Blog articles

What is talent mobility and how can you encourage it?

December 05, 2022

Updated on March 21, 2023

Organizations want talent mobility, but existing processes, structures, and mindsets can impede progress. If you want to make the most of your existing workforce, especially in a period of economic uncertainty, you need to break these barriers down. 

So, how do you get started? Pluralsight's Sr. Developer Advocate Jeremy Morgan and Principal Consultants for Workforce Transformation Heather MacDonald and Chris Palmer share actionable advice to help you identify and overcome barriers to talent mobility at all levels of your organization. 

Learn how to overcome barriers to talent mobility in your organization.

What is talent mobility?

Talent mobility means maximizing the potential of your existing workforce. It’s the ability for people to advance up a career ladder or move laterally across your organization, regardless of their background. Frontline employees, recent college graduates, and industry veterans should all have equal opportunities to grow their careers.

Why is internal talent mobility important?

Internal talent mobility allows your organization to become a creator, rather than a consumer, of talent. In other words, an internal talent mobility strategy helps you develop the skills you need internally rather than seeking them elsewhere (which can be a costly and time-consuming process). 

A talent mobility program helps to future-proof your organization in times of economic uncertainty. And when employees have career paths and the ability to explore new opportunities within your organization, engagement and retention also see a boost. 

What are the benefits of talent mobility?

Talent mobility improves retention and gives employers the ability to quickly find and mobilize qualified internal candidates to meet urgent project needs or fill open positions. Talent mobility also helps employees explore new career options, pursue professional goals, and grow at their organization without blockers.

What are the components of talent mobility?

Talent mobility may look different in different organizations. In general, though, employers support talent mobility when they:

  • Equip managers to facilitate effective career conversations

  • Listen to each employee’s needs and goals

  • Help employees facilitate internal career moves and cultivate new skills

  • Establish attractive options for employees who prefer to grow laterally

  • Create employment pathways for people displaced by automation

  • Provide psychological safety via open and transparent development planning

What are common organizational barriers to talent mobility?

Organizational barriers to talent mobility are certain processes and perspectives that constrict internal workforce transformation. To create a successful talent mobility framework, your organization first needs to identify the potential barriers that could impact success.

11 barriers to internal talent mobility

Let’s take a look at common barriers to talent mobility—and how to overcome them—so you can forge the future of talent development in your organization.

1. Hiring managers search for the “perfect candidate”

Many hiring managers prefer candidates from top engineering schools who show a certain amount of experience in specific technologies. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find someone with the exact skill set and experience who can start working on day one. 

If you do find that unicorn, they’re likely overqualified for the role. They may be looking for quick growth opportunities, and if that’s not on the roadmap, you risk rapid turnover that’s hard on leaders and team members.

If you have a narrow hiring profile, you might miss out on candidates who could bring a fresh lens to the products you’re building. Some positions require specific criteria, but many general tech roles have adjacent and shared skills that are interchangeable. 

Instead of searching for the perfect candidate outside your organization, consider existing employees with a proven track record of being adaptable and willing to learn. Look for flexible learners who can pick up new skills rapidly and step into different roles. 

This includes employees in non-technical roles.  According to our 2023 State of Upskilling report, 57% of tech managers say their organization could improve diversity by reskilling non-tech employees to fill tech roles. Are you hiring existing employees from non-technical fields to fill open roles? Or engineers who possess adjacent skills (but not the exact tech profile you want)?

Your ideal candidate might also be a "culture fit." But this can become a standin for “sameness.” Are you asking questions that actually assess candidates based on the job criteria? Or are you just hiring the person who went to the same school as you or enjoys the same hobbies? Hire the best person and then teach them the right skills.

2. Teams base job descriptions on former employees

Anyone who’s stayed in the same role for a prolonged period of time will naturally evolve the role based on their interests. They may take on responsibilities that lie outside the scope of their original job description. For that reason, when posting a backfill, avoid creating a job description based on the person who left. 

Instead, create a description that takes into account the core work responsibilities and allows the new hire room for growth. This process may allow you to hire and grow a level three engineer versus hiring a level five engineer who may not want to take on everything the original employee managed.

3. Organizations lack a way to measure employee skills

Picture this: You have 20 people with the same role. They all do the same thing. Then the economy shifts, and you need only 10 people. If the other 10 have the skills needed to do other jobs, they could potentially take on new roles and help staff your high-priority projects.

Unfortunately, few organizations today have a robust system for documenting an employee’s full skill set and matching that information against the organization’s talent needs. If you don’t know what skills your employees possess, you rely on individual managers to elevate their people (which they may or may not do). 

Skill assessments give leaders a way to see what skills exist within their workforce. Combining that data with other L&D, HR, and employee information helps them identify people who have untapped skills or are ready for new opportunities. This is especially critical when talent is scarce and job security uncertain.

