Career Pathing and Engagement: How Investing in Staff Can Boost Retention

Given the continued tight labor market, there has been a lot of focus recently on the importance of strategic and innovative approaches to hiring and retention. It’s certainly true that attracting a large and diverse group of candidates, and then hiring the most suitable of them, is important in navigating the current environment. Yet getting people in the door is just one part of a much larger puzzle.

You also need to make sure that you are retaining your current staff.

Luckily, youth-serving organizations have an advantage on this front because we know that workers of all ages increasingly seek meaning in the work they do. But in order for them to find that meaning within the mission of your organization, it’s important to be intentional about connecting work with mission, and job duties with career development. That happens when we think about employment as a program, not just as a necessary element of programming for others. In fact, viewed this way, employment is among the biggest and most important programs for many organizations.

So, how do we run this program well?

Define the Job
According to Paige Bagwell, Redwoods Chief Operating Officer, and former nonprofit Executive Director, it all starts with a values-based, and mission-focused, job description:

“There are many practical reasons to have an accurate and comprehensive job description, not least because it helps both you and your staff to evaluate performance and track progress against an objective standard. But writing this job description can also be an a-ha moment for many staff. It helps them to understand how what they do, whether it’s folding towels or picking up trash or guarding the pool, helps you to deliver on your broader mission of serving the community.”

Ideally, your job description will cover:

  • The specific tasks and responsibilities of the position
  • The expected requirements in terms of conduct, attendance and communication
  • The opportunities the position will offer the employee, for example, training and learning opportunities
  • The impact of the position on your organization, and the community you serve

Once you have your job description, it’s important to go over that description with your hires, both to make sure they understand it, and to also seek feedback or suggested changes or clarifications.

Understand the Needs of Your Team
When reviewing a job description with an employee, employers will sometimes focus primarily on making sure that the new employee understands what is expected of them. Yet if the conversation ends there, then this is a missed opportunity.

According to Paige, it is equally important to make sure that you—as their employer—understand what they are expecting from you, and what they are aiming to achieve in accepting the position. The trick is fairly obvious. You have to ask them:

“Are they in it for the long haul, and looking to progress through the organization? Or is their time with your organization just one part of their longer career journey? It all starts with really understanding what your staff are looking for during their time with you. Almost certainly, you’ll have a mix of both within your team. And that’s totally fine. What’s important is making sure that all of your team can find meaningful opportunities to engage and grow during their time with you.”

Ideally, these conversations will already have started at the interview stage. Yet it’s never too late to check in with staff, including those who have been with you forever. Paige says it’s important to hold these intentional conversations often, with all your staff. Not only are you gathering valuable information that can help you to train and mentor your team, but it also sends a signal that you are committed to investing in their long-term growth:

“Some staff may already have an eye on their college applications, or their post-college career path. Others might be interested in staying with you, and in developing their career within your organization. You may also have some long-timers who are also considering career moves—either inside or outside of your team. How can you make room for all of them? What can you do to tailor your support to what it is they are looking to learn?”

When talking about retention, it might be tempting to think that you need to do all you can to hold on to your best staff, but that is not necessarily the case. In fact, Redwoods’ Senior Consultant Katie Johnson says the opposite is sometimes true. As a former camp director, she would sometimes tell her best staff that, if they wanted to work at her camp for the long term, then she needed them to go and work somewhere else first:

“I didn’t just want warm bodies. And I didn’t want people who got complacent. I wanted a team with broad experience and an understanding of how different organizations do things. So sometimes I intentionally sent people elsewhere, to diversify their perspectives and gain new skills. Sure, I probably lost a few people on the way, but I am sure I also gained so much more. As did they.”

Developing Career-Pathing Programs for Everyone
We know that time and resources are limited when you are running a youth-serving organization. Your first priority is always going to be delivering on your mission to your participants, members and guests. But that’s exactly why it’s important to institutionalize career pathing opportunities into the day-to-day running of your organization so that they become second nature. Otherwise, they can easily get sidelined.

While this may seem daunting at times, it’s important to remember that we are navigating an environment where young college-age recruits, for example, may have turned down a paid internship to work at your organization. Equally, staff who have worked with you for decades may have new opportunities or better-paying prospects elsewhere. So make sure their time with you is well spent, and that they can genuinely feel how their efforts are leading to success and growth, both for themselves as well as for your organization. For example, consider the following:

  • Can you provide them with project management opportunities—developing a trial program or initiative that can help them build their skills?
  • Could you offer mentoring opportunities with your leadership, or more experienced staff?
  • Can staff shadow other staff for positions they might be interested in growing into? (Even if they decide this isn’t for them, it’s a good way to better understand the workings of the organization.)
  • Are there networking opportunities with board members, or ways to help them learn about non-profit management?
  • How can you communicate these opportunities to your staff so that they feel intentional, structured and genuinely meaningful?

