Building Tomorrow’s Workforce Today: Key Pillars for Career Pathways

If career development hasn’t been a focus of your Learning & Development strategy, it’s time to pivot.

A recent study by The Josh Bersin Group polled over 1,000 organizations around the globe on the top 94 L&D practices driving retention, attraction, and business growth. They found that the singular most impactful practice for driving business, innovation, and talent outcomes is “creating extensive opportunities for career growth.”1 In fact, five out of the top fifteen practices that were predictive of success are related to career management. 

It’s no wonder, too, with new job seekers prioritizing organizations that offer career development opportunities two times more than those with good compensation and benefits alone2. 

Offering Career Opportunity at Scale

We hosted a webinar with Bersin where he shared the team’s findings on winning L&D practices for building career pathways — along with two Fortune 500 leaders successfully enabling career opportunity at scale for their workforce. 

Our two guest panelists — Beth Williams-Moore, Director of Live Better U at Walmart, and KimArie Yowell, CLO at Rocket Companies — shared their career pathways strategy, program execution, and resulting insights. Walmart and Rocket Central prioritized equal access to education, choosing full tuition assistance over tuition reimbursement programs. They leveraged a wide library of educational offerings — from skilling programs to long form degrees and stackable credentials to build career pathways into priority roles for the business. The positive impacts on workforce retention/attraction as well as resulting talent pipeline generation meant these new L&D programs were seen as a strategic growth investment for their organizations.  Additionally, both Walmart and Rocket were enabled to do well by doing good for their people AND their company – resonant to the companys’ mission.

Check out the recording of the webinar or read on for five fundamentals when building career pathways. 

1. Building talent is no longer a “nice to have” option – it’s necessary to fill open roles.

It’s official – we’re in the most constrained labor market since the 60s. Not only that, but declining fertility rates mean that even over the long term, the talent shortage isn’t going anywhere. It’s already clear that jobs are going unfilled across industries — from registered nurses to software developers, retail salespeople, truck drivers, and beyond — with little relief in sight.

As Bersin’s research shows — if you want a skilled workforce that can support your business now and in the future, you’ll need to build the talent yourself. 

In a strategic shift to include career advancement in their L&D offerings, Walmart partnered with Guild to launch Live Better U, an education benefits program aligned with areas of business priority. The retail giant’s comprehensive program spans from short form certifications and stackable skilling credentials to higher ed degrees. They’ve also developed a myriad of career pathways into health & wellness, cybersecurity, supply chain, technology roles, and more across the business.

Beth Williams-Moore, Director of Live Better U, shared how their career pathway program is driving business strategy and helping fill open roles, particularly in the face of a potential recession: 

2. To attract talent, offer education. To keep talent, offer career pathways. 

Not only is “creating extensive opportunities for career growth” the single most impactful practice for business, innovation, and talent outcomes, but Bersin research found that five out of the top 15 L&D practices are related to career growth3. Among those top practices were offering career coaching to employees regularly, employer-facilitated cross functional and cross divisional career growth opportunities, and visible career pathways into high priority areas within the business. 

Why does this matter to today’s employee? Because your people want to grow, and they’ll do it within your business if you provide the infrastructure. Employee directed self-learning is no longer enough. Employers who offer employer-facilitated career pathways are capturing the attention of new job seekers at a higher rate than those with education programs alone4. The time is now to invest in your people for the long term, fill talent gaps from within and grow your people into the roles of tomorrow. 

And as Bersin noted, given industry consolidation — think tech companies taking on media, or major retail organizations expanding into healthcare — this development of new skills among existing employees is good for business as well. 

At Rocket Central, one of the ways they’ve recently encouraged internal mobility is with a dedicated program for software developers known as DevBuild. For 19 weeks, employees are able to take time away from their role and attend courses to become a developer. Since launching, the program has already placed 60 DevBuild participants as software engineers across Rocket Companies, representing a 95% placement rate. Yowell explains that this structure directly facilitates career mobility while creating an environment and culture where team members feel safe and empowered to explore career options.

One of the unexpected lessons learned by Williams-Moore with the launch of Walmart’s Live Better U program was that “mobility will sneak up on you faster than you imagine.” Education programs generate so much excitement, and a flood of  Walmart associates jumped at the chance to take as many course credits as they could right away. When they graduated, however, the company recognized the need for clear career pathways, offering associates a place within the business to grow with their new skillset. 

