Lifelong Learning: Advocating Professional Development | Queen's University IRC

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Lifelong Learning: Advocating Professional Development

Derik McArthur, Queen's IRC Coach
Publication date: January, 2013

Lifelong learning is a catchphrase often used by many, but a concept practiced by few. As professionals look to not only increase their skill sets, but also to keep up with trends within their industry, it is increasingly important to maintain a high level of competence by continuing to learn. In many fields, such as human resources, professional organizations have been established to maintain a minimum standard for practitioners to achieve to ensure that the profession is held to a measurable level of competence. The CHRP is one example of a professional designation in Canada.

It is human nature to always question and seek knowledge. Most of our conversations are the sharing of or the request for information. We continually seek to expand our knowledge base and learn more about what interests us. As practitioners, we know all too well that at the end of any course we take or seminar we attend, our own theories start to develop and the quest for additional knowledge grows. This is why we must embrace learning and encourage it both professionally in our various workplaces, as well as personally, and apply it to our outside interests. Professional development programs and workplace learning strategies are ways in which employees can ensure that they continue to expand their knowledge and skills, thereby contributing to their lifelong learning. In this article, I discuss the benefits of professional development from an employer and employee perspective.

Why employees benefit from professional development

For the employee, professional development programs in the workplace offer more that just a simple perk to their employment. Psychologically, this type of learning lets the employees know that they are all there for a reason and that their worth to the organization goes beyond their current skill sets. In turn, employees recognize that their organization is willing to invest in them to ensure that they are the most competent and successful members they can be. This leads to higher morale and, in theory, results in higher productivity.

Professional development helps to retain employees

Employers can never be naive and think that employees are theirs forever and that none of them would ever think of "jumping ship" to work for a competitor. Nor can employers develop their training, learning, and development plans around this type of thinking. If employees are not satisfied with their role within the organization, they will leave. I think that organizations that encourage lifelong learning attract ambitious, self-motivated employees. For example, as individuals attend various training programs and "brag" about what their employer is doing to better equip them in their careers, word will spread, and the organization's learning programs will become known by prospective candidates.

Investing in professional development facilitates employee loyalty

Compensation is a factor in attracting employees, but we are foolish to think that it is the governing factor. As employees, we like to have a nice pay cheque every week but we also like to have our employers value what we do. As employees move through professional development programs, they often see the value behind the courses and a greater link with the organization is established. The organization becomes more than just a place of work; it enables knowledge acquisition and freethinking. This weighs heavily on employees when faced with an alternate job offer. In fact, this could be the factor that retains an employee, regardless of the improved monetary package offered. Providing opportunities for personal and professional growth creates loyalty to the employer and can contribute to building a more stable and competent workforce.

Employee loyalty contributes to workforce capacity

In addition, employee loyalty may enhance capacity within the workforce. As employees' fundamental skill sets are increased, additional duties are assumed, and more complex tasks are picked up in-house instead of relying on external assistance. Employees start to take on roles as resident subject matter experts and guide the organization through various projects. Whether it is organization design or change management, mediation or negotiation, labour relations or strategic grievance handling, proper training improves the overall effectiveness of the team. From an employer's perspective, increased capacity and productivity result in fewer expenses incurred. The return on investment in employees' professional development soon becomes evident.

It is important to note that learning must be a meaningful experience. Thus, both the employer and the employee must be active participants in the programming and both parties must determine how they can benefit from each other. The employee must recognize how the new skills that are acquired can be put to practical use within the organization. Similarly, the employer must play an active role in guiding employees' learning and ensuring that knowledge transfers to the workplace.

Employers should invest in developing learning plans

As employers or decision makers, establishing a professional development or learning plan for each employee or each department is a time consuming task. It requires needs assessments, an inventory of current skills and training, and then builds on those. Duplicating courses and random workshops that do not necessarily fit within the professional development plan should be avoided. Having all employees in the same office attend the exact same courses is not a benefit to the employer or the employee.

Instead, rounding out the staff with programs that will interest them, can be applied in their work, and are purposeful is more in tune with an effective learning strategy that will benefit everyone. It's important to remember that encouraging employee development through workplace learning benefits both the organization and the individual. It is not a form of praise or reprimand (i.e., not allowing participation as discipline), rather it should be viewed as a part of the employment package.

Lifelong learning benefits the most competent and dedicated team members

In some cases, your star employee will have the practical experience required for the job or role they are in, but lack formal credentials or training. Professional development programs offer that employee an opportunity to demonstrate and share their knowledge and skill sets with others through collaborative learning environments. This reinforces to the employee that their skill sets are on par with their peers, and gives the credentials that document abilities. In some cases, this confirmation is just enough of a boost in the member's confidence level to move them to a higher capacity within the organization. Learning and affirming skills usually lead to the quest for more knowledge.

Making learning a priority

As employers attempt to attract the most qualified and talented employees to join their team, it is important to look within their own organization and find the hidden talent. Most employers do not have an inventory of what courses, programs, or seminars in which their staff members have engaged. In my view, creating a record of employee learning is essential. Failure to do so results in lost resources and may signal to the employee that their learning has no value to the organization. Utilization of a member's newly acquired skill sets is motivating and provides the member with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Special projects assigned based on these new skills gives employees a feeling of community and creates a bond between them and the organization. Retention of skilled staff is an obvious desire for any organization. Professional development programs that promote lifelong learning should be viewed as tools for employee retention and to attract high caliber employees.

As a firm believer and participant in lifelong learning, it has been my experience that regardless of the course of study, there are always areas that can be applied to your workplace. From small lessons learned, to new processes to examine a problem. Lifelong learning constantly challenges us to adapt and explore outside of our comfort zone and apply our new skills in our workplace. Providing employees with professional development opportunities and encouraging lifelong learning has motivated and driven staff within my organization to excel and take on more complex projects and duties. This allows supervisors and management to pursue other organizational needs and challenges, knowing that their staff is better equipped to handle their day-to-day duties.

About the Author

Derik McArthur
Derik McArthur

Derik McArthur began his career with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after graduation from Confederation College with dual diplomas in Human Resources and Human Resources Management. Prior to attending college, he was an active member of the Canadian Forces Army Reserve working as a full-time infantry soldier.

His professional career began as an organizer with the union that included work throughout Canada and the United States. He progressed through the organization and was reassigned to member service where his responsibilities focused on grievance settlements and collective bargaining. In 2005, he was elected as president, RWDSU Canada, and as RWDSU International vice-president/Canadian director. The following year, he was elected to international vice-president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union - a union that represents 1.4 million members in North America. Most recently, Derik facilitated the merger of 11 local unions in Ontario into UFCW local 175. The amalgamated locals have formed the largest UFCW local union in North America with over 70,000 members.

In addition to his positions in the union, Derik sits on the Employment Insurance Board of Referees, and hears appeals from EI applicants that have been denied Employment Insurance benefits.

Derik is active in the community and is a founder of the Home for a Hero Project - an initiative that raised over $300,000 for a triple-amputee Sudbury soldier coming out of Afghanistan. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Sudbury and District Food Bank.

Outside his professional interests, he enjoys spending time with his wife and children and continues to enjoy working as an army reservist and infantry soldier with the 2nd Battalion Irish Regiment of Canada.

Derik holds a BA in Justice Studies from Royal Roads University and has completed his Organization Development, Labour Relations, and Organizational Capacity Certificates from Queen's IRC and currently sits on the IRC Advisory Board. Derik is a coach at the IRC's Labour Relations Foundations program.