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to accommodate every request, or perfectly meet every staff member’s specific interests, but addressing the career needs of all staff, in all roles, is a great way to increase staff retention and engagement. It’s also a good idea to think about what roles you are going to need to fill. This will allow you to identify ways to invest in interested staff, and in the community around you, to provide opportunities to grow into those positions. For example, consider the following:

  • Do you need trained lifeguards? Are there staff in other positions who might be interested in gaining these skills?
  • Are you short of childcare workers? Can you advertise internally—or partner with local colleges or community organizations—to bring in and train up staff so that they gain the specific skills you need?

Cultivate Authentic Relationships
We all have those staff members who go above and beyond the confines of their job description, and who really demonstrate their commitment to your organization’s mission. It can sometimes be easy to assume that this commitment will automatically translate into loyalty. Yet the fact is that our best staff are precisely the ones who are going to have the greatest opportunities elsewhere. That’s why leadership needs to engage regularly with staff and be intentional and enthusiastic in efforts to lift up and celebrate the achievements of the teams they are responsible for.

When it comes to seasonal positions, like camp counselors and summer staff, for example, it’s helpful to be intentional about both the end-of-season debriefing process, and maintaining a relationship while they are not with you. According to Katie Johnson, it can be helpful to reframe your ‘exit’ interviews as a part of an ongoing engagement with that person:

“There are great camps that no longer call the end-of-season debrief an ‘exit interview.’ They’ve started calling it a ‘stay interview’ instead. They make sure there’s a continuation of themes they covered in mid-season check-ins. Especially for those staff they really want to get back, these camp leaders make sure staff know exactly what the leader sees as their strengths, and why they value their efforts and appreciate their work. Most straight-up ask them what they need: Where do they see themselves? What skills would they like to learn? What would make their time at our camp more effective and pleasant? How can the camp support them during the off-season—with references for college for example. The goal is to help them see how maintaining and deepening their relationship with the camp is a win-win for everyone.”

As always, when you are cultivating relationships like this, it’s important to pay attention to any favoritism or bias, whether real or perceived. This will help make sure you are rewarding staff for their genuine efforts, talent and skills. That means investing in regular training in diversity, equity and inclusion, and making sure you have defined criteria for what constitutes a ‘good job.’ It’s also important to make sure you are seeking input from your management team when reviewing which relationships you want to focus on—as this helps to guard against any personal favoritism or bias.

Celebrate All of Your Heroes
Whether you’re handwriting ‘thank you’ notes, or making an intentional effort as a leader to stop and talk to frontline staff, there are many ways to build up your staff and make them feel special. Kevin Trapani, Redwoods’ Co-Founder and CEO, points to the aquatic safety specialists Ellis and Associates as an example of how an organizational culture can celebrate positions that are sometimes taken for granted:

“You don’t get too far as an Ellis lifeguard before you compete in a Lifeguard Olympics. And the same is true of many great aquatic safety programs. In fact, many of these programs’ leaders see this extra requirement as a feature, not a bug. Some of them will make sure they are doing lifeguard trainings and competitions while members and guests are present. When you see a lifeguard pulling a battle rope and being cheered on by members of the public, you really start to think differently about how we can put all staff on a pedestal and celebrate their contributions, whatever those may be. And guess what? The members and guests love it too.”

While the example Kevin gives is lifeguard-specific, it has relevance for all areas of your operations. Can you recruit parents to help celebrate your childcare staff? What can you do to make sure your grounds or maintenance staff are feeling appreciated and seen? How would your cooks feel if you provided them a nice dinner one evening?

The possibilities are almost endless. The point is simply to think creatively and generously about ways—both big and small—that you can make sure your staff feel ‘seen’ and appreciated.

The Job Market Has Changed Forever
It might be tempting to see the current tight labor market as a temporary disruption, exacerbated by the pandemic. In fact, the conditions are already easing a bit. But they are not going away. We know that job seekers in general, and young people in particular, have changed how they think about work. They now have more opportunities available to them, and far less tendency to simply ‘settle’ for a job at the organization they’ve attended as a camper, or a member, for years.

In some ways, that presents a challenge for organizational leadership. But it also presents an opportunity. By taking steps to attract staff who are genuinely driven and excited to be a part of your work, you can both better deliver on your core mission while also growing the leaders of the future.

Further Reading & Resources: