Newsletter and Subscription Sign Up

Professional Development Critical to Employee Retention

Published Friday Dec 21, 2018

Author Melanie Plenda

Loftware in Portsmouth offers professional development opportunities to retain employees. Back row, from left are: John McDonald, manager technical training; Jennifer Rhode, human resource administrator; Jill Ripley, receptionist; Keegan Sands, technical lead; Joe Massa, VP sales Americas; Rick Bodwell, lead solutions engineer, U.S. Front row, from left: Jessica Hutter, senior marketing programs manager; Robert O’Connor, president & CEO; Michael Thornton, director, technical services and support; and Susan Nelson, inside sales representative. Courtesy photo.

Hiring qualified software developers is hard, but when you add in record low unemployment numbers and an aging population, it becomes downright daunting for a company like Loftware in Portsmouth.

“Hiring software developers is very, very difficult,” says Carol Mercer, vice president of administration and human resources at Loftware, which creates software for enterprise labeling and artwork management for more than 5,000 customers in more than 100 countries.

“We’re competing with a lot of companies in New Hampshire,” for talent, Mercer says, adding that it needs to attract developers who are also being wooed by much larger companies. “Once we get them into the building, we can sell them. They want to come work for us.”

Mercer says she has been focused on retention, especially during the past couple of years. One of the most effective ways Loftware has found to retain employees is by offering professional development opportunities. A few years ago the company did away with performance reviews, replacing them with Employee Development Plans, she says. Employees meet regularly with managers to discuss, among other things, their performance, specific expectations on projects, and how projects tie in to the company goals.

“It’s a working document; it changes all the time,” Mercer says of the Employee Development Plan forms managers use during these talks. “And in those conversations, they also talk a lot about training and what they need to do their job and how we can help them to do it better.”

Mercer says this has resulted in Loftware bringing in trainers and sending employees out for training based on what they say would be helpful. It’s also led to conducting “stay” interviews twice each year to check in with employees: making sure they are engaged, deciding how the company can help them do their jobs, and discovering if they have a skill or talent that is not being fully used.

“It’s key,” she says, “especially for the one job we have a hard time filling: software development. That’s what they want—they want to keep learning all these new technologies, and that’s what we want to provide them.” Mercer says the approach works. “It is a way of life and it has helped so much,” she says.

Looking Inward
The competition for talent has businesses across the state looking at internal resources to train staff as well as seeking external partners to provide professional development, says Robyn Chadwick, NH Human Resources State Council Director for Workforce Readiness. Chadwick says the hiring process is expensive, and most companies don’t have unlimited budgets. It is much more cost effective to train and retain existing employees than pay the expense and spend the time to fill a vacancy (and endure lost productivity), and still pay to train the new employee.

For example, Mainstay Technologies in Belmont, which provides IT and cybersecurity services, instituted a mentor program to share knowledge and foster collaboration, says Paige Yeater, client services director. It provides mentoring in a number of ways for every staff member: one-on-one lunches with the CEO, check-ins from executive team members, and individual development plans. The company also has Mainstay University, which Yeater describes as a mix of certification trainings with incentive bonuses.

Mainstay Technologies employee Joe Cormier works on planning. Courtesy photo.

“We encourage our team to continue adding new certifications to their resume, [while we] provide in-person training courses, pay for online training for each staff member, provide practice tests, and offer bonuses for every certification earned,” she states. “Currently as a team, we hold over 62 IT certifications with more on the way! These certifications benefit not only the employee who gained a new certification, but all our employees, our customers and our company.”

Vapotherm in Exeter, which develops and manufactures noninvasive technologies for respiratory support of patients with chronic or acute breathing disorders, has instituted leadership programs to promote from within, says Lauren Conroy, HR business partner. As part of its Leadership Exploration and Development (LEAD) program, for example, eight to 10 of the company’s top performers, who are not yet leaders, are admitted annually into a program where they spend one day per month in a classroom learning the core principles of leadership as outlined in the book The Leadership Challenge. The 10-month program culminates in a personal best project that requires them to lead a team and implement something that improves the business, processes or product, Conroy says.

The 2018 LEAD team at Vapotherm in Exeter. Courtesy photo.

