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Creating a resilient career ecosystem

By Catherine Hartmann , Amy Sung and Ragini Mathur | December 11, 2023

This article series focuses on careers in motion: the opportunities, advances and results that an organization can expect when taking a new approach.
Work Transformation|Benessere integrato|Career Analysis and Design

The straightforward, vertical career ladders that employees once climbed now look far more like multi-directional dome shaped jungle gyms from our days on the playground. They provide horizontal and vertical opportunities for employees to explore on many different planes. Careers are dynamic and in motion, no longer providing linear or static paths. Today, when your Career Ecosystem is designed optimally, it will bring choices to employees, enhance the employee experience and meet their expectations to forge their own adventures. How can employers help and how does it benefit them to do so?

Organizations that want to attract and retain the best talent should be thinking about this. After all, it can cost an organization three times an average salary to replace an employee who leaves. Retaining talent requires an acknowledgement that career paths are shifting, and it is in an employers’ best interests to help employees chart the way.

Our research shows that one way to keep employees highly engaged and likely to stay is to provide them with clear career opportunities, growth experiences and line of sight even while forging a non-traditional path. WTW’s proprietary integrated Career Ecosystem provides an infrastructure for employers to provide this and uses customized tools to help you keep your employees successfully navigating their careers.

This article series focuses on careers in motion: the opportunities, advances and results that an organization can expect when taking a new approach. We will feature global WTW experts to introduce how an integrated Career Ecosystem can help your organization become a place where employees can thrive.

Here, we speak with WTW’s Global Work, Rewards & Careers experts, Catherine Hartmann, Amy Sung and Ragini Mathur.

Careers are having a renaissance, seemingly created by a confluence of economic, business and generational factors. What would you say are the dynamics shaping attraction and retention today, and why should employers take note?

Catherine Hartmann: Both the World Economic Forum and the World Health Organization note that older adults will outnumber younger adults in the next few years. The implication on the workforce is that organizations are going to need to take a transformational approach when they think about filling the ranks with the talent available to them, both internal and external. Much of that talent is going to be hitting retirement age all at once. There are different dynamics relative to global trends, but overall, it is safe to say that in the medium- to long-term, organizations will need to think about staffing creatively to be successful.

So, if your organization is not actively taking steps to attract and retain talent, and using careers as a key part of that, it will be left behind?

Catherine: Correct. Not only do companies need to build out capability sets they don't currently have, but they also need to understand the fluid intelligence of the roles they do have and roles of the future. The focus should be on identifying what the driving components are that will engage employees across the workforce. With this in mind, time and time again, we see that the topic of careers is a huge part of the optimal engagement recipe.

It seems like careers are becoming more fluid and individual driven. How does this help organizations as they explore careers as an engagement and retention device? It seems far afield from the traditional career structure.

Amy Sung: Employee surveys tell many of our clients that careers are one of the top five attraction and retention drivers, so it is important that they spend time on this. If you ask employees what a career is, the answer is always going to depend on a particular employee’s experiences and values. Some simply want to upgrade their resumes, so they’re looking to acquire different skills and experiences to make them more marketable. Some want to stay with an organization for their entire working life.

How can organizations influence this? Why should they?

Amy: When leaders at an organization focus on longevity of employees’ careers, all of their people programs are geared towards growing and retaining employees. Some organizations are taking an alternate view; leaders in these companies may try to maximize an employee’s time with them, growing their skills and expanding their experiences. Sometimes this is for a future role with their organization or even a role outside the organization. It seems non-intuitive, no doubt. Retaining employees may save money in the short term, but when employees leave but boomerang and come back to an organization, they bring greater, richer experiences to the table.

That’s a great clarification. Can you tell us a bit more about boomerang employees?

Amy: A lot of employers are having a hard time with turnover right now and feel a loss acutely when an employee leaves, so the down-the-road boomerang concept hasn't yet occurred to them, or they aren’t yet embracing this possibility. However, boomerang employees already understand the organizational culture and how things work so you don't need to spend as much time and effort to upskill them. They also bring a host of potentially valuable experiences they got working for another organization. Now that we have pressure to look for additional sources of talent, boomerangs are very attractive, and organizations might consider recruiting back those excellent employees who have left.

