The Secrets of a Successful Retention and Upskilling Program

The Great Resignation is the phenomenon of a record number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs, seeking flexibility, purpose, and interpersonal needs that organizations are not designed to deliver.[1] Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work Report reminds the urgency of upskilling as skills gaps continue to be high and in-demand skills across jobs change in the next five years.[2] Organizations are rightfully expending energy and resources to address these issues.

Employee retention, reskilling, upskilling, and preparedness for the future of work is a matter that organizations worldwide must get right. In LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 59% of L&D pros globally identified upskilling and reskilling as their number one focus area[3]. There is some available data and information on the impact of human capital initiatives[4], but most organizations have scant knowledge of the effectiveness and success factors of these mission-critical programs.

In a successful talent retention and upskilling program at the Federal Information Agency (FIA), these six factors greatly supported its impact. [5]


1. A clear understanding of the problem statement

Organizations today are facing attrition or skills gaps for multifaceted reasons. Where attrition is not the main challenge, attracting the best talent or managing skills relevancy is a significant goal. As you design your talent programs, becoming clear about the problem statement is even more important in this varied context than in the past.

For example, when FIA was experiencing excessive turnover of critical talent, they averaged about 38% annually. Most exits occurred after one year of service for more salary. The agency needed a creative solution to meet two critical needs, career enhancement and skill upgrading. FIA was clear about the main problem statement to address with their solution; the need to prevent talent from leaving for higher pay in the private sector and build an internal talent pipeline.


2. A solution fit for purpose

Today’s organizations address questions of talent retention, growth, or upskilling with a combination of approaches, such as offering digital and just-in-time learning, cross-functional projects, mentoring and coaching support, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and others. Your most important demand of a solution should be its ability to address the problem statement suitably.

To illustrate, because increasing salaries was not an option for FIA, the solution was to offer a Masters’ Degree Program on agency time, at no cost to the employee. The program addressed both employees’ desire to choose professional development over higher pay and the agency’s need for continuous skills upgrading. An ROI program evaluation showed that this solution effectively met these objectives.


3. A commitment to accountability

A high-impact program builds accountability within its process, setting expectations of transparent performance with all stakeholders.

For FIA, a public sector agency, the senior management was committed to the accountability of funds used for this program. The program was expensive, attracted attention, and addressed a true challenge in the organization. Senior management insisted that the program’s outcomes be measured, and a measurement plan using the ROI Methodology was put in place early.

WEF Future of Work 2020 reports that 66% of companies expected their human capital investments to yield positive ROI within one year. A measurement plan and standards will considerably help achieve this objective.


4. Specific objectives and measurable metrics

Your programs must set very specific objectives to meet the needs of different stakeholders. By structuring measurable objectives into your talent, upskilling, or reskilling programs, you set the program’s North Star and improve alignment and impact.

For FIA, measures that matter were five types of objectives, following the ROI Methodology.

  • Level 1: Reaction and planned action objectives and metrics measured how participants perceived and responded to the master’s degree program.
  • Level 2: Learning objectives and metrics measured how well participants learned the concepts and gained new knowledge in the program.
  • Level 3: Action objectives and measures included completing a work project, signed off by their managers, and under the guidance of their professors in the master’s degree program.
  • Level 4: Business objectives and metrics primarily targeted retention amongst those in the master’s degree program compared to others who had not participated. Other measures included productivity, recruitment, and business outcomes generated in the projects implemented by participants enrolled in the program.
  • Level 5: This program’s return on investment objective was set upfront at 25%. Subsequent measures showed that the program helped with improving retention and exceeded its ROI objective.

With a clear North Star to align their efforts, FIA was able to implement a measurable, fit-for-purpose solution with coordination at all levels of the organization.


5. A design structured to deliver outcomes

A great program should build in designs elements that ensure impact. Executives should be involved from the beginning and be kept abreast of developments. Participants must clearly understand the expectations on them and be aligned with their managers. Managers must support the change intended with the program. The program needs a built-in transition that makes it natural for participants to use their new skills on the job.

A critical success factor for FIA was their sharp focus on designing elements that made success easier to achieve. Senior management approved the program’s curriculum and stayed informed of its development and progress. A clear selection of target profile process gave the manager the right to nominate their ‘high potential’ talent and allowed prospective participants to decide if they were willing to make the necessary commitments to undertake a Masters’ degree program.

Participants understood their role in the program by taking part in meetings where they explained how the program worked and the expectations on them for ensuring its success.

Learning was adapted to a mix of face-to-face, digital videoconference, and independent study and fit the participants’ ability to absorb the knowledge. Study time was scheduled during work hours, so the program did not become an extra burden.

The participants applied concepts to work through a work-study graduate project supervised by a faculty member and approved by the direct manager. The project had to improve an area—operations, capability, or technology—of FIA and meet the rigorous requirements of the university. The project’s action plan included details of how the project was to be applied at work, a timetable, and the project’s monetary contribution to FIA.


6. Continuous improvement in action

A natural consequence of measurement is to act on the information collected. As you measure the progress of a program, you discover areas of constant and continuous improvement. For example, FIA took advantage of the measurement process to improve program elements as it was rolled out to its employees.


Delivering your talent retention, upskilling and reskilling program with great success

To successfully address retention, upskilling, reskilling, or talent retention problems organizations face, human capital investments must build strong structures in their program design and implementation. Learning from the experience of FIA, you too can design and deliver a successful intervention by finding and using measurement and evaluation information to your advantage.



[1] McKinsey Organization Blog: The Great Attrition: The power of adaptability.

[2] World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs Report 2020.

[3] 2021 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report.

[4] Companies using free education to attract and keep workers amidst war for talent.

[5] Measuring ROI In A Masters Degree Program, Federal Information Agency By Jack J. Phillips and Patti P. Phillips.  Chapter 9. Value for Money, Measuring the Return on Non-Capital Investments; Analytics in Action; ROI Case Studies, Volume I Patricia Pulliam Phillips, Ph.D. and Jack J. Phillips, Ph.D.

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