Not every company has the capacity to do this sort of work in-house. Which is why community colleges, four-year colleges and universities have spent considerable time and effort in the past several years creating programs that provide specific training to  the business community.

Ross Gittell, chancellor for the Community College System of NH, says impending retirements, the need to expand despite the tight labor market, and the need for employees to gain new skills to respond to new technologies and markets is driving demand for workforce training.

That means colleges and universities have to be responsive, agile and able to adapt programs, Gittell says. It means also looking for focus areas of high needs and skills gaps, he says, such as in the IT and health care sectors, and responding with programs that work with current employees and can be accelerated.

The community college system developed Microelectronics “boot camps,” an accelerated training program that aligned with workforce needs at BAE systems, but also worked for other advanced manufacturers, Gittell says. The Registered Apprenticeship programs, through a U.S. Department of Labor grant, provide an “earn while you learn” model in advanced manufacturing and health care, he says.

Southern NH University in Manchester (SNHU) has a team dedicated to creating partnerships with employers, nonprofits and community organizations on development programs, says Colin Van Ostern, vice president of workforce solutions for SNHU. “We work with a number of employers in New Hampshire and around the country in offering degree programs and helping build new learning solutions that meet their workforce needs,” says Van Ostern. “And sometimes we also help them measure what their learning needs are or measure the impact of their learning programs.”

SNHU’s College for America program. Courtesy photo.

For example, he says, SNHU developed a pilot program in 2013 with Anthem whereby the insurance company pays 100 percent of the cost of an associate or a bachelor’s degree for any of its 5,000 employees around the country through SNHU’s College for America program. Van Ostern explains that the program is low cost—only about $5,000 or less per student per year for tuition and fees.

“Students can move through it at their own pace, so motivated employees who might already have a lot of the skills from their professional work can accelerate and complete even quicker,” he says.

Van Ostern says SNHU has been working with employers to develop certificate programs for employees.

For example, the university developed a new certificate in the health care management fundamentals program with Partners Healthcare, the largest private employer in Massachusetts and owner of Wentworth-Douglass Hospital on the Seacoast. The credits earned for that certificate can later be put toward an associate degree.

“So, if you have no higher education, you can start with a certificate program and gain some concrete skills that will help you advance in your job, particularly in nonclinical management jobs,” Van Ostern says. “And if you decide you want to go on to get an associate or a bachelor’s degree, 100 percent of those credits will apply toward the degree program.”

This program especially helps employees who’ve been working for the company for a long time, but because of either technology or regulatory changes they need to get some additional education to advance in their work.

Universities are also helping companies determine what their needs are and the effectiveness of existing programs. SNHU worked on just such a project with the Veterans Administration Region in New England.

Before enrolling any of their employees into a SNHU degree program, the college had management and employees assess their own skills. Then, as an employee progresses through the degree program, college officials assess any new skills employees are displaying on the job.

“And that’s very unusual,” Van Ostern says. “We think more employers will be demanding that.” He says data shows employers are less confident that a traditional college graduate has all the skills they need for the workplace. By being able to measure students skill levels before, during and after a college degree program, employers can better justify investing in development programs.

Even smaller schools are taking pages  from the playbooks of larger institutions. Among the major strategic goals at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge is offering professional development opportunities to business partners, says Edward French, dean of the College of Business. The school has put together a Business Relations Task Force made up of representatives from the college of business, the enrollment and advancement offices, and other departments with Franklin Pierce University President Kimberly Mooney serving as chairperson. French describes the group as a think tank that aims to build relationships with business leaders in the Monadnock Region and develop programs and curricula that meet a company’s specific needs.

Edward French, dean of the College of Business at Franklin Pierce University. Courtesy photo.

“One of the things we talked about was do we want to get into professional development in a deeper way?” French says. “Do we want to develop training? Do we want to offer it not only to partners who we have signed agreements with but basically anyone who wants it? And we decided yes, we would like to do that. We’re in the early stages right now,” he says of developing customized programs for businesses.

That said, French also says that even a customized program is not going to be so narrowly focused that it can’t be used elsewhere, and that this is part and parcel of what’s to come in higher ed. “We don’t have unlimited resources. It helps us to be strategic about providing something that somebody says they need rather than developing something and convincing them that they need it,” French says. “It’s the art of reinventing how we as an academic institution are being responsive to the market.”

All Stories