Identifying your organization’s skills blindspots allows you to:

  • Provide career growth opportunities

  • Reduce layoffs

  • Share institutional knowledge with other teams

  • Facilitate exchange programs to keep employees challenged and give them visibility to the bigger picture

  • Hit your delivery dates and protect revenue

  • Meet customer needs

  • Schedule vacation coverage

  • Reduce burnout from relying too heavily on a small number of specialists

4. Bias makes it difficult to document skills accurately

Bias, both intentional and unintentional, can make it difficult to document skills accurately and objectively. Uncover bias to understand who truly exists in your organization and has the potential to fill critical job requisitions.

AI/ML bias

Some employers use AI-based solutions to match internal talent with job openings. This type of automation can help organizations fill roles faster, but it can also perpetuate potential bias.

For example, women tend to underreport their skills on their resumes. Machine learning models that pull from resume data may unknowingly reinforce gender bias and pass up qualified female candidates in favor of men. 

Organizations need to understand the potential for bias in AI/ML. They also need to provide coaching, training, and support to empower their people to accurately represent their skills.

Resume bias

Resumes can be a valuable source of information about someone’s skills, but they also contain built-in bias. People typically tailor their resumes for specific jobs and may omit skills they feel are irrelevant to that role. At best, resumes provide an imperfect starting point.

To counter this, organizations need to rethink how they collect information that isn’t on a resume. As part of the onboarding process, create assessments and activities that uncover the new employee’s true skill sets, career needs, and aspirations. Help them see a career path from week one, and share it with their leader.

After onboarding, encourage managers to facilitate career conversations and revisit the employee’s skills catalog to ensure it reflects their full skill set.

Skill level bias

Someone may claim to be an expert but have very little experience. Someone else may understate their abilities to avoid sounding over qualified. Finding a way to quantify skill level and expertise is essential, which is where skill assessments come in. They create a more objective picture of employees’ skill gains over time. 

Employers need to catalog other types of evidence as well. If you’re looking to fill an engineering role, you’ll want someone with the right technical skills and/or aptitude to learn. But other less obvious skills, like communication, are also critical. If you see that an employee has experience working with cross-functional teams or spoke on a podcast or during a webinar, you have a strong indication that the person has the hard and soft skills needed for success.

5. Technologists lack paid learning time

Tech employees want to learn new skills, but often lack the time.  In fact, our 2023 State of Upskilling report found that technologists’ biggest barrier to upskilling is being too busy. And not everyone has time to upskill during their personal time. To provide equal opportunities for career advancement, organizations need to build learning time into the business day.

Depending on business needs and learning expectations, leaders can schedule small amounts of learning time over several months or years. Alternatively, they might choose to carve out larger chunks of learning time in a shorter period to address current demands or upcoming projects.

There is no one right answer for how much time you should provide. Just create a defined upskilling objective and/or development plan to determine the right schedule. Then make sure leaders balance time for skills development with realistic expectations. For example, if they’re asking their teams to spend three work hours upskilling each week, they need to adjust their product delivery timelines.

Leaders can make learning time even more effective by providing hands-on experiences like sandbox environments and practice exercises. Technologists say that hands-on labs and sandboxes are the most effective at preparing them to apply new learning on the job. When you give employees the chance to apply their new tech skills to real business scenarios, you’ll reinforce their learning and help them build confidence.

6. Technologists face inadvertent penalties for learning

When employees climb a learning curve, their productivity will drop. If your leaders penalize employees for this dip, they send a mixed message. Even if your organization says learning is important, employees won’t want to learn if they’ll face negative consequences. (And 20% of technologists worry they will if their daily productivity drops while learning.)

Consider creating a quantifiable way to track time spent upskilling, like PTO for learning. A software developer, for instance, might receive ten days per year of learning time off. At the end of the year, an organization can assess a leader by how much paid learning time their team used. 

Without a real metric, it’s difficult to hold leaders accountable for upskilling and ensure they encourage their teams to take time to learn.

7. Performance management rewards leaders for retaining top performers

61% of tech managers say their bonus depends in part on retaining their team members. Even if one of their team members transfers to another department internally, that counts against the manager’s retention rate and, ultimately, their bonus. Managers also worry that losing a team member will impact velocity and productivity. As a result, many managers don’t actively encourage their team members to pursue new opportunities. 

To promote internal career mobility, organizations need to rethink their performance management process and incentivize managers to help employees grow. Senior leaders should ensure mid-level and front-line managers have the tools and training to develop a comprehensive succession planning process. Do you document processes? Are you cross training people to reduce knowledge silos? Do you have onboarding processes for internal transfers?

Succession planning will reduce managers’ anxieties about losing someone with specific knowledge and responsibilities. And instead of basing a manager’s bonus on retention, consider tracking other metrics that align with employee development, like amount of paid learning time used or number of team members included in a stretch project. 

8. Managers lack resources to facilitate meaningful career conversations

Performance management and compensation structures aren’t the only talent mobility barriers managers face. Even if they want to support their employees, they may not know how to pave the way for their career development.

For example, an employee may approach their manager and say, “This is the role I want to transition to, but I don’t know how to get there.” Does the manager feel comfortable having this conversation? Do they know how to connect the employee with the right resources to explore that career interest? According to Gartner research, “Only 17% of candidates say their manager facilitates the process of applying for internal jobs.”

