If you own a business or manage a team, you deal with employee turnover. And with our changing job culture, turnover will become more and more common. The companies who can manage it well will outperform those who don’t. In particular, you have to make sure that exiting employees don’t leave a skills gap in their wakes.
According to Pew Research, roughly 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 everyday for the next 14 years. That doesn’t mean they’ll retire immediately, but your most experienced employees are beginning to look beyond the 40-hour week. And even younger employees are spending less time with one company. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out in 2014 that the average tenure with one employer is 4.6 years.
But the new mobility of the U.S. workforce doesn’t have to spell doom. Edward E. Lawler, III, writing for Forbes, suggests that employee turnover can be a good thing because it introduces new skills and fresh perspectives into the workforce.
He points to etailer Zappos who tried to encourage workers to leave by offering a severance bonus. They got a fast 14% turnover, but departing employees took valuable knowledge with them. They didn’t address the skills gap before shaking up the workforce.
Prevent the gap with a culture of learning.
It’s useful to look at one organization that has been facing high turnover for decades. The U.S. Navy cannot hire for experience, so they have to train every sailor from the start. And navy personnel change jobs every 2 to 3 years. The Navy has dealt with this reality by creating a strong culture of learning. Every man and woman is constantly preparing for the next position and training incoming replacements.
The Navy has build this learning culture with a combination of regular classroom work and well-managed on-the-job training.
[Here’s an article on managing on-the-job training.]
Civilian companies that can adopt a Navy-like approach to training will more easily weather heavy turnover and even help new employees get up to speed faster.
[Here’s an article on the benefits of routine training.]
Start building a culture of learning in your company.
Cultures don’t change overnight, but here are some ways you can jump-start the changes and move toward continual development and improvement.
Some company cultures discourage sharing. Either they set employees against each other for bonuses or they overlook those who try to help colleagues learn. Whatever you ignore goes away and whatever you overlook is ignored.
So make sure that employees know they’re not only encouraged to help others learn but are responsible for it. Track and recognize mentoring and coaching efforts. Even those few minutes one team member spends helping another learn the customer management system should be recognized.
Give employees a place to practice.
Learning takes time and repetition. Employees need to get comfortable with new skills before they take them to the big leagues. Kelly Palmer, chief learning officer of LinkedIn, suggests building “learning labs.”
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – just a safe place for people to hone new abilities.
Create personalized pathways of development.
Employees should have individualized plans for improvement. They may not be preparing for a promotion, but they should be up-skilling constantly.
Employees should know what new capabilities they need to develop and how they can learn them. For example, can they work with an experienced colleague? Can they take onsite or offsite classes? Can they read resources and practice in the “learning lab?”
Employees then have the responsibility to do the work. As a manager, you track their progress and help them over roadblocks.
Don’t forget to include cross-training in the development plans. Cross-training not only expands your team’s skillset in case of turnover, but it also helps you handle unexpected absences and builds stronger bonds among employees.
Focus on the practical.
If you’re asking employees to work steadily toward a bigger skillset, make sure those skills will pay off. The fastest way to kill a learning culture is to waste employees’ time on useless tasks.
Identify the practical activities that make up different jobs. If a sales engineer has to occasionally give customer presentations, then help her become a better public speaker. If a receptionist has to sometimes deal with an angry customer, help him learn how to handle that situation. (Actually, that’s a skill everyone could use.)
When employees cross-train, give them a chance to occasionally use those skills as well. You’ll reinforce their abilities and add a nice change of pace to everyone’s day.
Don’t sweat the budget.
Developing a learning culture doesn’t have to be costly. It depends more on leadership and good habits than fancy courses or learning management systems.
[Here’s an article on low-cost training.]
If you’re already behind the 8-ball and facing an exodus of retirees, look for ways they could help you build the learning culture before they go.
In a recent Atlantic article, author Nancy Cook writes, “A handful of companies and institutions, such the National Institutes of Health, offer ways of letting older workers, once they’ve retired, return on a contract or part-time basis; this takes advantage of their expertise while easing them into their post-employment lives.”
Just make sure that your part-time retirees are filling that skills gap behind them or else you’re only delaying your problem.
Start right away and start small.
You don’t change a culture overnight. You have to start small and build. But in one day, you can sit with an employee, draft a personalized development plan and set a weekly meeting to check in.
As managers and employees develop the habits of constantly training each other, your learning culture will grow organically.
But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Many managers feel they have to create a comprehensive “training program” before they can take the first step. That’s an outdated and dangerous assumption that keeps many companies frozen in inaction.
Turnover is here to stay. If your company is going to handle the transition and even thrive in it, you’ll need to develop a culture of learning and development in which everyone is rewarded for sharing their expertise with others and continually training their replacements. And it’s a good idea to start now.
(I mean right now. Stop reading and go do it.)