial intelligence (AI), humans still matter.

Talent Mobility Requires a Different Kind of Skill Development

In order to develop talent mobility that enables front-line employees to meet our longer-term needs, there is yet another critical step: investing in durable skills. The lion’s share of L&D resources for front-line employees is spent on developing perishable skills. L&D develops people who understand this year’s platforms and processes very well, but who are ill-equipped to pivot in the future. In effect, L&D is telling front-line employees to stay in their place while shelling out massive sums on signing bonuses, relocation costs, and recruiting services for the “high-skilled.” That’s simply unsustainable. Those funds would be better spent on education and talent development, especially if companies want to see diversity in the ranks of our front lines, those empowered to lead our organizations. Our employees need an investment in durable skills: dispositions, paradigms, frameworks, and methodologies, and they need to acquire those skills in a safe environment that enables them to fail, persist, and improve. Learners best learn by doing—stretch projects, tours of duty, and short-term resourcing lending. These experiences should be reinforced with learning goals, reflection opportunities, and associated instructional content, but nothing can replace the power and efficacy of real-world learning.

Learning and Development Is the Key to Talent Mobility

Talent development has never been more important to the future success of a company. Companies are designating certain team members as “career pathing specialists,” and I even recently met an executive at another organization with the title, “VP of Talent Journeys.” For many of us, our career path may look like a straight line in the rearview mirror, but our journeys actually have been test cases for talent mobility with unlikely twists and turns based on the managers we’ve worked with, pivots in the business, surprises in our personal lives, and even random conversations. It’s on us today to replicate that mobility in intentional ways—through the intersection of education, relationships, and technology to elevate our talent.

The state of the industry is positive: We have more off-the-shelf and even free content available to us now than ever before, with better systems to curate and track that content, and we possess a growing awareness of business needs. Looking forward, where do we put our time and energy if it’s not designing and delivering content? Our mandate is to elevate our remit to the skills and jobs needed in the future, assess where talent may be impacted by pivots in the business to help them reskill proactively, and provide guidance along the journey to more “automation-proof” roles and skills. Our business partners are looking for innovation from us. As you look forward to 2021, enabling talent mobility is the key to learning and talent development’s relevancy for the future.

Matthew J. Daniel is principal consultant at Guild Education, responsible for working with customers such as Walmart, Disney, Discover, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Chipotle on leveraging credentialed learning to develop talent, especially in the front line, to meet strategic business needs and the talent demands of an uncertain future.

Matthew Daniel
Matthew J. Daniel is a principal at Guild Education who solves talent development challenges for the future of work. He works with economists, skill data, an education marketplace, and employers such as Walmart, Disney, and Chipotle to identify how corporate strategies are changing and how structuring education offerings can help companies get in front of those needs.