Ragini Mathur: I agree, Amy, and have heard that from several clients as well. Developing employees’ careers whether they stay or not can be a long-term investment for an organization. The first step for an organization is to define what careers mean for them and then to create a career strategy. This often differs by industry and the organization’s lifecycle stage. We should not just assume that when we say the word “careers” that everyone is on the same page. We also see that organizations are customizing their career strategy for the various demographics in their organization.

We hear more these days about organizational culture. How does culture play a role here?

Catherine: There is always the possibility that an employee left your company because the company's culture was not shifting in a way that they thought was relevant to them, or supportive and productive to their future growth. As the baby boomers leave the work force, many organizations, when projecting five years out, are deciding that they need to reset direction. This shift, when authentic and led from leadership, can help make a former or previous employer more attractive to those looking to switch. With all of the employee movement, these boomerang employees are more common, and often understand the old culture, but could also be prominent in shaping the new culture – bringing new energy and experiences to the table.

So, turning to the Career Ecosystem, what do careers look like when done innovatively and effectively?

Ragini: Today, careers are an amalgamation of experiences. For some people they are wide and varied. For some people they are somewhat related or linear. Some organizations want to keep all of these experiences in-house, but I think there is a broader acceptance that you can develop these experiences both within an organization and outside of it, and then come back to the original organization and leverage those experiences.

Catherine: Our practice leader in Europe says careers used to be like ladders where you would move up or even sideways to another ladder. But today, careers are like huge jungle gyms! This new philosophy enables employers to create pivot points within their own career framework and see non-linear progressions. Of course, employees also need to understand the underlying job families, functions, levels, skills and competencies to best navigate the “career” playground. To get employees engaged, though, this has to be done in a dynamic and almost playful way.

Amy: Absolutely. Without an infrastructure in place, a lot of our clients didn't have a consistent way to describe jobs, levels and skills, and they weren't able to organize it in a way that could be part of this jungle gym Catherine mentioned. We would see organizations spending a lot of time building job descriptions, spelling out skills and having inventories of data but they overlooked the big picture and how this would all make sense for a manager or an employee. Often the employee would get a manual with career pathing opportunities, but they would have no idea where they fit into it or what was required for them to move to an opportunity in another part of the world, for example, or in a different job family.

So, how does a Career Ecosystem help with this?

Amy: Our career ecosystem brilliantly marries all of this so you can see both the infrastructure and the activation elements. It provides the language to describe job levels, job families and skills in a consistent way so you can talk about mobility and be aligned in describing the approach. The infrastructure makes the journey both intuitive and exciting to employees and managers alike. Managers often dread conversations with employees about their careers and next steps because there usually isn’t a lot of clarity or transparency in this realm. Having this tool goes a long way.

This all sounds promising. To get started, what actions do employers need to take?

Ragini: First, they need to think about infrastructure. Next, they need to think about activation, or bringing this infrastructure to life for employees. One of the best things to do when thinking about infrastructure is an audit to see where your organization’s pain points are and to fix first what will have the maximum impact. Then you can link this to all of the use cases.

For instance, do you want to solve for equitable pay and benefits first or learning and development? Prioritize what you will be solving for. You don’t have to do it all at once. Remember, career ecosystems are not built in a day. It takes time, perseverance, agility and responding to the business environment, the industry and the marketplace in order for this to be dynamic enough to sustain itself going forward. Being patient and bringing along the right stakeholders will be key to driving success.

Charting a path to a resilient future

A well-defined career framework provides a foundation to underpin people programs. It is key to providing fair opportunities for workplace advancement and compensation, helping address pay transparency laws and improving employee performance. WTW can help you discover the power of an integrated career ecosystem. We help you develop meaningful Job Leveling and Knowledge Architectures keys to creating a meaningful career experience for your employees.

Contact us to get started.


Global Practice Leader, Work, Rewards & Careers

Managing Director, Work, Rewards & Careers
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Director, Work, Rewards & Careers
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