Back to school: professional development edition

Trina Huntley

Trina Huntley

Manager, Learning & Development | Payworks

Trina has dedicated her career towards formalizing guidance and support around learning, development and coaching that grows employee engagement and performance.
Responsable de l’apprentissage et du développement | Payworks

Trina a consacré sa carrière à la concrétisation de l’orientation et du soutien en matière d’apprentissage, de développement et d’accompagnement, afin d’accroître l’engagement et les performances des employés.

September is back to school month. While it’s typically the time of the year where kids and young adults are sharpening their pencils, it’s also a great time of year for professionals to stop and think about their own learning journey and professional development in the workplace.

One contribution to a fulfilling and successful career is the ongoing process of enhancing and refining your skillsets, knowledge, and abilities. This means proactively taking deliberate actions to improve performance, such as taking the opportunity to reskill, keeping on top of industry trends, and adapting to new technologies. These actions should correlate to your professional growth goals and offer rewarding experiences through relevant training programs, workshops, conferences, seminars, online learning, mentorship programs, networking events and self-guided learning opportunities.

Why working professionals should “go back to school”

It’s a fast-paced and ever-changing work environment out there, and engaging in professional development opportunities isn’t just beneficial – it’s a necessity to thrive and remain relevant in your career. But we don’t have to think of it as simply “going back to school” in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s about engaging in opportunities for skill enhancement and expanding your knowledge base, all of which results in increased confidence, personal fulfillment and even career advancement.

When employers build a culture that embraces a growth mindset, it promotes collaboration and problem solving, and supports continuous learning that enables employees to be more resilient and adaptable – thus, providing a workforce capable of thriving in dynamic and challenging environments.

Professional development as a continuing journey, not a singular class

You might have the perception that professional development is a one-time or singular opportunity, often associated with taking a specific class or obtaining a particular certification, but this isn’t aligned with the realities of modern careers.

Professional development is a continuous and lifelong journey rather than a one-time event. In today’s work environment, a more accurate perception is that it’s an ongoing, dynamic process. Professionals who embrace this more modern perspective are better equipped to succeed in their careers over the long term because they stay relevant, prepare for adaptations, and diversify their skillsets. It allows for holistic growth in not only technical skills but also people skills, leadership abilities, and more.

There are so many subjects to choose from!

A learning journey doesn’t have to be linear, and it’s okay to explore a variety of areas before finding what truly resonates. Embrace the adventure and enjoy the learning process as exactly that - a process. If you find yourself unsure of where to start, here are some suggestions and ideas for inspiration!

  • Self-assessment – Reflect on your current skills and strengths, and identify areas for improvement. Consider your career goals and where you’d like to see yourself in the future. Identify any gaps in your knowledge/skills that might hinder your progress.
  • Stay updated – Read books, articles, blogs, and industry publications. Incorporate podcasts or audiobooks into your daily routine. Subscribe to newsletters or blogs that cover various topics, exposing you to new ideas.
  • Skill gap identification - Identify skills that are often sought after in job descriptions for roles in which you might be interested. Pay attention to skills that are in demand within your industry.
  • Explore a variety of topics – Related to your field of interest (and beyond), explore a broad range of subjects. Look into emerging trends, technologies, and practices that might influence your industry. Don’t limit yourself to your current role – consider skills that could enhance your versatility.
  • Webinars and workshops – These sessions can often introduce new concepts, provide insights from subject matter experts, and even offer the chance to connect and network with other attendees. These events can be excellent for gaining exposure to different areas within your field.

Overcoming those “back to school” blues

As valuable as professional development may be, there are several challenges that professionals might face when wanting to engage in learning opportunities. These can include struggling to find the time for researching and engaging in opportunities for learning amidst a busy work schedule and personal commitments, affording seemingly-prohibitive costs, and generally feeling overwhelmed by the big picture… all of which can cause professionals to delay their learning journey. Here are a few ways to overcome those challenges:

  • Struggling to find the time – Time management is crucial. Identify the most relevant and beneficial learning opportunities, focus on the ones that align with immediate career goals, and dedicate specific time slots for learning (even if they’re short!). Find ways to integrate learning into daily tasks, like listening to podcasts or audiobooks during commutes or incorporating learning opportunities during scheduled breaks.
  • Financial constraints – Financial planning and resourcefulness are key. Research alternatives and look for free or low-cost online courses and webinars. Check to see if your employer offers professional development allowances, sponsorships, or opportunities for reimbursement. Allocate even a small portion of monthly income to professional development and view it as an investment that’ll pay for itself in the long term, as it can open new doors in the future.
  • Overwhelmed – Setting clear goals and strategies can help overcome the overwhelm. Precisely define what skills or knowledge you want to acquire, as that can make it easier to choose relevant learning opportunities. Break down learning into manageable steps (with milestones) as that can make the process seem less daunting. Share your goals with a leader, mentor, a colleague, or friend who can hold you accountable and provide encouragement.

Nurturing a “back to school” environment in the workplace

Many organizations see the value in investing in employee professional growth, which requires a concentrated effort to support development and continuous learning. There are many ways that workplaces can nurture an environment of ongoing learning to make a positive impact on a professional’s learning journey. Here are three key strategies for organizations to consider:

  • Professional development programs – There are many avenues (or combinations thereof) to consider, like training workshops and courses, lunch-and-learns, mentorship and coaching, online learning platforms, and certification support. These learning opportunities can cover technical skills, people skills, leadership development, and industry-specific knowledge.
  • Embrace a learning culture and provide resources – Promote a culture that encourages questioning, exploration and curiosity, where employees are inspired to seek out new ideas and solutions. This can be furthered by developing learning libraries, encouraging internal knowledge sharing, and allocating a portion of employees’ time for self-directed learning or working on innovative projects that align with their interests.
  • Recognition and career growth – Incorporate learning goals and accomplishments into performance reviews and reinforce the value of learning within the organization. Offer incentives or rewards for achieving learning milestones – like a celebration lunch – and/or provide flexible work arrangements that allow employees to balance work, learning, and personal commitments. You can also provide opportunities where employees can advance by acquiring new skills and competencies.

By implementing some of these strategies, organizations can create an environment where employees feel empowered to develop their skills, explore new areas, and contribute to the overall growth of the company. A strong learning culture not only enhances employee commitment and satisfaction, it will foster a sense of purpose and dedication, which ultimately contributes to an organization’s long-term success.


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