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Professional Development Employees *Really* Want: 2020 Study

“Professional development” is a vague term but one of crucial importance to employees. In this study, we investigate how to meet the professional development needs of today’s workforce.

Michael Tomaszewski, CPRW
Michael Tomaszewski, CPRW
Certified Professional Resume Writer, Career Expert
Professional Development Employees *Really* Want: 2020 Study

professional development

Employee retention is one of the biggest challenges of today’s HR. According to a recent study by the Addison Group, two thirds of American workers are confident they can leverage the candidate’s market to aid their salary and benefits negotiations with current employers. If employers fail to meet their needs, candidates know there are other companies that will.

And, considering how much the COVID-19 pandemic opened up the job market—in March 2020, 74% of CFOs reported they expect to shift at least some of their employees to permanent remote work—it seems that retaining top talent will only get more difficult.

But what is the *best* way to keep your best employees engaged and happy at work? According to two independent studies by Mercer and The Work Institute, the main reason for employees to leave their jobs is the lack of professional development opportunities.

Considering the impact professional development has on US workers’ job happiness, we wanted to learn more about what kinds of professional development initiatives are most valued by employees, why they want to pursue professional development, and what changes they would like to see in the future.

See the infographic below for an executive summary of our findings. Read on for a more in-depth analysis.

Professional development employees want most

Yes, Professional Development Is Important: Here’s Just *How* Important

Most working people spend at least half their waking hours at their jobs. “Find a job you love and you’ll never work again” is, obviously, a vastly clichéd overstatement. “Find a job you enjoy and work will feel so much more rewarding?” That’s more like it. 

So, at the beginning of our survey we wanted to compare employees’ attitudes towards some commonly known job satisfaction factors. Unsurprisingly, compensation and health benefits topped the list with, respectively, 90% and 81% of respondents deeming those important or very important to them.

Professional development opportunities came next, with 70% of Americans saying they’re important to them. Turns out, more important than the number of paid vacation days (important to 67%).

Professional development opportunities scored highest in terms of importance amongst those employed in Manufacturing (79% said it’s important or very important). The field in which development and growth was considered least important was Education: 60% of education workers thought it's important.

Then, we asked our respondents if they would leave a job if it offered no opportunities to develop professionally. 54% of Americans said they would. Responses varied greatly between industries:

  • 63% of those employed in Manufacturing said they’d leave a job if it offered no professional development
  • 61% in Software/IT
  • 60% in Business and Finance
  • 55% in Healthcare
  • 40% in Retail, Wholesale, and Distribution
  • 32% in Education

Which is in line with our initial finding—professional development seems most important to Manufacturing workers, and least important for the Education sector.

We also found a significant difference between younger and older generations. 64% of Gen Z and Millennials combined said they’d leave a job for no growth opportunities compared to just 47% of Gen X and Baby Boomers.

If development is so important, do you do it on your own, too?

Let’s say you don’t feel challenged enough by the professional development activities offered to you by your employer. You feel you should be learning at a faster pace. Do you take ownership of your professional development?

We wanted to know if US workers go the “extra mile” when it comes to growing their skill sets and undertake training and courses aimed at professional development on their own, even if those aren’t paid for by their employers. 

56% of our respondents said they did, most commonly those working in Software/IT (73%) and Manufacturing (73%).

Do you have the time to work on your own development?

As we can see, American employees seem very eager to expand their job-related skills. Another important, no less heartwarming thing is that most people (78%) think they have enough free time to keep improving their skills outside of work.

Employees’ Favorites: What Areas They Want to Develop in Most

One of the key goals of our study was to identify the areas of professional development employees found most valuable. The top 4 items clearly stood out amongst the rest:

  • Certification courses: valuable or very valuable according to 65% of respondents
  • Technical skills training: according to 65%
  • Leadership skills development: 64%
  • Teamwork training: 63%

The thing is—

The question asked by PayScale was close-ended. Respondents could only pick one type of professional development activities, which seems to have made the differences between the top choices way more lopsided.

Even so, employees may prefer certification courses because they fill most of their professional development needs. For example, if an accountant gets a financial certification with a high ROI, they’re more likely to get a raise or a promotion and perform better at their jobs. The same goes for all professions.

In reality, candidates are almost equally likely to enjoy either (or all) of the above kinds of professional development activities.

Even the least popular options on our list were considered at least somewhat valuable by over half of all respondents:

  • Presentation and public speaking training: valuable for 50% of respondents
  • Diversity and inclusion training: 56%
  • Advanced IT training: 57%

The bottom line for employers should be very clear: your employees are very likely to enjoy all sorts of professional development activities.

What Drives Americans to Pursue Professional Development?

We’ve learned the “what.” Time to get to the “why.” 