Organizations need to equip managers to engage in meaningful career discussions. This means providing easy access to clear job architecture, career pathways, and tools and training that they can share with their teams. You can also invest in manager training to help them grow their coaching and communication skills.

9. Organizations have unclear compensation structures

An employee with a competitive salary may be concerned their pay will dip if they move to a new role in another department. This could prompt them to look for external roles rather than internal ones. So, what’s the solution?

First, publicize internal job opportunities. If existing employees aren’t aware of open roles, they’ll assume your organization doesn’t have what they’re looking for and take their job search elsewhere. 

Next, create clear and consistent alignment between job families and roles. This provides compensation transparency for employees and makes it easier for managers to support team member growth. When possible, create learning pathways to help employees understand how to transition into new roles and what level will allow them to continue to build their skills—and their salary.

Rewarding output instead of outcomes

Traditional talent management reward systems also tend to reward the outputs of someone's work rather than their outcomes. Do your reward systems only track quantifiable data, like the number of emails sent? If so, you might not see how certain individuals drive value and more nuanced business outcomes.

10. Teams don’t feel psychologically safe

When employees are wary of negative consequences and potential penalties for learning or expressing interest in new skills, they’re less likely to take action. This impedes talent mobility and decreases employee satisfaction and team morale. 

People need psychological safety to pursue career development opportunities. Take skill assessments as an example. If employees think you’re using these assessments to make people management decisions, that could breed anxiety and erode trust. 

Be transparent and explain how you’re using skill data to facilitate talent mobility and identify training opportunities. Maybe your organization uses skill assessment results to identify qualified candidates for open positions or move people to other projects. If managers notice consistent skills gaps, maybe they advocate for additional training for their teams. When team members know their scores won’t be used against them, they’ll feel more at ease.

You can start building psychological safety from the top down. Ask leaders in VP and director roles to take skill assessments and share their results. Junior employees will see that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. They’ll feel empowered to start their own journey without worrying about failure.

11. Leaders expect overnight results

Most barriers to talent mobility stem from traditional habits, practices that no longer match today’s business needs, and gaps that call for entirely new processes. Implementing new approaches will take time, resources, and a formal change management strategy. On average, it will take one to three years to arrive at true talent mobility in your organization.

This extended timeline may lead organizations to postpone or deprioritize talent mobility work in favor of short-term initiatives. Some projects are more urgent than others, but even if you’re faced with competing business priorities and economic pressures, most talent mobility efforts roll up into other organizational strategies, like reducing hiring costs. 

If you’re feeling pressured to deliver immediate results, share reasonable goals with your leaders. Set immediate expectations, then build out a plan for the next six months, year, and so on.

How to implement a talent mobility strategy

As tech skills gaps widen, it’s harder to find external candidates with the knowledge you need. If you turn your gaze inward, though, you may uncover existing employees with the potential, and desire, to move into new roles.

Encourage cross-functional collaboration

Give employees the chance to work with colleagues on other teams. Discussion groups are a free way to cross-pollinate ideas, foster collaboration, and introduce employees to new roles. Get a group together to read a book or listen to a podcast and then share their thoughts.

Create time for learning

A successful talent mobility program and culture of learning permeate all levels of an organization, starting at the top. For example, if you want everyone in your organization to earn their AWS certification, you need to earn yours, too.

As a senior leader, try to understand the pain and time constraints that accompany an ask like this. You have the flexibility to control your schedule. If even you find it hard to set aside time to study and get certified, you have to understand that it's exponentially harder for every other person in your organization. 

Think about how you can create clarity, lead by example, and reward (not penalize) people for taking the time to learn. What processes can you automate, streamline, or otherwise change to create more time for learning?

Avoid layoffs with a talent mobility program

Before you lay off employees, consider whether you can reskill them to take on new roles. Could you find a way to qualify the right people and do a six month boot camp to train them into junior software engineers? If yes, develop a clear onboarding process to help them become tech fluent, learn the language, and enable success.

Offer leadership roles

Reskilling also provides mentorship opportunities that can turn into leadership roles down the line. If someone moves into a tech role from a non-technical one, who in your current engineering population can mentor and support them?

Think of mentorships as introductory leadership roles. Some of your engineers probably want to take on leadership responsibilities. If you don’t have leadership positions open now, mentoring gives those employees a chance to continue to progress and develop skills that will aid them in their future.

Then, when roles open, they can prove their leadership ability. After all, they coached junior employees and helped them develop into successful software engineers!

Align psychological safety with talent management

At its most basic level, psychological safety means that everyone generally respects one another. But true psychological safety goes beyond this bare minimum. Are people able to say what they want without fear of retaliation? Does senior leadership seem to ignore concerns from frontline employees, but love the same suggestions from a senior level leader? 

Psychological safety also concerns more than just overt behaviors. As a leader, what do you permit? If someone asks to use certain pronouns, do you allow people to roll their eyes or make snarky comments? If you permit these types of responses, you send a signal that they’re acceptable. Over time, certain individuals may feel detached from the group. Without that sense of belonging, there’s little motivation for them to do their best work.

As Jeremy said in our on-demand webinar, “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.”

For more talent mobility insights, check out the 2023 State of Upskilling report.