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3 Non-Traditional Career Paths to Increase Employee Retention

Topics: Growth, Retention

Imagine you’ve gone back in time to 1979 and you are about to embark upon the first day of your career. You are likely starting an entry-level position and know exactly where you see yourself in five years because there is a clear career progression ahead of you. You are stepping on the first rung of a well-defined career ladder and you know exactly what you need to do to climb to the next rung.

Today’s working world is very different. Now, instead of climbing a traditional clear ladder, workers, especially Millennials, seek opportunities where they can be entrepreneurial, broaden their skill sets or even do meaningful work to make a difference in the world. The traditional career ladder is giving way to non-traditional career paths where workers find creative ways to get where they want to go.

The smartest organizations find ways to work within this new framework, offering employees more opportunities to forgo the traditional career path and ride the new career elevator.

Is the Career Ladder Completely Obsolete?

Traditional career ladders have merit. In fact, most well-established organizations have career ladders that clearly delineate the scope of each job, the experience and skills required and what it takes to move from position to position. They might look like this and were created for a time when people stayed within one organization for decades.

A well-defined career ladder has many benefits. A career ladder provides role clarity and perceived opportunities for advancement, as well as helping to motivate employees to learn, grow and stay within an organization. It also allows talent management professionals to better understand where they need to invest in employees’ training and development. Studies show even a relatively small employer investment in training/development has a positive impact on loyalty/employee retention.

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Additionally, career ladders can help compensation professionals create a pay structure and setting salary ranges. For example, if you know a role is at a director level and an employee could stay at this level for a while, you could create a wider salary range for the role to allow employees room to move through the range over a number of years. Meanwhile, if you have an entry level role, you would set a narrower range.   

But more and more, traditional ladders and career paths don’t work for every employee. Forcing employees to climb a ladder where they don’t have any interest in the rung above could lead to a workforce not engaged in their jobs. According to a 2017 study, disengaged employees cost employers between $450 and $550 billion annually because of the significant drop in productivity. Aside from risking a massive waste of money, clinging obstinately to a career ladder could cause other challenges within your organization, including pushing people into positions they don’t want or even creating career plateaus and stagnation, both of which could spur even high-performers to seek new opportunities elsewhere.

These problems are exacerbated in a tight talent market where experienced professionals can pick and choose where they work. Younger workers, Millennials in particular, seek to broaden their experiences and skill sets and do work that’s meaningful to them. They are less patient to bide their time to climb a ladder they believe goes the wrong way. According to a study released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018, Millennials will have between seven and eight jobs by the time they are 30. Nearly 60 percent of them stay at their jobs for less than one year.   

How Should Innovative Organizations Move Forward?


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The best option for organizations that wish to recruit and retain the most talented workers is to embrace non-traditional methods of career progression and consider redefining their own corporate career ladder.

There are a few ways to approach your new non-traditional definitions of career progression.

1) Job Redesign: When your organization is faced with downsizing or new technologies, job redesign (or job crafting) can help you challenge your employees to do better work. When done well, job redesign broadens the scope of the job, varies the number of tasks to be performed and increases the depth of the role by allowing the employee more responsibility in planning, organizing and controlling the elements of the job. Job crafting can help improve morale and productivity.

Google is known for encouraging employees to craft their own jobs. According to an article published by Fast Company, Google works with Adam Grant, psychologist, to help employees craft their jobs. “According to Grant, the Googlers who participated in [job crafting exercises] were rated as happier and more effective by their managers and coworkers just six weeks later.”

2) Job Rotation: Another way to help vary employee responsibilities and offer growth and access to improving skill sets is to offer job rotation. For a worker early in their career, job rotation can help them gain perspective on both the company and the jobs they perform. And for managers, rotations should be designed to broaden their expertise and help them better prepare to move on to the next level. Additionally, a company with a reputation for effective job rotation could have an easier time attracting younger workers.

Mars, Inc. is one company who has implemented job rotation. According to Kerry Grigg, Global University Recruitment & Early Talent Pipeline Development Director, “The best way to accelerate the development of our associates’ perspective and learning agility is to experience rotations in stretching and real roles across a range of functions.”

3) Rethink Career Paths/Ladders: As discussed earlier, the traditional career ladder is fading into obscurity. Now is the time to rethink career paths and career ladders and work to define new paths for your employees.

In 2015, Spotify launched a new career path framework for employees. The process of creating this framework was a joint effort between HR and Spotify leadership. Kevin Goldsmith, former Vice President of Engineering for Spotify, acted as road manager for creating the new framework. He explains, “We have learned that people striving to increase their impact often wanted to become a Chapter Lead or Product Owner even if they might have preferred the role of an individual contributor engineer. Everyone in Spotify Tech should have a way to grow their careers and expand the impact of their work — no matter what role they play. A shift into a Chapter Lead or PO position is not necessary.”

In order to prevent employees from being shoehorned into roles they did not want or were not suited for, while still allowing them to grow their careers as they chose, Spotify rolled out Spotify Technology Career Steps. This framework allowed Spotify to define technical career progression and build a working group representative of the organization.  

If you are interested in helping your organization redefine its career ladder, here are a few options you can consider:

  • Dual career ladders: A dual career ladder is a career development plan that allows upward mobility for employees without requiring they be placed into supervisory or managerial positions. This type of program has typically served as a way to advance employees who may have particular technical skills or education but who are not interested or suited to management.
  • Horizontal paths: These paths allow employees to move laterally across departments and/or job families.
  • Accelerated and “dialed down” career paths: A few organizations have recognized that employees want a voice in tailoring their career paths to their life stages and as to whether they want to be on an accelerated path or a “dialed-down” path at a particular stage. Some organizational projects require high intensity and others do not, but all are important to the organization. An employee who is in a stage of acceleration may have a better success rate on high-intensity projects, such as a mergers-and-acquisition project that requires a lot of hours and travel. On the other hand, if someone is in dial-down mode for personal reasons, then a lower intensity project would be a better fit.

Non-traditional Career Paths Make Way for Better Innovation

It’s time to reexamine your organization’s career ladder. Encourage leadership to consider new and non-traditional career paths and options for your workers. By making employees the authors of their career paths, you can help spur innovation, increase retention of high performers, and develop valuable skills among your staff.


Banner photo by Chris Lu on Unsplash

Alida Mooreston
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