What goals do employees in the US hope to achieve thanks to professional development opportunities? Here’s what they told us:

  • Get better at their jobs (32%)
  • Get a raise (23%)
  • Get a promotion (22%)
  • Stay up-to-date with industry trends (16%)
  • Find a job with another company (5%)

Obviously, getting paid more or climbing up the corporate ladder were amongst the top reasons. But, as you can see, the #1 driving factor was largely selfless: people want to develop for the sake of development. After all, being good at your job just feels good, doesn’t it?

Also, older generations (20%) care about keeping up with the contemporary trends in their industries way more than younger generations (11%). 

Formal or Informal? Off-Site or On-Site? What Format of Professional Development Initiatives Is Best

If you’re an employer, one thing should be very clear to you at this point—

If you want to make your team happy, offer them accessible opportunities for professional development. Easier said than done, right? What’s the ideal way to organize those? Invite external experts to run on-site workshops? Perhaps roll out a peer-to-peer learning program? Or do it the easy way, and just send your employees to a conference of their choice? Luckily, you have our data to rely on.

This time, we asked our respondents a close-ended question. We wanted them to pick their singe favorite type of professional development activity. Here’s what they chose:

  • On-the-job training and mentoring: 33%
  • Industry conferences: 25%
  • Formal workshops: 21%
  • Company off-site events: 16%
  • Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing: 5%

Again, differences across genders and generations were negligible. However, the preferred type of professional development activities varies depending on the industry.

On-the-job training is the very clear favorite for those employed in Retail, Wholesale and Distribution (55% picked this format as the best for them).

The only fields in which industry conferences proved to be more appreciated than training on the job were Software/IT and Education.

Formal on-site workshops were the most popular amongst people working in Manufacturing, as well as Healthcare.

Final Piece of Feedback for Employers

For the final question, we asked Americans what were their key likes and dislikes about the professional development activities offered to them at their current or past companies.

The feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive. Two key areas for potential improvements that emerged were:

Make the training sessions or workshops more challenging

I feel like some of the programs were designed to enable us to grow and advance within the company but not really learn new skills.
Don’t speak about obvious stuff so much. I appreciate the professional training but don’t like sessions that are too general and basic.
I do like the fact that taking annual courses is mandatory at my company. But they are too broad and not specific enough for each individual’s needs.

Allow for more feedback from your employees

I like that my company offers a variety of high quality professional development initiatives. I dislike some recent changes under new leadership that have decreased opportunities for employees to give input and feedback on the program.
Some of them are irrelevant to my specific situation, and I don't like how they're often dictated by my employer without asking for feedback on the part of employees. The ones I like most are the ones where they're smaller groups, with the same trainer over an extended time, so we have time to delve into specifically how to improve.
What I loved most was that the company first offered a survey to understand what the general need for professional development was, and then they developed some educational opportunities based on what employees wanted.

Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we collected answers from 932 American respondents via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Respondents consisted of 54% males and 47% females. 5% of respondents were 24 or younger, 55% aged 25–38, 34% aged 39–58, and 6% 59 or older.

Given the gender and age makeup of our large sample, the study can be generalized to the entire population.

This self-report study investigated Americans’ attitudes towards professional development, as well as the key factors for their job satisfaction. Respondents were asked 7 close-ended questions, 15 scale-based questions, and 1 open-ended question.

To help ensure that respondents took our survey seriously, all respondents were required to identify and correctly answer two attention-check questions.

Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/uncertain/unknown” not being presented.

As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias. 


  • https://www.mercer.com/our-thinking/career/global-talent-hr-trends.html
  • https://info.workinstitute.com/hubfs/2019%20Retention%20Report/Work%20Institute%202019%20Retention%20Report%20final-1.pdf
  • https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-04-03-gartner-cfo-survey-reveals-74-percent-of-orgs-to-shift-some-employees-to-remote-work-permanently
  • https://learning.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/learning/en-us/pdfs/linkedin-learning-workplace-learning-report-2018.pdf
  • https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/business-solutions/documents/2015-job-satisfaction-and-engagement-report.pdf
  • https://resources.entelo.com/download-2018-entelo-recruiting-trends-report 
  • https://www.jobvite.com/lp/2019-jobvite-recruiting-benchmark-report/
  • https://www.statista.com/statistics/917901/learning-and-development-us-biggest-challenges/
  • https://www.payscale.com/data/professional-development-employees-want 

Fair Use Statement

Feel free to share our study! The graphics and content found here are available for noncommercial reuse. Just make sure to link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.

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Michael Tomaszewski, CPRW

With vast expertise in interview strategies and career development, Michael is a job expert with a focus on writing perfect resumes, acing interviews, and improving employability skills. His mission is to help you tell the story behind your career and reinforce your professional brand by coaching you to create outstanding job application documents. More than one million readers read his career advice every month. For ResumeLab, Michael uses his connections to help you thrive in your career. From fellow career experts and insiders from all industries—LinkedIn strategists, communications consultants, scientists, entrepreneurs, digital nomads, or even FBI agents—to share their unique insights and help you make the most of your career.

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