Nehal Nangia, Learning and Leadership Research Leader, at The Josh Bersin Company summarized: 

“Organizations today need to orchestrate the shift from a culture of learning to a culture of growth because employees want to grow. Learning can help them develop the capabilities…but if you don’t create the opportunities for them to grow, people find them elsewhere outside your organization.” 

3. Tuition assistance drives better ROI than tuition reimbursement. 

Tuition reimbursement is still how most organizations provide education benefits to employees, but there are two major downsides. With tuition reimbursement programs, employees pay for education costs upfront and wait for reimbursement upon program completion, sometimes one month or one year down the pike. Enrolling in tuition reimbursement programs also comes with a mountain of paperwork and other prohibitors. As a result, TR inherently excludes certain employee populations and detracts those who can’t afford the first payment. This leads to inequitable access to education and historically low program adoption rates. Moreover, the benefit isn’t usually tied to career opportunity or pathways, so employees aren’t motivated to use it to advance within their organizations. 

Previous Bersin research revealed that 60-70% of companies using tuition reimbursement had no insight into the return on their investment in the benefit. They saw it as a box that had to be checked, not an element of their talent strategy.

Offering tuition assistance with 100% tuition covered by employers is the new paradigm for employee education. Tuition assistance levels the educational playing field by providing more equitable access to benefit and removing the fear of upfront expense and lingering debt. 

Yowell shared her company’s experience moving away from tuition reimbursement and the gains they saw when they did. Originally, utilization of the benefit was < 1%. Financial barriers to education were too high, and the enrollment process was manual and tedious. 

To boost participation while supporting innovation and growth, Yowell dug deep into employee preferences, and married those with the needs of the business 5-10 years down the road. Rocket Central then partnered with Guild to implement a tuition assistance model that provided equitable career growth opportunities for all team members while supporting priorities of the business. Program participation soared.

Walmart also launched their program with a small-scale tuition reimbursement component, but quickly pivoted to a tuition assistance payment model paired with a career pathways strategy. In working with Guild, Walmart was able to map out the credentials needed for various career opportunities, support adult education throughout the process, and grow associates into priority roles. 


5 Insights to Prepare Your Career Pathway Strategy for 2023


4. Align career pathways to high-demand, hard-to-fill roles, ensuring placement for employees

It’s no surprise that for both Walmart and Rocket Central, one of the most popular career pathways is cybersecurity. The role is in high demand across practically every industry, with 3.5 million vacant job openings expected by 2025.

Beyond cybersecurity, Yowell noted that other popular career pathways at Rocket Central include data science, software engineering, and marketing. At Walmart, supply chain remains a popular choice. 

For both companies, these offerings are enabling employees to move into the jobs of tomorrow while creating talent pipelines for the organizations, particularly in difficult-to-fill roles. 

Having these roles ready also ensures that you retain talent that knows your organization. As Williams-Moore notes: 

“The business is reaping the benefits because we’ve created this organic talent pipeline right from associates who know Walmart, who know our markets. And we’re just skilling them in a different way, utilizing those same individuals … and placing them in hard-to-fill or expensive-to-fill positions.“ 

5. Create holistic support of employee career growth beyond the coursework.

Williams-Moore drove this point home several times – it’s one thing to offer an education benefit, it’s another by far to usher people into the program, help them progress through courses, and persist to completion. 

To support all employees in their growth, employers must account for nontraditional learners as well who are juggling work, family, and other life responsibilities while going back to school. 

That means not just removing barriers like tuition, but consciously adding support systems — from quizzes and assessments to help determine the right program fit to dedicated coaching to support workers and organizational and managerial support of career pathways.

At Walmart, Williams-Moore noted that the strategic partnership with Guild was key to success in providing support systems that encourage completion:

“Guild has been a huge help with that with their coaches that help support our associates throughout their journey….And we’re constantly looking at academic providers through Guild that are also providing the services to help nontraditional learners — I know that that’s a standard with Guild is that they partner with folks who can provide that type of support, and so a lot of mechanisms to help our associates get to that completion and then move into mobility into a different role.”

Want more insights on optimizing a career pathways strategy that drives talent outcomes?

Listen to the on-demand webinar.


“Unlocking Opportunities Through Learning and Career Development

1 Career Pathways: Building Tomorrow’s Workforce Today – The Josh Bersin Group © 2022
2 Bersin and Glassdoor Research, 2019.
3 Career Pathways: Building Tomorrow’s Workforce – The Josh Bersin Group © 2022
4 Bersin and Glassdoor Research, 2019.